Quivira Coalition proves working collaboration

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In 1997 three people got together — one rancher and two Sierra Club activists — who were fed up with the warfare between their two groups. They began to talk about the health of the land, about doing things differently, about working together.

This unlikely combination formed the Santa Fe-based Quivira Coalition, and at its 10th conference in mid-November, it was still talking about doing things differently and working together. But some goals and partners have changed. The coalition’s 15-plus years have had their ups and downs, but it has demonstrated that collaboration, even in these polarized times, is still possible.

Quivira’s second event in 1997 was at founding member Jim Winder’s Double Lightning ranch between Hatch and Deming. Winder had restored the watershed on his place and adopted new management practices. The environmentalists were skeptical, the ranchers thought he was crazy, and neither group would speak to the other.

“I made more money this year than I ever have before,” Winder said then. A couple of ranchers began listening. A few years later, a drought management workshop drew ranchers from around New Mexico and southern Colorado.

By the first conference in 2002, the mix of hiking boots and cowboy boots had become a movement, changing the way we talk about land and the vocabulary itself. Co-founder and executive director Courtney White called it the “radical center.”

Quivira then promoted the New Ranch and promised no litigation or legislation. New Ranchers manage holistically for healthy range and ecosystems, graze herds for shorter periods on a parcel and give it more rest, and fence cows out of riparian areas or graze streamsides only in the dormant season.

Since then the coalition (www.quiviracoalition.org) has expanded from land health and livestock management to grass-fed beef production and youth mentorship. Its workshops have addressed everything from fixing ranch roads to grass banks.

The group didn’t make peace between ranchers and environmentalists, but it turned down the volume of the debate and replaced confrontation with collaboration in many cases — a relief to government land managers who found themselves in the crossfire.

White admits that some issues resist Quivira’s approach — predator control, endangered species, climate change “and nearly anything to do with the wolf.” And some people are simply unwilling to change their thinking.

Nor does he hide his frustration at the increasing complexity of dealing with federal agencies, especially the Forest Service. It’s a function of shrinking budgets, multiple mandates and laws, and revolving personnel, he says.

A few years ago, the Forest Service pushed its National Environmental Policy Act responsibilities off on Quivira; the required environmental and social analysis is an enormous burden for a nonprofit.

“Every year it gets harder,” White says. “They’re good people, they mean well, but things slow down. The time it takes to do things increases. It becomes discouraging after a while.”

The agency, he says, “is constipated. It doesn’t respond any more. Nonprofits like us have to ask ourselves if it’s worthwhile.”

Environmentalist groups have sued the Forest Service so many times, usually over nitpicking NEPA issues, that the agency has circled the wagons. The Forest Service claims to value its partnerships, but for any new proposal, the easiest response is “no.”

It’s a systemic problem, but nobody is trying to reform the system, White says, and without that reform, “innovation and entrepreneurial energy are essentially impossible on public lands today.”

Quivira’s policy has always been to invest energy where it can do the most good and not waste its time in no-win situations. Today the focus is on tribal and private lands, where decision making is less cumbersome, and on “young agrarians.”

Young people, White says, care deeply about food systems and are more interested in practical solutions than ideological posturing.

“If anyone can build resilience in the West for the long run,” he says, “they can.”