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Coming into Carbon Country

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I'm a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a dues-paying member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association as a producer of local, grass-fed beef.

For a boy raised in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, during the heyday of sprawl, fast food, and disco music, this was a bewildering sequence of events. I grew up surrounded by cars, malls, concrete, transplanted cacti, and copious amounts of air-conditioning. The closest I came to livestock were the horses my parents owned for trail-riding purposes. Cattle? Local food? Sustainability? I had no clue. Even when I became active with the Sierra Club in the mid-1990s after a move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, my conservation work was highly conventional. I lobbied for new wilderness areas, protested clear-cut logging in national forests, and helped publish a citizen's guide to fighting the environmental damage caused by hard-rock mining. I led activist outings, organized letter-writing campaigns, testified in public hearings, and fought a cynical assault on environmental regulation at the time called "takings" legislation. When I had time to think about livestock grazing at all, it wasn't in a positive light.

This all changed in 1997 when I cofounded the nonprofit Quivira Coalition with a rancher and a fellow conservationist. I did it because the constant brawling between environmental activists and loggers, ranchers, and other rural residents had dispirited me. No one was winning; everyone and everything was losing, especially the land. Even worse was the negative energy employed by all parties involved-attacking each other in the media, pointing fingers in meetings, filing lawsuits in court, even threatening physical violence. There had to be another way. When I met a rancher who not only did things differently on his land but sought a different relationship with environmentalists, I decided it was time to give peacemaking a chance.

With Quivira, we waded into the middle of the grazing wars in a deliberate attempt to create a "third position" outside the continuum of combat. We called it the New Ranch-a meeting place "beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing," to quote the poet Rumi, where people interested in innovative ideas and fruitful dialogue would have a place to meet, talk, listen, and learn.

It wasn't just talk, however. The New Ranch meant managing land differently, including moving livestock around in ways that mimicked the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazers. New Ranchers operated on the principle that the natural processes that sustain wildlife habitat, biological diversity, and functioning watersheds are the same processes that make land productive for livestock. It wasn't just a theory-it worked in practice, as I saw over and over on ranch after ranch. The key was land health: the degree to which the integrity of the soil and ecological processes of rangeland ecosystems are sustained over time. I learned that before land can sustainably support an added value-such as livestock grazing, hunting, recreation, or wildlife protection-it must be functioning properly at a basic ecological level. This included healthy water, mineral, and energy cycles, flowing round and round from the soil to plants and animals and back again.

With Quivira, my conservation work became highly collaborative, with a focus on improving land health, promoting progressive cattle management, implementing creek restoration projects, and repairing damaged relationships. My Sierra Club experience had taught me a hard lesson: that the missing piece of the conservation puzzle was the positive role that people could play. Environmental problems, I came to understand, were as much about social and economic relationships as they were about the environment, thus requiring economic solutions to go along with ecological ones. I learned this by listening to the many heated confrontations between activists and ranchers and loggers over the years. Conservation, I saw, meant prudence, care, good stewardship, and trust as much as it meant passing laws, enforcing regulations, and establishing new parks. That's why I chose a quote from farmer and author Wendell Berry as Quivira's motto: "We cannot save the land apart from the people; to save either, you must save both." Saving both became the mission of the Quivira Coalition.

Over time, our collaborative work grew to include an annual conference, a ranch apprenticeship program, a capacity-building collaboration with the Ojo Encino chapter of the Navajo Nation, numerous publications, a ton of workshops, and lots of creek restoration projects-including a long-running project in northern New Mexico on behalf of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout. By our calculation, at least 1 million acres of rangeland, 40 linear miles of creeks, and countless people have directly benefited from Quivira's collaborative efforts across the Southwest.

The membership in the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association happened in 2006 when 49 heifers were delivered to Quivira's 36,000-acre Valle Grande ranch, located on a national forest near Santa Fe. They were the first installment of what would become a 124-head herd of heifers, plus three Corriente bulls, all under our "Valle Grande" brand and our management. Shortly thereafter, an invitation to join the Cattle Growers' Association arrived in our office. We filled out the form, wrote a check, and mailed it back. And just like that, this former Sierra Club activist became a dues-paying cattle rancher!

Our plan was to sell grass-fed beef in Santa Fe, joining the rapidly growing local food movement, and use the revenue to pay for conservation activities on the ranch. For a while it worked. Thanks in part to best-selling books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver, grass-fed beef was an easy sell to customers. In 2008 I had the honor of traveling to Turin, Italy, as a delegate to Slow Food's biennial Terra Madre gathering as a producer of local, grass-fed beef. It was an experience that changed my outlook on conservation. Food made people smile, I saw, binding us together. It was positive energy at work again, reminding me that the only lasting change is the one that comes from the heart.   


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