Rural leaders - Your chapter is now being written

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 16, 2011

Maia Enzer explains how the time for rural leadership is now.

Maia Enzer and Cass Moseley in Washington D.C.

Our nation is facing declining forest health on most of our National Forests, our rangelands are being converted for housing development, and our dependence on foreign oil is contributing to climate change. Determining how to solve these challenges can be overwhelming, and at times, daunting. Nonetheless, it can be easy to get carried away by the notion that meetings with powerful decision-makers, such as various Under Secretaries within USDA, or a key staffer on a committee in the Senate, or a powerful appropriator in the U.S. House of Representatives, are what will fix our nation's conservation challenges. It is easy to get sucked into the notion that if these decision-makers just understood and supported us, the land and communities would be healthy and vibrant.

Participating in these meetings salves the ego into thinking those meetings, and your part in them, will restore or protect the forests and rangelands that define the West. You feel a definite rush of self-importance and contribution to the conservation movement when you exit those rooms. And, there is some truth to those feelings, citizen participation in democracy is impactful and powerful, but that is not the whole story.

I spent this past week with 38 practitioners from across the West who took time away from their ranches, woodlots, and the great landscapes they call home. These are people who have committed their lives to caring for the nation's land, water, and species that depend on nature for survival. These are the people that comprise the rural communities we talk so much about.

One of these individuals was a quiet rancher from Central Idaho named Merrill Beyeler. At the end of the week, Merrill came up to me and told me how much he had learned and how many ideas he had after spending a week traipsing around the concrete landscape of the capitol. In his soft, even toned voice, he thanked me for the experience. However, the truth is that I am the one who needed to offer thanks.

Merrill is a steward of over 2000 acres of rangeland located in the High Divide region of the interior West that serves a critical role in maintaining our nation's biological diversity. His ranch provides habitat for wildlife and critically important salmon runs. Merrill is a slight man with soft features that are shaped by rugged lines formed from a lifetime maintaining and working on the land. Merrill serves on the board of Lemhi Regional Land Trust based in Salmon, Idaho. This trip was the first time I met Merrill. Over dinner in the corner of an outdoor courtyard we learned about his ranch and what he hopes to accomplish. We asked him how he knew he was doing the right thing by the land and responded that his "land was healthier and his calves were 100 pounds heavier coming off the range" and I realized these were indicators that meant something.  And then he leaned in, and in an even quieter voice, said "I am really in the business of growing grass, and the beef we produce is really just about harnessing the energy of the sun." It was in that moment that I knew I was sitting with a true conservation leader; someone whose legacy will be evidence that you can simultaneously take care of the land, make a living, and contribute to the social fabric of your community.

Sustainable Northwest believes that we cannot succeed in meeting our nation's conservation challenges without rural stewards like Merrill. He has dedicated his life to protecting biological values on his land, and we all benefit from that. The least we can do as urban partners and supporters is to ensure that the voices of rural people are heard at the highest level of government. Perhaps then, the madness of urban versus rural, environmentalist versus commodity interests, and local people versus the government, can transform into a relationship that recognizes and honors the role that rural communities play in the conservation movement.

During this past week we were fortunate to hear from the Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Mary Wagner. In her keynote address Mary said, "Your place-based movement is the next chapter in the evolution of the conservation movement, and your role will be remembered and noted in history for being a game changer in how we achieved our land management objectives. Like Rachel Carson, the Rural Voices for Conservation has changed the paradigm and is creating a new pathway to the future." I couldn't agree more and am proud to have played a small part in this larger movement of magnificent leaders that are making powerful progress in real places across the nation.

Thank you to Merrill and the countless rural partners of Sustainable Northwest, for building and fighting for a way to maintain livelihoods that allow people to work, live, and prosper in sync with the land. Thank you for taking time away from your ranch, your family, and your home, to help our nation create better laws and more strategic investments. It is your enduring wisdom and dedication that will lead us to overcome the great environmental, economic, and social challenges we face.

Your chapter is now being written.

Maia Enzer is the former Director of the Policy Program and a founding member of RVCC.