Lately, I’ve been thinking about when I first started working with ranchers. It was the era of “NO MORE MOO IN ’92” and “CATTLE FREE BY ’93.” Activists tried to purchase rights to public land allotments and move cattle off. Books like “Welfare Ranching” and “Sacred Cows at the Public Trough” painted ranchers in an unflattering light. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt started a process of “grazing reform” that included raising the price ranchers paid to graze on public lands. Public meetings were scheduled throughout the west to discuss his proposals.
I was a Public Information Officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction, Colorado at the time. So, when Babbitt chose our town to attend public meetings on the topic, I had a front row seat to everything that went on. At the first of what would become many meetings, I helped ranchers get time at the microphone and gave them the background on rules and regulations and issues important to the other folks in the room so they could target their comments to make the most impact. I coached them to leave their grumpy old men/women personas at home and show up with their reasonable, hard-working selves to describe the important contributions they make to their communities and landscapes.
The biggest influence on the outcome was the Gunnison Working Group (GWG), a group of ranchers and environmentalists who had successfully collaborated for a number of years on projects that protected the interests of both. They united against the proposed hike in grazing fees, with the leader of the local environmental group speaking out in favor of the livestock industry. His position: grazing reform and fee increases that forced ranchers out of business and off the land would be very damaging to the economic and environmental well-being of the West. They invited Babbitt to visit Gunnison, Colorado to see what they were doing and developed their own grazing-fee reform proposal. Colorado Governor Roy Romer took their proposal, and two of the GWG members, and created the Colorado Rangeland Reform Group to collaborate on grazing reform issues.
Secretary Babbitt was invited to be part of this group. They met 8 times, using the GWG’s proposal to develop “The Colorado Model” of range reform. One of its key ideas was to take what had worked so well in the Gunnison area – ranchers, environmentalists, and community members working together to solve problems – and set up similar groups across the west. Babbitt used this model as the basis for the reforms he ultimately proposed. The idea of raising the grazing fee was completely dropped.
Did they all live happily ever after? No. Extremists on either side of the public lands grazing debate continue to be problematic. This points out one of the lessons I learned from this experience: we don’t come together from the edges, we come together from the middle, where we can see what we have in common with the person next to us.
From this and other other experiences working with farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and communities, I learned that, often, we all want the same things, but the stories we have in our heads about the other person can get in the way of understanding and working with each other. It’s this divide that I’ve worked to bridge for the last 30 years by talking to all kinds of people and by writing articles and publishing On Pasture. I’m always trying to share the importance of farming and ranching to the health of our wildlife and landscapes, and to the rural communities they support.
Finally, I’ve learned that communicating with each other and working through these kinds of issues is hard and takes a lot of energy and skills that not everyone has. If this is something important to you, and you’d like to be involved, consider belonging to or supporting organizations that are doing this work. On Pasture Is an example of the kind off outreach that might help heal the land and support a new agriculture, one that is helpful to individuals and communities of rural America. We could truly use your support to continue.
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