Ranchers and Environmentalists Working Together at the Radical Center

Sarah Wentzel-Fisher is the Executive Director of the Quivira Coalition, a network of family ranchers and farmers, conservationists, scientists and public land managers seeking to build economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes in the American West. Founded on the belief that ranch management can be both ecologically sensitive and economically robust, Quivira brings together historically antagonistic constituencies to work together. Prior to joining Quivira, Sarah was the Editor of the publication now called Edible New Mexico, worked for the National Young Farmers Coalition and at the Montanita Food Co-op in Santa Fe, NM, and ran several farmers’ markets. Those eclectic experiences helped her understand the connection between food production and land stewardship. In this interview with Arty Mangan, Director of Restorative Food Systems at Bioneers, Sarah explains how real change on the ground can be accomplished by working at the “radical center.”

ARTY MANGAN, BIONEERS: The work of Quivira takes place at what is referred to as the radical center. How do you define that term?

SARAH WENTZEL-FISHER, QUIVIRA COALITION: The radical center is a term that Quivira founder, Courtney White, and some of his cohorts coined to describe their efforts to bring, environmentalists and ranchers – who are typically antagonistic – together in conversations motivated by their shared love for the land. When I talk about the radical center, I think of it as a practice or a way of working together that champions coalition-building and is about showing up with a lot of inquiry and real commitment to listening. I also think it’s about having a commitment to prioritizing relationships over what you want the outcomes to be, a commitment to a long-term process, and a process that is focused on land restoration and land resilience, but that doesn’t come at the expense of the relationships of the people who are doing the work.

ARTY: When trying to build relationships between people who may look at each other as stereotypes and who have very different political views and worldviews, how do you bring those disparate constituents together?

SARAH: First, you must recognize the reality of people’s differences. As an organization that is engaged in land-based, peer-to-peer education, good facilitation is paramount. Good facilitation is really a skill, and it’s something Quivira has invested a lot of time and energy in. We recognize that there have been a lot of historical traumas in these struggles over land use, and as an organization that works at the intersection of conservation and agriculture, we need to be able to hold space for conversations about those past traumas. We can’t really move forward on land restoration projects if people haven’t been given an opportunity to go through a healing process together. If they don’t do that, they generally can’t develop deep, authentic relationships with one another.

Sarah Wentzel-Fisher. Photo courtesy of Quivira Coalition

ARTY: I heard you say on a podcast that you like to have your ideas challenged. What do you value about that?

SARAH: I love having my ideas challenged because it makes me reexamine what I think is true, and so it keeps me in a mode of inquiry. It also keeps things interesting. There’s value in discovering you’ve been wrong and having to adapt; it builds resilience.

ARTY: I wish more people felt that way. What, in your opinion, are some of the main blind-spots environmentalists typically have in their approach to conservation?

SARAH: The complexity of rural communities and rural economies and understanding how environmental activity is going to have either a positive or negative impact on rural communities is often a blind spot for environmental groups. It’s changed a little bit since the beginning of the pandemic because more folks became interested in living in rural places, but largely rural America has had a decline in its population, and economies there really struggle. Often the things that are economic priorities in those places are either, to a small degree or a great degree, extractive, and that’s where there is often friction with environmentalists.

There are some interesting shifts happening, though. For example, twenty years ago, the National Audubon Society was extremely adversarial with the ranching community, but they started to recognize that that adversarial approach wasn’t getting them the results on the ground that they wanted. They recognized that they needed collaboration with private landowners to maintain or restore critical bird habitats, so they have created a market incentive-based conservation ranching program to support bird habitat. It’s a certification program with a label that goes on beef that says the beef was raised in a way that is bird-friendly. It’s 180 degrees from their previous approach. They realized their blind-spot and understood that if you want conservation work to happen, you have to think about it, not from just an ecological standpoint, but also from a social and economic standpoint.

ARTY: The next question is about language. If you mention the word “organic” to most Midwestern farmers, they will slam the door in your face. Is there a way that you use language that makes sure the conversation stays open? Do you have to stay away from certain phrases, like climate change?

Quivira Coalition workshop at U Bar Ranch in Northern New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Quivira Coalition

SARAH: I think a lot about language, and how the language we use is really important and can be an invitation into collaboration or can become a barrier to it. When I started working with Quivira six years ago, climate change was far more of a taboo in ranching communities than it is now. Today everybody is talking about climate change. Folks are recognizing that there’s not a lot of value in debating the cause, but there is a lot of value in trying to come up with ways we can work together to navigate the intensive variability and the increased temperatures that are a result of climate change.

How we use language comes up in a lot of other places. In the last two years, our organization, like a lot of nonprofits, has been digging a lot deeper and trying to look in the mirror around questions of how racial equity and social justice show up or don’t show up in our work. That’s another place where thinking hard and intentionally about the language that we use can invite people into conversations about the big, deep, systemic issues in our country and in the world, and to do it in a way that folks feel both challenged but also able to show up and be vulnerable and participate in those conversations as an opportunity for learning. I don’t have any good examples of specific vocabulary words, but internally in our organization, we have a lot of conversations about how to begin to introduce some of these concepts and what the words we need to be using might be, so that we can get white ranchers talking about racial equity.

ARTY: There was a radical change in landscape stewardship when colonists came into New Mexico and other parts of the West. Land was usurped from the Native people and fences were put up fragmenting the food-shed of the Indigenous people who farmed but also depended on moving about the land to hunt and gather wild foods. What’s the legacy of those disruptions?

SARAH: That’s such a huge question. There’s no doubt that that was a moment of major disruption that caused a significant shift in land stewardship that has led us to where we are today. There’s a ton of value in Native peoples’ “Traditional Ecological Knowledge,” particularly in the Southwest. It’s important to acknowledge and recognize that when we are talking about things like regenerative agriculture, what we’re really pointing to are practices that Indigenous peoples in this part of the world have been using for a very long time, and that we are in a process of relearning those things and figuring out how to adapt that type of approach to land stewardship in the context of a more variable climate.

But what do those changes to the land mean in more practical terms? It means we have fewer large ungulate herds moving across the landscape. It means that we’ve done things to our water systems that have had a really profound impact on the health of watersheds. I think you can look under any stone and find the consequences. The actual changes are hard to imagine because their scale, both geographically and temporally, have been immense.

Erosion control materials at Comanche Creek are moved to via horse and buggy to reduce impacts of motorized vehicles.
Photo courtesy of Quivira Coalition

ARTY: One of Quivira’s legacy projects is Comanche Creek. Where is it located? What’s the ecosystem there? What was it like in 2001 when you started? What does it look like now? What were some of the barriers that you had to overcome? And ultimately, what does success look like?

SARAH:  Comanche Creek is a watershed in the Carson National Forest in the northeast corner of New Mexico. In 2001 it was a landscape that had a ton of logging, a little bit of mining, a lot of grazing, and a certain amount of oil and gas exploration. It was sorely abused and very degraded. Quivira started working with Bill Zeedyk who had a career with the forest service and had a deep passion for community-based watershed restoration. He wrote a book called Let the Water Do the Work, which I highly recommend. It’s all about riparian restoration work and letting actual creek and stream flows do the work of restoration. The type of ecosystem that is the primary focus of the work that we have done in Comanche Creek is called a slope wetland. It’s a type of wetland that is unique to high mountain meadows. There are just a few places in the world where those types of wetlands exist. The creeks in that watershed had been tremendously incised by grazing and logging and mining activities.

The work that we did was about slowing water down in those systems and spreading it out. Thousands of linear feet of stream and hundreds to thousands of acres of riparian areas have been rewetted as a result of the work that we did there. When we started working there, one of our biggest barriers to overcome was trying to establish a relationship with the Valle Vidal Grazing Association that has deep roots in land-grant communities in that part of New Mexico. There’s a legacy of land theft there that points back to some intense historical trauma, so they were really reticent about coming to the table, but there were folks in our organization at the time who just kept working on building relationships with those folks.

Finally, in year four or five of our work in the Comanche Creek, they decided to come to the table. It’s now been two years since we’ve done active work there, but over the course of about 15 years of working together, the grazing association has become one of the biggest champions of good stewardship of those wetlands. There was a terrible drought in, I believe, 2018, that caused the elk to come down into those pastures early and graze everything. Quivira went up to do monitoring of some of our work a few weeks before the grazing association was going to put their cows out into those particular pastures. If the grazing association had moved their cattle into those pastures, 15 to 20 years of work would have completely unraveled, but because of our good working relationship, they made a huge effort and figured out a different place to put their cows and thereby saved the work that had been done there.

To me, that is sort of at the heart of what success looks like: when we’ve got multiple stakeholders who recognize how critical these slope wetlands are and they’re working together to come up with solutions, even when situations get really hard, such as in that drought situation.

Shuree Ponds, Comanche Creek Watershed. Photo courtesy of Quivira Coalition.

ARTY: What are some threats to water security for all species in New Mexico. What are some of the conflicts around that?

SARAH: I think that the biggest threat to water security in New Mexico is development. Everywhere in the world is experiencing development pressure. Where I live, we have very finite groundwater, and we don’t have surface water resources, but there’s a lot of unchecked growth. There just aren’t sufficiently robust planning and zoning rules to help regulate how many folks can put in wells. Our political entities are under-resourced and are constantly scrambling to catch up, and they are up against immediate economic needs and often feel that they have to address those rather than think about long-term repercussions.

There’s a lot of complexity around your question about water security for other species. For example, in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, there’s always tension between the City of Albuquerque and downstream irrigators. About 80% of water resources in New Mexico go to agriculture, and while I think that there are opportunities for more efficient irrigation, I think that many urbanites would like to see more water allocated for recreation areas. They often advocate for species such as the silvery minnow and want to make sure that there is enough water in the river for those species, which I too think is critically important, but the Rio Grande corridor is also critical for cranes. The Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge is an over-wintering site for thousands of sandhill cranes, and farms in that area south of Albuquerque have essentially become the wetlands and food source for a lot of migrating birds, so when you talk about decreasing irrigation water to farms between Albuquerque and Bosque del Apache to meet other needs, that might help some fish species, but it can have a negative impact on a critical stopover site for migrating birds.

So, when we get into conversations about the tension about where water resources get allocated, it gets very tricky, particularly when we think more broadly about ecosystem health and what the needs of a variety of other species are. We’re in the thick of it right now, and we need a deep and significant cultural change around how we think about water. Potentially, water is going to be a place of a lot of hurt and anxiety even more than it is currently unless we shift what our thinking and relationship to water is.

ARTY: Another crisis Quivira is addressing is the aging of farmers in America.

SARAH: Yes, our New Agrarian Program is an apprenticeship program for young people with the passion and the desire to go into ranching or farming as a career. We place them on working ranches so they can learn how to be good land stewards and how to operate those types of businesses in a way that will enable them to make a living and contribute to their communities. This year we are working with ranches in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and California.

Quivira values intergenerational knowledge exchange, and the New Agrarians program is where that’s happening. Today less than 2% of our working population practices agriculture as a primary profession, while a hundred years ago it was over 30%. The people producing our food are the frontline folks engaged in land stewardship, and of that 2% of the population engaged in agriculture, 80% of them are 60-years-old or older. That represents the potential for some really critical knowledge loss, because if we’re not passing on the depth and years of lived experience and land management knowledge that that diminishing number of people hold, and really figuring out ways to keep it vibrant and healthy in practice, we stand to have a very steep learning curve in the midst of a climate crisis.

I feel like there’s not a more critically important job that a person could choose. I hope that in the work that we’re doing and the way that we’re championing it, that the apprentices find all the support they need to engage in that work and learn how to be with those landscapes in a way that helps us understand how humans are a part of the ecology.

ARTY: Yes, there is no more critical job, but farming is very hard work, often with low pay. What do you say to young, aspiring agrarians about the challenges and opportunities of a career in farming and ranching?

SARAH: It is extremely hard work and it often doesn’t pay very well. We have consolidated marketplaces that are absolutely at odds with being able to be a family farmer or rancher. What I say to individuals who are interested in doing this is that we need you. We need to tackle the deep structural issues that prevent people from having a meaningful life and livelihood producing food and stewarding land because there definitely are some significant barriers, but if we don’t start to address some of those, everybody will lose.

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