A progressive ranching advocate answers questions
What environmental organization are you affiliated with?
The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Santa Fe, N.M.
What’s your job title?
Executive director and cofounder.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
We work to build bridges between ranchers, environmentalists, public-land managers, scientists, and others in the Southwest (and beyond) around something we call “The New Ranch,” which is a collection of new land-stewardship practices that emphasize controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of cattle impact on the land. We also emphasize land restoration activities, and provide a “neutral” ground for everyone interested in open space, wildlife, grass, water, and land health to meet and discuss their common interests, rather than argue their positions.
We often call ourselves the ultimate grassroots organization because we work at the level of grass and roots!
From the environmentalist’s perspective, for me, mission accomplished would be the day when people start inserting adjectives into their descriptions of livestock grazing! Instead of simply lumping all livestock management together, usually in a derogatory sense, as “grazing,” write “good grazing” or “bad grazing” or “poor grazing management” or “well-managed grazing.” There is no longer any doubt that both types of grazing exist in the West and we need to acknowledge this in our use of language.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I’m a professional plate spinner. Does anyone remember the plate spinner on the Ed Sullivan show? He was the guy who put plates on tall sticks and spun them and then ran like crazy from stick to stick to keep them from falling. That’s what I do every day.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
This question made my wife laugh. It’s largely been a career accident. The first six years of my life were spent on a farm outside Philadelphia, though my father was a doctor, not a farmer. Then we went west in a covered station wagon to homestead near a golf course on the edge of the desert in southern Arizona. After graduation from Reed College, my wife and I both became archaeologists, though she has the professional career. For me, archaeology was a great way to get paid to hike and camp outdoors. Over the years, I’ve done a bunch of writing and photography, including a stint as a graduate student in film school at UCLA. But we had too much fun in Los Angeles to take our “careers” very seriously. After we moved to Santa Fe in 1991, so Gen could accept a job with the National Park Service, I drifted back into archaeology again.
My life changed dramatically in 1994 when Newt Gingrich and his henchmen stormed the Capitol back in Washington, D.C. Worried, I called up the local Sierra Club chapter and signed up as a volunteer, sliding more quickly than I expected from “checkbook environmentalist” to activist. Within days, it seemed, I was thrust into a leadership position within the local Sierra Club group, which I embraced with the passion of someone with time on his hands.
At a statewide Sierra Club meeting a year later, I walked into a room and saw a rancher, Jim Winder, sitting there. Worse, I was told he sat on the executive committee of the statewide chapter. A rancher!? This rubbed against every preprogrammed idea I had about ranchers and environmentalists. Fortunately, I had not invested much time or intellectual energy in the grazing “debate” (“shouting” would be a more accurate word), so I took up Jim’s offer of a tour of his ranch. What I saw there changed my life for good. A year later we cofounded the Quivira Coalition with Barbara Johnson, another Sierra Clubber.
By the way, not long after we got started, I was accused in print by a prominent local environmental activist of being an “archaeologist.” He meant it as an insult, as in, “Oh, well, Courtney’s an archaeologist after all.” What he meant, I think, was that my interest in people and my training as an anthropologist excluded me from the club of “real” environmentalists, who apparently focus exclusively on “environmental” solutions to problems, whatever that means.
Another activist labeled me the “Benedict Arnold” of the environmental movement because I thought that ranchers and environmentalists shared more in common than they held in difference. Coming from this particular activist, I took it as a badge of honor.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Please, let’s not talk about emails (see spinning plates above). I get about 15 a day, which isn’t much, I realize, but somehow I manage to ignore them for too long. That’s because I prefer to talk on the phone. My email address is weird enough that it screens most spammers, thankfully. Otherwise I tend to let email rot for a while, hoping the exasperated sender will call me on the phone. One thing I’ve noticed: students and other youth tend to only email. They almost never call. Are we losing our “phone culture” in America the way we lost our “letter-writing culture” years ago?
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
The best part of my job? I get to meet a hugely diverse group of people, nearly all of whom are incredibly innovative, interesting, and working hard to change the world. Sometimes I think I have the best job in the world, even as it becomes harder to remember everyone’s name. I spend about equal amounts of time with progressive ranchers (often on beautiful ranches), competent and caring bureaucrats (they exist!), dedicated scientists (trying to make their research relevant), effective activists (making real change on the ground), and loads of curious and energetic members of the public.
Here’s an example: We organize an annual conference, and this year 435 people attended, neatly divided between ranchers, conservationists, and agency people. After a few introductory comments, I spent all my time shaking hands, which I love. My wife thinks I should run for political office. I’d rather drink arsenic. But the people part is amazingly wonderful. There are tons of people out there trying to make the world better in a positive manner, rather than simply casting negativity around.
The two groups that we consciously neglect are the extremes on both sides of the grazing “debate.” We work in what is being called “the radical center” with the idea that the extremes are too entrenched in their positions to move. I don’t want to waste a minute of my time prying open closed minds, so I don’t. They don’t come to us either, which is fine. We’re too busy mobilizing the middle to worry about the extremes. We don’t facilitate, mediate, or try to achieve “consensus” on thorny issues. Instead, we grab progressive ideas and plow ahead in trying to implement them and spread the news.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
That might be the hard-headed ranching community, especially its leadership. Ranching is undergoing serious and permanent change today all across the West. There is a great deal of uncertainty about whether it will continue as a viable segment of the region’s economy for much longer unless it embraces the rapid changes in knowledge, technology, and values (on public land especially) that are taking place. We’re trying to help ease ranching through this transition, but many ranchers still prefer to resist. One leader told me at a workshop we hosted that he would rather “go down with the ship” than change his management methods. And he did.
I am almost as exasperated, however, with the leadership of the conservation community. Prior to our annual conference this year, I wrote a letter to every leader of the “moderate” environmental community in the region, telling them that the event wasn’t just about cows anymore. We had workshops on riparian restoration, forest health, endangered species, range ecology, watershed restoration, and conservation easements. I told them the ultimate goal of all our work, ranchers and conservationists alike, is to integrate good stewardship with conservation goals.
Not one leader attended.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
There have been two groups. The first is the media. When we began, we were sure the press would ignore us. After all, who cares about ranchers and environmentalists “getting along”? Not while the extremes continued to choke each other to death! Collaboration? Boring! Not true — in our first year we received tremendous newspaper coverage all around the state, and we continue to get good stories to this day, including strong support from editorial-page writers.
Second, we were surprised by how much support we received from rank-and-file members of the conservation community: tons. If local leaders of the environmental movement won’t attend anything, lots of Auduboners and Sierra Clubbers do. And they have become enthusiastic supporters of our work. There’s a message in there somewhere for the leadership, but frankly I don’t think they’re listening.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment?
My “aha!” moment in regard to the environment happened when I was 16 years old. I joined my high school math teacher and some chums on a backpacking odyssey through a dozen national parks in the West one summer. I had never seen a national park before, as I recall, much less camped and hiked through one. To see a dozen in a row, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks, blew nearly every teenage fuse I had. I came home a different person. And it wasn’t just the exposure to the “environment” that turned my head, but the whole idea of the American West — its beauty, space, people, and diversity. I more or less decided right then and there to devote my life to exploring the region, understanding it, and assisting it in some way. Hopefully, I am making a contribution now.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
It might be the time I was targeted for removal from a leadership position by a small group of activists. It happened shortly after we founded the Quivira Coalition, when I was still serving as chair of the local Conservation Committee of the Sierra Club. The activists claimed that my policy of “appeasement” with ranchers and other local rural community members violated club policy. They wrote up a long list of charges and repeatedly submitted them to club leaders. It was exactly the same “process and procedure” tactic they use to stop a timber sale in its tracks, and I could see why it generates so much anger from people on the receiving end of legal briefs. It was very illuminating, and discouraging. The national Sierra Club chose to ignore the whole thing, which was more cowardly than tactical in my opinion, and eventually the activists faded away. In the process, however, I learned a great deal about the perils of absolutism.
What’s been the best?
There have been too many to count. Maybe it was Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News and self-described hard-core environmentalist, wearing a cowboy hat at our most recent banquet. Maybe it was Jim Williams, a third-generation rancher from hard-core anti-government Catron County, telling me that he had repaired his relationship with the Forest Service with our assistance. Maybe it was the rushes, sedges, and other native plants growing in a damaged riparian area after a workshop. Maybe it was the 435 people at our conference talking to one another and having a good time despite the personal and professional distances they have traveled. Or maybe it was the day three years ago the national membership of the Sierra Club voted down a ballot measure that would have moved the club into the anti-grazing camp. And the vote wasn’t even close!
What’s on your desk right now?
Two pictures of family. A to-do list that I ignore. A phone log that I cannot ignore. A grant proposal. Four old Post-its with hieroglyphics. A computer. Everything else I keep in a heap on a side table. I pick things off the top one at a time.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
I can’t remember, frankly. I’m not into cataloguing environmental offenses anymore. Once upon a time, pretty much everything corporations and politicians did pissed me off in regards to the environment. But somewhere along the way I realized that a perpetual state of outrage is not sustainable. It’s not healthy either. It won’t solve long-term problems. So I stopped counting, though I must say that the current oil-and-gas assault on our public lands by this administration is rather outrageous. Rather than get mad, however, it makes me redouble my efforts at grassroots change.
Who is your environmental hero?
I have three: Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry. They are all interlinked, of course, though I am convinced that most environmental activists misread Leopold to a significant degree. He loved wilderness, but he loved agriculture as well, and didn’t necessarily see them in conflict. His observation that “healthy land is the only permanently profitable land” is hugely important today. Wendell’s line that “you can’t save the people apart from the land, to save either you must save both,” should be tattooed on the head of every environmentalist. Stegner was inspirational on many levels, as well as being a great writer.
I also think people have misunderstood, and misused, Edward Abbey to a large degree.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
When I was 18, I eagerly participated in the effort to villainize James Watt, former secretary of the interior under President Reagan. When a similar campaign was mounted in 2001 to do the same thing to Gale Norton, I demurred. That represents how far I have traveled in the activist arena. It’s not that I like Norton, but rather I have wearied of constant demonization. It’s great for fundraising, but it does little to change things on the ground. And as Aldo Leopold said, “The only progress that counts is on the back forty.”
What’s your environmental vice?
You mean voluntary? We drive two 14-year-old trucks that drink gasoline like sailors on shore leave. They probably pollute like a coal-burning factory as well. But I’m stuck with them for the time being. My biggest voluntary vice is living in a subdivision that used to be a ranch. We didn’t consume open space ourselves, so our guilt isn’t very big, but it is a funny feeling to be working hard professionally to save open space while enjoying the fruits of a home on 1.5 acres close to town. Of course, what city in the West wasn’t mostly open space until recently?
What are you reading these days?
I’m researching a book I want to write on a “new conservation movement,” so I spend a lot of time reading about everything from the social history of cattle to restoration ecology. Sometimes it requires more coffee than is medically safe to consume, and if I take any of the books into the kids’ room at night to read while they fall asleep, I might fall asleep before they do. Recently read books include: Linda Hasselstrom’s memoir, Feels Like Far; Stewart Udall’s history of the Old West, The Forgotten Founders; and Stephanie Mills’ In Service of the Wild. Next up: Landscape Ecology: Function and Management.
What’s your favorite meal?
If I could subsist on chips and hot salsa, I would.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
I read two local newspapers a day, which in New Mexico doesn’t take very long. I get the rest of my daily news from the radio. Since the news lately has been rather discouraging, we have been listening to NPR less and Mozart more.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
If you stereotype an environmentalist as white, male, middle-class, and bearded, I’m your guy. I do draw the line at T-shirts, however. I hate T-shirts.
What’s your favorite ecosystem?
Like most people, I have a perpetual yearning for the landscape of my youth. That means the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona. It left an indelible mark on me that will never wash off. Lately, however, the question for us has become: What sort of landscape do we want to grow old in? In our case, we have fallen in love with a small parcel of gorgeous land that was willed to the Quivira Coalition. Called the Red Canyon Ranch (at 320 acres it doesn’t qualify as a working landscape), it has everything an environmentalist could want — access to public land on three sides, two wilderness areas within hiking distance, an incredible canyon, and views to die for. It also has broken fences that need to be fixed, roads that need to be repaired, a windmill that needs constant maintenance, and too much overgrazing by cattle.
I sometimes wonder how environmentalism would change if activists had to actually manage land. A lot, I think.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would get people to eat more local food. Eat within what ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan calls a “foodshed.” Do folks know how far food travels on average to get to your plate? 1,500 miles. That’s a lot of fossil fuel. Eating local means you’re supporting local economies, including your local family rancher. You are keeping animals out of feedlots, potentially, as well as eating a healthier diet. It doesn’t have to be organic necessarily, just local (which might be the same thing unofficially). If I could wave a magic wand, I’d create a dozen family farms in every community, each with a farmers’ market, each farm employing “wild” or sustainable practices. And everyone would make a profit.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be president in November?
Frankly, for what I do — building bridges between ranchers and environmentalists around good land stewardship — it doesn’t matter who sits in the White House. It didn’t matter when Clinton was president, and it hasn’t mattered under Bush. Every administration says almost exactly the same thing — they’re in favor of collaboration, innovation, healthy land, and helping the family rancher stay in business. But nothing ever happens. But that’s alright — this is a grassroots movement that cuts across political lines and works to create change “from the soil up.” Besides, I’m not sure I want Washington meddling in our efforts anyway. Except, maybe, to send us more money!
That said, I must say that if family ranchers think this administration has their best interests at heart, they’re fooling themselves. Washington isn’t helping ranchers or the land under their care in any meaningful manner. But neither are D.C.-based environmentalists. The best thing both can do right now is get out of the way.
Seriously, there’s a sort of “Boston Tea Party” going on in the West today. Maybe we should call it the “Missoula Chai Party.” The rebellion is against control by East Coast politicians, bureaucrats, and NGOs. The West is coming of age and wants to begin taking care of itself. It needs more local control over its resources and its future — not for exploitation or greed or denial, but for a genuinely sustainable future. And to be sustainable we need no longer to be treated like a colony. Fortunately, we are nurturing our Ben Franklins and John Adamses and will soon be able to lead ourselves. This is something the leaders of national environmental groups need to understand, as well as anyone who lives outside the West but cares about it — that the West is changing. It is asserting its independence. Sovereignty is inevitable. Either get on board and help us, or wave from the shore. It’s that simple.
The next president of the United States needs to understand this too.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
No, for two reasons. One, ranchers hate the word — and for good reason. Tragically, it’s become poison to many people, especially rural people, and it demonstrates, unfortunately, the damage done by a handful of (putatively) well-meaning but misguided activists. Two, most historians draw a distinction between an environmentalist and a conservationist. The former, they argue, is focused on questions of human and social health — urban sprawl, pesticides in our food, global warming, burning rivers, that sort of thing. The environmentalist’s bible is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The latter and much older movement is focused on land-based issues — preservation of national parks, forests, refuges, etc. Its inspiration comes from John Muir and its bible is Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. So, by strict definition, I’m a conservationist, though there are those who might argue that I don’t belong in the movement at all.
But I don’t think of myself as a conservationist. That’s because I am not sure I like the word “conserve” anymore. What I see as necessary today is something more proactive than simply “conserving” natural resources. We face huge challenges on many scales, not the least of which is global climate change. And at the root of these challenges are social and cultural forces. What we face is not an environmental crisis, but a social one — how we behave as a society. We need to change human behavior in the long run, and we can’t do that by “conserving” things. That’s why I like to think of myself as a “land health” activist. Let’s heal the land, and in the process, heal ourselves.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
What is the movement doing poorly? It is very poor at looking at the world in a way other than as a crisis. Take ranching, for instance. There has been a sea change in the way some ranches are managed in the West. They are highly sustainable ecologically, even in dry times, which means that open space can be protected, maintained, and restored. But many environmentalists don’t get it. They are locked into “crisis mode” and see everything through the lens of confrontation. But it’s not the 1980s anymore. For example, environmentalism needs to understand that “profit” is not a dirty word anymore. It’s okay to make money working the land, as long as the work is conducted within “nature’s model.” The irony here is that some ranchers are living far more sustainably, working within natural limits, than most urban environmentalists. But that’s a painful reality that many activists do not want to recognize.
Fixing one crisis after another without affecting the social forces that create the crises in the first place is, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, like “fixing the pump without fixing the well.” We’re great with the pump, terrible with the well.
For more on this topic see my resignation letter to the Sierra Club.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
It is doing what it has always done well: attack and defend. It is a movement very well adapted to a crisis — it was forged in an era of crisis, the destructive 19th century, and it has honed its considerable skills through more than a century of hard-fought battles to save land and change laws. That is as it should be. There are many crises still to confront, not the least of which are the ones generated in the halls of Congress today — defending ANWR, for instance. Though I disagree somewhat with the rhetoric (I think it’s less about wildlife than about the lessons we must teach ourselves about the wastefulness of consumerism), I fully support the fight to keep ANWR free of oil rigs. Fighting and winning is what the movement does well. That’s why I send in my dues every year.
What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?
There are times when I’ve observed environmentalists criticize each other because they don’t feel they’re doing enough, taking the correct measures, etc., kind of a greener-than-thou attitude. There are a lot of paths up this mountain, and if someone chooses one that doesn’t appeal to me, but is still a step in the right direction, that’s OK.
I think the same flexibility should apply to tactics. There are times when you have to force a confrontation to stop something cold — demonstrations, lawsuits, opposing legislation, etc. There are also times when it works better to sit down with those who see things differently and try to come to an agreement, although you may not get everything you want.
What are you happy about right now?
I’m deliriously happy. I have an interesting day job, which takes me to very pretty places and allows me to meet very creative people, and when the day is done I get to spend lots of time with my family, whom I cherish.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Be skeptical. A healthy skepticism was the greatest lesson I learned in college. Challenge orthodoxy at every turn. Challenge what you read and hear every day. Challenge what I have written here. Do your own research. Read up. Dig. Ask questions. Get involved.
Then get off the damn Internet and get outdoors!