New partnerships find win-win projects between ranchers and environmentalists
“You can do all the conservation practices in the world,” said Susie Evans, a fifth-generation cattle rancher in Chaffee County, Colorado. “But if it doesn’t profit, you’re gone.”
Ranchers in Colorado manage a delicate balance: maximize productivity while minimizing damage to the land. Long-term planning is critical, because an overgrazed pasture hurts profitability for the next decade or longer.
But volatile weather and earlier, warmer spring seasons have strained even the most well-managed ranches in recent years. Water runs out sooner, according to Evans, and ditches get shut off earlier.
“There’s not enough profit in ag to survive that for multiple years,” Evans said.
Farmers and ranchers are the largest water users in Colorado and are often seen as a major contributor to the state’s growing water crisis. Yet many are producing food on razor-thin margins. There’s little time or money to take on additional conservation measures, let alone advocate for themselves in environmental debates.
“We just kind of want to be left alone,” Evans said. “We can’t take the time to educate every person about why we do what we do.”
‘AT THE TABLE OR ON THE MENU’
But according to the Upper Arkansas Conservation District Manager Natalie Allio, for ranchers, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu” in conversations about water and land management.
“We [ranchers] felt as if we were few in number, large in acres, and people just wanted to control our ground,” said Ken McMurry, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in Chaffee County. “But the risk of meddling in our business was something that we just didn’t want to deal with.”
Evans and McMurry were raised by a generation of fiercely independent ranchers that value self-reliance, holding a deep-seated skepticism of outside parties telling them what to do with their land. For them, work with government entities such as the Conservation District meant micromanaging.
But over the years, residential development and water use mandates put a mounting pressure on the agricultural community.
Nonprofit environmental conservation group Western Watersheds filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service in 2009, aiming to block livestock grazing in the San Isabel and Pike National Forests. According to McMurry, he and his neighbors wouldn’t be able to support their families without these grazing allotments. They would likely be forced to sell land and sub-develop.
As president of the Chaffee County Cattlemen’s Association, McMurry worked closely with the Forest Service to eventually have the lawsuit thrown out. Through the process, he learned that they understood the need for flexibility in ranchers’ management, and they saw value in grazing to not only manage but improve vegetation and tree health.
“We found that we had advocates for keeping the green grass green. The Forest Service and our family alike had the same goal. They wanted to keep cattle on the meadow,” McMurry said. “We weren’t battling each other, we were partners.”
CREATING WIN-WIN SITUATIONS
This was a turning point for McMurry, and he became open to more coordination between the agricultural and conservation communities.
“The challenges of getting agencies, private landowners, and landowners that have different goals to come together on the same page and see benefit… I had thought that was crazy,” McMurry said. Now, the local Forest Agency in Salida brings dignitaries to his land from Washington, D.C., to showcase how a well-run forest grazing allotment can serve as a win-win.
McMurry is working with Allio and the Conservation District on an advisory group to help gain trust with local ranchers, especially by showing progress in managing water and measuring it more efficiently. He says conversations now focus on how to help keep ranchers in business, rather than telling them how their land should be used. This shift has led to more mutually beneficial projects, such as extending water lines to help ranchers use water more efficiently while connecting the resource to more cattle.
For Evans, these win-win projects also help keep land within agriculture. Her family worked with the Forest Service and Colorado’s Habitat Partnership Program to help fund a well on their forest permit. According to Evans, this relatively low-cost project helps the family’s ranch stay in business while supporting the wildlife coexisting within the forest.
“We can potentially increase our stocking number by completing projects like this,” Evans said.
Ranchers can get involved with their local Stream Management Plan (www.ColoradoSMP.org) — a state tool intended to find those win-win solutions — to request financial assistance, influence state and local management decisions, and attract partnerships for larger farm restoration projects.
The Colorado Natural Resources Conservation Service Environmental Quality Incentives Program also offers payment for practices that increase environmental benefits on working agricultural land. Local programs such as Chaffee Common Ground and the Badger Creek Watershed Partnership support collaborative projects to connect producers to funding. And NGOs like River Network provide technical assistance and facilitate peer learning for those leading local water projects.
Conservation Districts such as Allio’s often do the legwork of finding and applying for grant funding on ranchers’ behalf. McMurry and Evans recommend ranchers simply talk to their local conservation district about the options available.
“There’s a wealth of resources and information that you don’t have to go and find. Whether it be funding, support, or in-kind donations, they can help you find it,” Evans said.
“[These projects] keep the water in the ground, they keep the important habitat there,” she added, “and they help us ranchers in the long run.”
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