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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Holistic Resource Management: Working on Common Ground

Air Date: Week of

After years of fighting it out, a small number of ranchers and environmentalists are getting together and talking to work on a mutually agreeable solution to land use. Going back to the way buffalo grazed the land, both sides in this dialogue are working to bring overgrazed earth back to health. Producer Sandy Tolan reports from Arizona.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The show-down between ranchers and environmentalists is perhaps the leading drama on America's western range these days. On one side stand the ranchers, bent on preserving a way of life against the onslaught of environmental regulations. On the other, activists and ecologists determined to restore cattle ravaged range lands. The standoff has produced a lot of tough talk, political gunfights, and even some real violence. But now across the West, small groups of ranchers and environmentalists are growing tired of all that fighting. They're beginning to talk to each other. And to act together. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan traveled across Arizona to bring us this report.

(A railroad crossing)

TOLAN: It's not a very pretty piece of land, this hard-crusted patch of dirt and juniper bush along the railroad tracks near Flagstaff. There's hardly anything for the elk, the deer, or the jackrabbits to eat. It looks badly over-grazed by cattle. But to Dan Daggett's eyes, it's not.

DAGGETT: Politically speaking, this land is as healthy as it can be. This is healthy land not being grazed. It's being left alone. And it sure doesn't look healthy to me.

TOLAN: A long-time Sierra Club activist, Daggett used to register ungrazed land like this in his win column, a victory over ranchers in the ongoing battles between environmentalists and cowboys.

DAGGETT: Polarization is fun because you get to yell and scream and call someone names. And I had a great time doing that for a number of years.

TOLAN: But a few years ago, Daggett began to tire of hollow political victories that didn't result in much to celebrate out on the land. So he began to reconsider his approach.

DAGGETT: When you achieve a victory on some of these political controversies, political issues, what you have done is you have so angered the other side that they're going to make the pendulum swing back. They're going to swing it back the other way.

TOLAN: And so Daggett started to talk to the other side. Gingerly at first and then with a handful of other activists, he began meeting with ranchers. At the first encounter, they eyed each other warily. But the facilitator kept them focused on what each side wanted.

DAGGETT: What we wanted the land to be like, what our goals were for the environment that we lived in. We ended up talking about the fact that we didn't want to see areas like this that were eroding and dead. We wanted to see life out there. And we wanted to see native life out there, that we wanted to see wildlife. And we talked about having the water flowing again and clear. We found out that we had a lot of things in common, and by being kept on task to talk about goals, we soon found ourselves talking about what we could do together to achieve those goals.

TOLAN: Suddenly, Dan Daggett had a new calling: moving beyond the rangeland conflict toward a West that works. That's the name of his new book.

DAGGETT: It suddenly occurred to me that I'd been approaching this all wrong. Because I'd just been working to defeat somebody. And even if you defeated them, now what? You ended up with places like this. This is extremely barren. This land is being left alone. How much does it look like it's being restored to you?

(Man: "Well, we'll put them out this other gate. I think we'll put them out this one..." A horse snorts.)

TOLAN: A hundred miles south in the rough country Cross-U Ranch near Prescott, Dennis Maroney was getting sick of all the fighting, too.

MARONEY: We have what I call the football mentality in America, that everything can be tabulated in victories and scores and little sets of statistics that demonstrate our win-loss record. And I think there are people in this debate. The last thing that they want to see is to see a workable solution; they want to win. They want victory. They want, you know, 17 western states that are cattle-free and that represent the nature without humans and a big backyard playground for urban America.

TOLAN: And so, like Dan Daggett, Dennis Maroney began to think of dialogue. Of a land-focused discussion in which boundaries are not drawn hard and fast.

MARONEY: Polarization thrives in a climate of ignorance. It is rare for someone to know directly a farmer or rancher. And there is a certain chord in American life which looks down on folks that do physical work, the stereotype of the rancher is that uneducated, crude, rough, backward, unsophisticated, uncaring. I don't see that. And the only way that I know to destroy that stereotype is invite these folks out and say, Let's talk. This is my neighbor the rancher. This is my neighbor the librarian, the psychologist, the software engineer. Let's talk about our concerns for the land. Let's talk about what we want from the land. Let's talk about what kind of responsibility you think I need to exercise on the land. And wow, I mean it's an incredibly different perspective then.

TOLAN: Maroney, Daggett, and a few dozen others in the West are not working in isolation. They're linked by a new concept on the range called holistic resource management, or HRM. Biologist Alan Savory developed HRM from his observation of wild grazing animals in the African Serenghetti. Instead of letting cows roam the range, eating the same plants over and over until they die, HRM advocates intense grazing of small pieces of land, with frequent rotations. It's turning conventional thinking from both environmentalists and ranchers inside-out.

(A whistle blows. Cows low.)

TOLAN: In the rolling grasslands just north of the Mexican border, Ruken Jelks opens a gate, blows his whistle (a whistle blows) and 400 cows move through quickly, from a chewed-up pasture to 100 acres of tasty green grass. (Cows low.) No cowboys roping and hollering. No problem. It's a cattle herd responding like a pack of Pavlov's dogs.

JELKS: They're moving to a reward which is fresh pasture, and so the whistle tells them that their reward is ready and so they all move accordingly. (Cows low.)

TOLAN: In the old pasture, Jelks' cows have eaten everything in sight. Meantime, they've churned up the earth with their hooves, fertilizing it with dung and urine.

JELKS: It's basically like using a roto-tiller in your garden.

TOLAN: And after a couple of days, Jelks will blow the whistle again, and the cows will move on to the next patch of land.

JELKS: It is really exciting to me to see the landscape change to have less runoff. I'm not exporting soil like we used to. I'm actually building soil. I've got good animal performance, I'm making more money. Yes, I am pleased with what's going on.

TOLAN: A few months after the cows turn Rukin Jelks' pastures into virtual muddy feed lots, the grass recovers. Jelks shares a fence line with a nature preserve with hasn't been grazed in years. It's often hard to tell whose grass is in better condition.

JELKS: This will be thick as hair on a dog.

TOLAN: The results are astonishing even to some grassland ecologists. Some believe the grass is responding to intense, short-term grazing in an interdependent relationship. Dan Daggett says it's the same way that plants responded to roaming herds of buffalo, or even prehistoric mammoths.

DAGGETT: One of the things we're doing with some of our studies is going back and asking the plants: do you remember these interactions? What we're seeing is the plants are saying yes. They remember the herds.

TOLAN: But skeptics of all this new technique and cooperation remain on both sides. Dan Daggett's friends in the Sierra Club are quick to point out he no longer speaks for the club when it comes to range land policy. Dave Lamkin of the Grand Canyon chapter says he likes what he sees so far. But it's an exception to the devastation ranchers have brought to the western range.

LAMKIN: We are still afflicted with a great many ranchers who think that more of the same is just fine, and that what we've been doing for 100 years is perfectly acceptable and the public lands should be at their disposal to graze upon as they see fit. There is still a place for some environmentalists to insist that there be very little if any compromise. And if we all move to the center, then the center moves.

TOLAN: And for many ranchers, opposition to HRM is also stiff. Even for sympathetic ranchers, some of the changes HRM outlines may not be realistic. Intense grazing calls for a lot of fence. On big ranches that's not feasible. One alternative could be cowboys riding with the herds day in and day out. But even on Dennis Maroney's Cross-U ranch, 50,000 acres of chaparral and steep-bouldered slopes, cowhand Rafael Routsen says that's too much to ask.

ROUTSEN: Well, first of all I think it would be pretty boring, cause I mean, it's, you'd have to have a little wagon that you'd sleep in and eat, and have all your meals, and then the wagon would have to be with you. And there's not really any road, so then maybe you pack it on mules. It's a lot bigger deal than it sounds like. I guess you could do it, but I don't think it's really practical to do that.

TOLAN: This is something that you would want to do?

ROUTSEN: No. No. (Laughs)

(Man: "Here you have a few more animals..." Footfalls.)

TOLAN: In the late afternoon the grasses shine silver on the Babbitt ranch, a family homestead and cattle operation near Flagstaff. Once home to interior secretary Bruce Babbitt. Black gramma, globe mallow, galleta, New Mexico feather grass, stretch and shimmer up toward the San Francisco peaks. Dan Daggett and the Babbitts are trying a little HRM on a tiny speck of this half million acre ranch. Daggett says the early results are amazing. Bruce's younger brother Jim Babbitt is more cautious.

BABBITT: It is way too early to draw any conclusions. Weather cycles, grazing patterns, all kinds of variables influence what that test plot is going to look like. And it seems to me that it will have to be observed over a very long period of time before we can really begin to drawn any conclusions about it.

TOLAN: Like the cowhands, the Babbitts are not yet willing to change a whole culture of ranching that goes back 110 years. But Daggett says new ideas out there will slowly change ranch culture, working with cheap portable fencing, or training animals to herd together without fencing. The specifics, he insists, will be worked out over time. But the dialogue, based on common ground, has begun.

DAGGETT: One of the most exciting aspects of this whole effort, this whole discovery for me, is that I'm finding that there are ways that people can be at home on the land. That people can be embraced by the land. That people can work with the land. And that way we have another way of making these lands healthy, without just removing ourselves from them.

(Cows low.)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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