5 things you can do to develop a strong working relationship between rancher and agency staff
March 2, 2018
Many of us experience the ease of working with people when there is mutual trust and respect. But, what about when you don't have them? In preparation for summer grazing season on public lands, I spoke with ranchers and range conservationists at several agencies, on their advice. They highlighted "best practices" that help build and maintain trust and strong working relationships.
1) Prioritize the relationship
Ranchers and agency staff both consider themselves land stewards. Many I spoke with also considered themselves stewards of good relationships; that having a good relationship between agency and rancher is essential to good land management. Sheila Lamb said her philosophy, "my premise is 'we have a relationship' and nothing happens without that relationship." She added, "Agency policy and direction exist for a reason, but at the same time, agency folks have to be flexible and understanding. If we are not communicating and getting along with the people we work with, we are nowhere. Ranchers are the ones that are doing the work on the ground and providing a service for the land. We have the same goals, but ultimately, it is up to the people we have this relationship with to manage the resource."
2) Do what you say; Say what you do.
Talk the talk and walk the walk is a good practice, no matter your profession. When I asked ranchers Christy and Matt Belton what contributed to a successful relationship with their range conservationist at the U.S. Forest Service, they said "we fix the fence. Only put on what we are allowed to put on. If we tell (our range con) we need a gate, we put the gate in. We tell him what we are going to do, and we do it." Their good business practices seemed reciprocated by their range conservationist, Erik Taylor, who they described as accessible and committed to helping them operate the allotment successfully.
3) Seek to understand
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Ranchers and range conservationists often bring different life experiences, logistical needs and knowledge, to their work even as they may share a common goal of successfully managing lands. If you demonstrate you understand where someone else is coming from, and that you have their best interest at heart, they are far more likely to trust and respect you and your decisions. Christy and Matt Belton said they valued working with their range conservationist because he "seems to understand the challenges stockman face due to weather, calving and because of the amount of help we can get sometimes and not others. For example, we have to trailer all our cows to our allotment, and there might be a certain day of the week where we can have five to six people helping us haul, which may not be our official on date." Because he works with them and understand their logistical issues, they in turn trust he has their interests at heart when he makes decisions.
On the agency side, Jordan Spaak, ecologist at the National Park Service said, "it is important for managers to communicate (to ranchers and other neighbors) that we have mutual interests, but agency staff have to ask questions so we can complete the required permitting process, preferably collaboratively through conversation." He also suggested that range conservationists understand how an allotment fits within a rancher's larger operation. This can help the range con understand "why" a permittee might be asking to adjust an on/off date on a certain year. Seeking to understand each other can be a basis for building relationships and communication.
"When you are working with people and animals, things are going to go wrong." Sheila Lamb said. "We can make whatever plan we want but there is always stuff that happens. So my big thing is, 'I don't care, just communicate with me.' If people are a few days early or a week late, it is not a problem — just let me know. I understand."
5) Go to the field, together
Both ranchers and range conservationists talked about the importance of getting out on the land together, especially when there are disagreements. They valued being able to talk about the same things, in the same place, at the same time. Many of us are very busy, and within agencies, fewer people are doing more work today compared to the past. Time together on the allotment is invaluable, however, especially for new range conservationists.
In conclusion, the relationship between public lands managers and permittees is not always smooth sailing. But by being proactive, you can set yourself up for a more positive relationship; one that will ultimately help both agencies and ranchers reach their land and business goals.