Looking beyond the mountains to see the real West

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 19, 2014

Guest blogger Drew Bennett highlights two innovative stewardship approaches that have benefited people and the environment.

Photo by Emily Jane Davis, Ecosystem Workforce Program

As a city boy from Colorado Springs, Colorado, I was always drawn to the wild and remote landscapes of the western United States in search of a true wilderness adventure. Whether it was bagging peaks in the Rockies or backpacking Utah's red rock desert, these experiences defined what I knew as 'the West.' But as I got older and started working in the natural resources field, I realized that I was only seeing a small slice of this incredible region. The West is more than just scenic mountains and canyons. It is also home to people and communities with remarkable ways of life. 

This point was drilled home several years ago when I helped brand cattle at a 'social branding' on a large family ranch nestled at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Westcliffe, Colorado. There I was, a city boy, pinning calves as ranchers vaccinated, castrated, and branded the little guys just inches from by face. I was well rewarded for my afternoon of labor with cold beer and fresh Rocky Mountain oysters. Indeed, I was convinced right then and there that the people that work the West's farms, ranches, and forests are just as essential to the region's iconic landscapes as the picturesque mountain backdrops. Since that time I've learned that these working lands are also vital to maintaining a healthy environment, as they provide habitat for wildlife, and farmers and ranchers work to control the spread of invasive species, for example.

But the West is rapidly changing as exurban growth, the increased frequency of large forest fires, regulatory pressure, and thin profit margins challenge livelihoods derived from the production of agricultural and forest products. Sustaining viable family-run forest and ranch operations is essential to keeping local stewards on their land and ensuring that these properties continue to provide the ecological values that define the region.

Given that landowners in the West often have to adapt their livelihoods to harsh and challenging settings, it is not surprising that innovative approaches are emerging throughout the region that aim to meet the needs of both landowners and the environment. These emerging strategies were the focus of a recently completed research project that brought together experts from Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and Sustainable Northwest to better understand the potential of these efforts to sustain the West's treasured landscapes and mitigate the challenges they face. 

In one of these innovative approaches, the Big Sky Brewing Company in Montana, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Clark Fork Coalition, and local ranchers worked together to return over 10 million gallons of water to a stretch of Prickly Pear Creek, a tributary of the Missouri River that had run dry for decades during the summer months because water rights had been overallocated. The brewery, recognizing its large water footprint, is funding the initiative as way to offset its water usage. The water that is returned to the river is leased from landowners who now have an incentive for irrigating more efficiently since they can be compensated for a portion of their unused water right. As a result, the stream now provides valuable habitat to native fish during critical summer months, the brewery is able to differentiate itself in the marketplace, and landowners are able to receive additional income for a resource that they previously had to 'use or lose.' 

Another example of ingenuity occurred in southern Oregon, where a ranching family was able to enhance the ecological condition of their property while simultaneously improving their financial position by combining several conservation programs to meet their long-term goals. When the Sparrowk family first bought the ranch in 1978, its pastures were overgrazed and the Army Corps of Engineers had straightened its streams, which exacerbated flooding during high water events. Using a combination of programs offered by federal and state agencies such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, the Sparrowks carried out several projects that enhanced the forage on their property, improved fish passage in streams, and restored riparian vegetation to mitigate flood risk. Additionally, the Sparrowks sold a conservation easement on their property, allowing the family to significantly reduce the balance on their mortgage and ease some of their financial concerns. These actions boosted the ecological and economic vitality of the ranch, and continue to serve as a model for neighbors to learn how to integrate existing conservation initiatives in a way that meets their long-term objectives. 

These examples, just two of the many documented by the research project, demonstrate the ingenuity of individuals and communities in addressing the challenges facing working farms and ranches. By learning from these novel examples, we can share their lessons and inspire the next phase of conservation innovations that will help sustain the working landscapes that are integral to the West. I encourage you to learn more about these innovative initiatives and other findings by visiting the research project's webpage:

Drew Bennett is a doctoral candidate in the Geography Program at the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, where he studies the social dimensions of emerging conservation strategies, and is helping disseminate findings from the ecosystem services research project.