AoR 12: Nathan Sayre, Politics of Scale—A History of Rangeland Science

Dr. Nathan Sayre has written the definitive work on the origins and history of rangelands science, public ownership, agency management, and grazing philosophy in the United States. Join Tip and Nathan as they discuss his background building fence on ranches on the Southwest, his pathway to the sociology of rangelands, and then surprising findings in Sayre’s book research. Finally, they visit about recommendations for modern range management. 


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on the rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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My guest today on the show is Dr. Nathan Sayre from University of California at Berkeley. He is a human geographer who also studies the management and ecology of rangelands. He's been active in the public rangelands conflicts in the southwest for the last 25 years, and has been a prolific writer over that time as well, producing both scholarly works and applied science grazing documents written for land managers. I've been studying rangelands with a focus on livestock production for about 20 years now, and some of my strongest held beliefs have come from reading Nathan's works. We met the first time in 2004 at a meeting of the Rangelands Partnership in Tucson. The Rangelands Partnership is a group of university range specialists and ag librarians and a sponsor of this podcast. And Nathan delivered a lecture titled Prospects and Tools for Sustainable Ranching in the Western United States. That meeting was in 2004. I started with the WSU as a range extension faculty member in 2003. And this was a really formative lecture for me. Nathan, you quoted Jim Corbett as saying that ranching is now the only livelihood that is based on human adaptation to wild biotic communities, and noted that this interdependence of livelihood and landscape is critical. That concept is why I love my job. Then I read this 2017 book, Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science. And I told Nathan in the invitation to come on the podcast that I read it like a Russian novel, cover to cover, over the course of about a week. People used to do that, you know, read novels. I concluded after 20 years in the range field that I had very few pat answers anymore. And the book confirmed my fears. And it really has affected my thinking on the rangeland ecology and management more than anything else I've read in a while. That's pretty high praise and a long introduction. Nathan, welcome to the show.

>> Thank you. And thank you for this introduction. That's very kind of you, and very consistent with my hopes for the book.

>> Excellent. I joked with Dr. Lynn Huntsinger a couple of episodes ago that some listeners may be surprised to learn that anything good can come out of Berkeley. So, this is a one two punch. J.R.R. Tolkien has his characters refer periodically to help unlooked for. And I think sometimes the best help comes from the most unlikely people. And by unlikely, I don't mean that your scholarship is a personal surprise. I mean simply that ranchers are not expecting the best writing on range management to come from sociologists who come from University of California Berkeley. No offense to range scientists who are not from Berkeley. So, I'll let you start talking. How did you end up studying rangelands and range people as a geographer at UC, Berkeley?

>> I was already doing it when I got to Berkeley. I got here in 2004 that same year that we crossed paths in Tucson. I, how did I  I went to college for a couple of years when I was 18, 19 years old at a teeny little college in Eastern California in the desert called Deep Springs College. And that was a sort of falling in love with the desert experience for me. The air, the aridity, the aesthetic beauty. Then I spent two years in the northeast, in the gray cloudy slushy world. By the time I finished college and I was tired of it, I wanted to get back to the desert, I moved to Tucson, and I worked there for three years, mostly building barbed wire fence. And I saw lots of beautiful places. I had never been to the Sonoran Desert. I really fell in love with that landscape. And that was where I started to take a greater interest in ranching. One of the places I was building barbed wire fence for was a wildlife refuge that the federal government had bought just a few years previously. And they were busily buying new parcels, you know, adjacent private land parcels, adding them to the refuge, and then fencing, building barbed wire fence around these parcels to keep the cattle out because the sort of central premise of their management was to cease grazing this huge former ranch. And one day, I happened to be taking a break at the nearby cafe and getting some lunch, and I overheard a rancher at the neighboring table complaining bitterly about the refuge. And I didn't interrupt or talk, you know, approach him at the time, but it began to be clear that there was a serious conflict going on in the local community about this, about this ranch. I eventually got tired of just building fence all the time and wanted to go back to graduate school and ended up at the University of Chicago in anthropology. Didn't really think I was going to study this, but a couple of other project ideas fell apart, and I ended up back in Tucson, back in that, on that same refuge. And that's when I started talking to ranchers, asking them questions about their opposition to the refuge. And by the time I was done, I had sort of turned myself from an anthropologist into a geographer because a lot of the questions I had to pursue were actually about either the history of the valley or the ecology of the valley. And actually, the two of them were intertwined. So, that's the story in a nutshell. I went down there thinking that the Fish and Wildlife Service had its story straight and the ranchers were just angry because they didn't care for it. And I had my views turned inside out by the fieldwork, talking to the ranchers. Their version of the story had to do with the history of the valley. I had to reconstruct the history. And by the time I was done, I realized that they had their story straighter than the feds.

>> Now, switching to the book, why did you write the book? This was a pretty large undertaking.

>> I wrote the book because no one had ever written a book on this subject, and there was no scholarship that looked at it thoroughly and comprehensively. The history of rangeland ecology was not something that anyone had put together in a sort of thorough fashion. There were bits and pieces here and there, mostly written either by historians for agencies, like the Forest Service, usually about one specific site where they had done research, and a handful by range scientists that tended to be very celebratory, and even those were mostly out of date. There had been maybe one or two more scholarly treatments, sort of objective or distanced treatments. And the best one was more than 50 years old. And in conversations with people, I was routinely running into this question, sort of how do we get this idea, why do we believe that, why did the Forest Service do this for decades and decades. And so it seemed like it needed to be done. I did sometimes wonder if there wasn't a reason why no one had done it, because it's a topic that maybe is either not that interesting to people, or is convoluted and lacks some sort of thread, a theme, or a plot. But that was, that was the motivation.

>> I realize we haven't talked much about the content yet, but I'm curious, what has been the response so far? Never having written a book, I don't know how much reaction you get, formal or informal.

>> The reaction has been quite positive, although, you know, not, there aren't, you know, tens of thousands of people out there beating down my door to talk about it. I've heard back from quite a few people. Some of them are ranchers. Many of them are agency folks who have, you know, been pleased to sort of get the story that they sort of had an inkling of but hadn't seen put all together in one place. You know, scholars, geographers, people interested in rangelands, arid lands, the sort of politics of rangelands and pastoralism have been very positive. And we'll see. I mean, the thing about a book is you spend all this time researching it, and then writing it, and then it takes a while to come out. And by the time it comes out, you're sort of exhausted.

>> And you've moved on.

>> And then, and then, and then it usually is at least a year and a half or two years before the rest of the world has a chance to find it, read it, think about it, respond. It's not like there's a sudden burst, unless you're famous, which I'm not.

>> Would you be willing to give kind of an overview of the big ideas in the chapters of the book maybe before we start talking about a few of them? For those who have not seen it.

>> So, major themes, in the first chapter, I look at the role of pest control, the predatory control and rodent control in the early development of the agencies of the federal government that eventually led to the creation of range science. And the argument there is that, you know, the federal government in the Western United States, in the late 19th century, was, on the one hand, very powerful because it owned much of the land, and it was sort of in charge of overseeing settlement and development of the West. On the other hand, it was quite powerless because it was an enormous landscape. They did not have a lot of resources. They didn't have a lot of people on the ground. They didn't know very much about the landscape. And, in fact, under the Constitution at that time, their legal authority was quite limited as well. The states were expected to do most of the sort of governing of these places. And pretty much every place aspired to become a state as quickly as possible. And one of the ways the federal government addressed this was through science and through the gathering of information, by sending geologists to look for minerals and study the opportunities for mining, study surveyors to measure the land and create property boundaries and oversee the disposition of the land. And over time, there were more and more sort of subspecialties of this. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture was interested obviously in agriculture. And they saw a need to both help settlers settle, and then also help settlers prosper, succeed in farming or whatever other agricultural pursuit they might take up. And so they  and they were looking here both to help because that was what the government wanted. The policy was settlement, right? And also because it was a way of building constituencies. So, you needed, you needed, the USDA needed to have public support to keep getting funding from Congress and things like that. And so one of the things they did was they discovered a lot of places there were issues of pests, insect pests, rodent pests, predators. Sometimes these pest problems were created by the arrival of the settlers, right? They created, by planting crops, they created food that attracted rodents of various kinds. By killing the prey species that were eating their crops, you know, maybe it was rabbits, they would create a problem with coyotes, and then they'd have coyotes to contend with. And the agencies were in the business of trying to assess these problems and come up with solutions to them. And it turns out that this was a very important site for the early creation of the ideas that we came to think of as conservation later, and that fixing these imbalances, by figuring out how to poison prairie dogs, for example, figuring out how to trap and get rid of predators, those were the problematics out of which conservation emerged. And range science was one of these conservation fields in that also was born out of this kind of exterminationist zeal in the Western U.S.

>> Yeah, that's interesting with regard to predator extermination. It seems like during that period of time, we, as a culture, had the idea that nothing was impossible for us if we just tackled it hard enough. And you mentioned in the book that one of the prairie dog talents was 25,000 square miles, which, if I'm doing my math right, was about 160 miles on a side in a square. That's a lot of prairie dogs. The idea, the audacity that there was even the remote possibility of getting rid of all of the animals seems just unbelievably audacious to me.

>> Yeah, I agree. And it was not easy. It did not happen quickly. And, in fact, even to this day, there are prairie dog towns in the High Plains, as you and I, you know, as you know, I'm sure. But, yeah, there was a notion that in the case of prairie dogs, they not only developed, you know, a fairly large toolkit of ways of getting rid of them, but they even went so far as to get states and counties to pass ordinances that required landowners to let them come on, let the agencies come on their private land and kill the prairie dogs. Because, of course, if you had prairie dogs on one property, chances were good that they would spread to the neighbors, even if the neighbors had gotten rid of theirs. So, it was, yeah, it was  it's hard to put our minds in that situation, I think, and picture it. There was a sense of threats that had to be confronted aggressively with whatever technologies and knowledge could be mustered. There was not, at this time, an awareness of the interconnectedness of these pieces. If you killed all the jackrabbits, what were the coyotes going to eat? Well, they were probably going to start eating your chickens, right? But that type of interaction was poorly understood at the time, and, in many cases, not even considered.

>> That thinking applied more broadly than rangeland science into agriculture as well, where, you know, we use very unselective chemicals that killed everything, and that removes, you know, predator insect populations that are otherwise beneficial that hold the pest species in check. That problem was pretty widely applied.

>> Yeah, I mean, I don't think many people realize that there was a time when it was considered just obvious that you should kill all the raptors around your farm, you know, that they were not only potential threats to say your chickens or other things you were trying to raise, but they were bad because they killed songbirds, right? I mean, there was a time when the federal government engaged in systematic eradication efforts of hawks and eagles in the name of, you know, protecting innocent songbirds.

>> That's interesting. Let's start with some definitions. You know, every, every range textbook published prior to, I don't know, 1975, defined rangeland as the leftover pieces, as lands that don't have a higher and better use, I guess, to use economic language. That rubs most range people the wrong way. But you said there's some validity to that. And you say that we could legitimately define rangelands as non forested places where intensive economic activities have not yet taken root. I really like that definition. But you also say those activities have not taken root for a good reason, that rangelands are significant, not because they're vast, but because they resist the three major forces of the modern world; the nation state, science, and capital. Now, that was a good hook. And it kept me reading for the next 200 pages. There's some really big ideas in there. But I guess first, that seems a little bit cynical, but maybe it's realistic. I feel like it's kind of a social rather than a biological definition of range. But one of the things that I have appreciated about your work is that you've meld these two components in recognition that in the real world, social and ecological dimensions are really inseparable.

>> Yeah, it certainly wasn't intended to be cynical. There are other ways of defining rangeland. And some of them are long lists, right? You have savannas and grasslands and deserts and tundra, and the list goes on. Before you're done, you have basically described everything except what is forest or cropland or urban or covered in ice.

>> Yeah.

>> And, to that extent, it seems to me just reasonable to turn it around and say, well, this is, this is the category, this is how we describe this very diverse range of landscapes that are, you know, what they have in common is basically what they lack, right? They lack forests, they lack buildings, they lack crops, and they lack ice. Otherwise, it's pretty much anything. And that isn't cynical so much as a recognition that, you know, the way we categorize land and land cover is a social construct that reflects our sense of priorities and interests. I don't think, I don't think a rancher would ever, you know, simply bundle it all together, lump together tundra and grassland and savanna and desert and say it's all the same. But it isn't ranchers who are describing, who are coming up with these categories. And in many ways, what we have learned, or what has finally come to be recognized, is that these different types of rangelands are, in fact, very, very different, and you can't just come up with a recipe for managing rangelands and then apply it to all of them as though they all behave the same.

>> Yeah, in that same section, you mention that rangelands probably have more similarity to oceans. And, in fact, rangeland grazing may be more similar to ocean fishing than anything, you know, more traditionally agricultural.

>> Yeah.

>> That seems like that's related to how rangelands resist these three major forces.

>> Yeah, how they resist, I think the first, the first thing that they do is they simply exhaust our capacity to see them and pin them down.

>> Try to get a handle on it.

>> Yeah, I mean, how much, how much time and energy and money and effort is any society willing to put into gathering information about space, right? And land, in general, is a lot easier to gather information about than the ocean. But it's still, it depends a lot, it depends on the weather and the climate. It depends on the topography. It depends on what you're trying to gather information for. And if there is a lot of significance per unit area, so to speak, or per unit effort, then it's worth it, right? It's worth doing a careful study of the soil if you think you can grow crops that will be very valuable. It's worth studying the geology carefully if you think there are minerals that you can mine. And those are very valuable. Rangelands tend to be the places that are the least valuable per unit of space or area, per unit of effort to understand them. They tend to be, therefore, not worth the effort, at least in the eyes of your typical player, whether that's a government agency or an investor or a capitalist thinking about trying to make an investment to modify a landscape. As for the nation state, these are also landscapes that, you know, it's difficult to patrol them, it's difficult to make the territory behave in the way that nation states like their territory to be behave. They like to be able to map it, they like to be able to inventory it, and they like to be able to control the people within their territory, collect taxes from them, for example, and rangelands from, for thousands of years, been places where people have got a lot of opportunity to allude that type of control.

>> And resistance to capital, in my conversation with Fred Provenza a while back, he said that it gets really expensive to fight nature. Is that what you're getting at? Are you referring more to I guess, you know, a secondary level of economics where, like with the easy capital, easy credit that was partly responsible for the crash and the cattle boom in the late 1800s?

>> Yeah, yeah, it's related. It includes what Fred was referring to, I think. But it's not only that. It resists not simply by, well, let's put it this way, fighting nature can be very expensive because you have sort of done some kind of damage, and you now need to fix it, and it's very expensive. But I mean this in a more basic sense. What does capital want from a piece of land? Capital wants to know that if it makes an investment, it will get a return, right? And that return is usually measured over time. Most people building buildings want, you know, they imagine it's going to be 25 or 30 years, maybe 50 years. If you're building a dam, you might think 100 years. And the idea here is that you probably are borrowing money somewhere along the line at some point to make that investment. And you're going to have to repay the loan. And that's the easiest way to think about how this works out over time. You can't repay the loan unless you come up with a certain amount of revenue every year to make the payments. And in a lot of cases, what rangelands do is, you know, they'll cooperate with you, so to speak, if three years out of five, or seven years out of ten, there will be enough rain, you'll get enough grass, you'll, you know, the market will be good enough, you can make the payments on your loan. But then there will be those years when it doesn't rain or something else happens, and you suddenly don't have what you need to repay the loan. And that's, that's what I think is key about rangelands and their sort of failure to cooperate with the expectations of capital and capitalists. When rangelands have been readily available and full of grass, people have jumped on them and put livestock on them and made lots of money, and the capitalists have gotten very excited about that. But the grass doesn't grow every year, at least not the same amount. And if it doesn't rain and you've got a lot of animals out there, you can lose all of them very quickly, as people found out. So, that's what I'm getting at. And it's the variability. It's the unpredictability and the variability as much as anything else. I mean, look at, look at places like the Imperial Valley and the Central Valley, large parts of the Southwestern deserts. It's  there's not enough rainfall, or the rainfall is not consistent enough for farming. But if you can put an irrigation system in there and get reliable water, they are incredibly productive, because it's hot and the sunshine is very reliable, and because the soils are actually, in many cases, quite fertile if you can find the water. And, in a sense, what you do then is you fix the problem until you tap out your Aquaphor, and then you've got a problem that's even worse than you started with.

>> I want to get around to several big ideas that really affected me. Affected me because I think it's something that we've been missing. Neil Postman says in his famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, that in both oral and typographic cultures, information derives its importance from the possibilities of action. And one of the things that I have appreciated about what you write is that it always makes me think differently in ways that make me act differently. The content is not trivial, which is what academics are often accused of. And just so I don't forget to come back to some of these big ideas, what I'm hoping we can make time to discuss briefly is the idea that variability in rangelands is a bigger factor than even aridity in shaping plant communities. A discussion of carrying capacity. The idea of property rights and different methods of pastoralism, which wasn't so much a focus of the book as I guess kind of the inverse of some of the issues with property rights. Community succession models, fire, and we've talked about predator control some. But going back to variability, there's a phrase that you use in the introduction that probably more than any other has stuck with me. And I think I've referenced it a dozen times in discussing these things, even on the podcast. I think Karen Launchbaugh is jealous that I quote you all the time and not her. But you say rangelands are defined more by their variability than by their aridity. And I live in the Inland Northwest where, you know, we have enough winter precipitation that's fairly reliable that we can rely on. I guess the range of variability from year to year is not like what we see I think east of the Rocky Mountains where they're relying on growing season precipitation, that it tends to be more flashy. But still, even in the Northwest, rangeland forest production is still driven by how much rain we get in the, you know, the first three quarters of the growing season of April through June, more so than whether we had two feet of snow or none, you know, the end of January. And I'm narrating some of what I think I've learned, and you can tell me if I'm getting it right. So, range vegetation changes in response to sort of unpredictable combinations of both biotic and abiotic factors. And that's a stronger driver than livestock grazing, at least above some threshold of grazing severity, and, you know, severity stacked up over time in a pattern that we could call overgrazing. Am I getting that right?

>> Yes, except it would be below that threshold, right?

>> Yeah.

>> In other words, you can graze to the point where the livestock grazing is strongly affecting the vegetation dynamics. But, by and large, below that threshold, the dynamics are driven by abiotic forces. I mean, these are things that have now become widely accepted in the rangeland ecology community. But as I think you mentioned by e mail, not well known in the general public. The variability is important not just for vegetation, but I think more broadly. So many people have written books about the history of the American West and the fact that beyond the Hundredth Meridian, to use Wallace Stegner's famous phrase, there's not enough reliable rainfall, or the rainfall is not reliable enough for people to make a living farming. So, aridity has become this kind of talisman for Western American history and explanations of Western American settlement. But, of course, what does that mean? It means that it wasn't so much that it was less than 20 inches a year on average that mattered to those farmers. It was that some years there was 25 inches of rain, and they thought they were doing great. And then another year, there would be eight inches of rain or twelve inches of rain. And it was those bad years that would drive them under and force them, you know, sort of dash their hopes for settlement, and the sort of Jeffersonian model of agrarian American democracy. So, it was the variability, not the aridity. And the more I've looked, you know, thought about this, the more I've thought, we should be focusing on variability. We can get used to something if it's reliable, even if it's dry, right? But if it's variable, it's a different kind of problem. And this is something we're dealing with all the time now. You know, wildfire seasons are a product of variability, right, as much as they're a product of temperature or aridity. Floods, that's about variability. These are the kinds of events that shock a landscape or a community and may cause lasting change. How does that change work? And this is where the vegetation story is really important. The idea that vegetation change is somehow predictable has been central to ecology, central to policies about how we manage land, and, indeed, how we manage wildlife and other biotic resources. And that faith was built from observations made in places where the climate was less variable. They're made in places like Eastern Nebraska where, sure, there are dry years and wet years, but the variation is not such that it completely changes the vegetation and alters things on a kind of lasting basis. As Frederic Clements famously realized, in a wetter year, you get more tall grasses. In a drier year, you get more short grasses in a place like Central Nebraska. But you still get grass. And you still don't have a lot of erosion. So, when we came further west into more arid and more variable landscapes, and by the time you get to Southern California, the variability is extraordinary, these ideas didn't make sense of no vegetation, but by that point, we had built them into a lot of our policies, a lot of our ideas and expectations about how vegetation change happens. And I guess I feel like I came to understand this in Southern Arizona where you have two rainy seasons. You have a winter rainy season and a summer rainy season. Either one can be good or almost non existent in a given year. It's warm enough for plant to grow year round, so they both are growing season precipitation, you know, periods. And what you start to notice is that what grows in any given month or year changes pretty much randomly from one year to the next. Not completely randomly, but like there are a whole bunch of different plants that could grow well. And it will depend on did it rain in February, did it rain in March, did it rain in April, did it not rain last October will have an effect. And in other words, the notion that there's some kind of succession, a sort of stable pathway, the vegetation will always be somewhere on this neat spectrum, and that if you alter it, it will then just resume its sort of evolution towards its climax. That idea, which Frederic Clements made so famous and on which a lot of plant ecology was built, simply doesn't apply. And it's taken us a very long time to come to recognize that. I think, I think ranchers have figured that out much more readily than scientists or policy makers, by and large.

>> Right. Yeah, one of the conclusions of that, I think, is that especially in the West, the ecological effects of grazing can vary, depending on the scale at which you choose to examine them. That's a quote from page 30 of the book. You say it's a seemingly simple act of domestic animal grazing, all or part of a plant can have wildly different impacts, beneficial, benign, or destructive, depending on when it occurs, how much is grazed, how soon it happens again, and the larger historical and geographical context in which it takes place, end quote. You then say that there's two conceits that informed range science from the beginning. The first one is that range scientists believe that range livestock producers, ranchers, did not know how to manage their own herds and land properly. And the second conceit is that scientific methods that tend to be reductionist could produce the knowledge that we need to manage well. And then adding insult to injury, there's probably a number of bad assumptions underneath even those. But just with regard to scientific method, the first one is that we can  the idea that we can accurately tease out or identify causality using quantitative reductionist methods. I've said for years that the big problem with any kind of natural resource, research, is that you can't, you can't get to ceteris paribus. You can't hold everything constant except for the one variable you want to test. So, we, you know, we reduce the spatial scale of research to the size of a desk, and then try to extrapolate that to 100,000 acres. And I guess the second bad assumption is assuming that whatever results we get right here are going to hold true in every other context, you know, other than the one that we did the research in.

>> Yeah, I completely agree. And that is a central thesis of the book, is that on the one hand, you have managers, you know, ranchers and agencies working at large scales. They've got, you know, they're trying to make decisions about landscapes of 20,000, 50,000, or several hundred thousand acres. That's a very different thing from the scale at which a scientist can do an experiment, generally speaking. Most of the experiments that the range science community has been able to do in a controlled replicable kind of way have employed plots or transects, and rarely have extended, you know, the sort of, the extent of the project has rarely been more than maybe several hundred acres or a thousand acres. And usually not for more than three years, five years. Ten years would be considered very long experiment. And there's a disconnect there between the scale of management, the scale of research that has plagued the discipline, and also plagued the politics of Western rangelands for more than a hundred years now.

>> So, it's not rocket science. It's a lot more complex than that.

>> Yeah, exactly, exactly.

>> Where did that, where did that come from? Was that, were those two conceits that you list the logical end point of a couple hundred years of enlightenment rationalism? Was it just kind of the hubris of the age? Any ideas on that?

>> I mean, the first conceit was descriptively not long at the time, right? Put yourself in 1885, 1890, 1900, and most of the white U.S. citizen settlers in the Western United States were newcomers. They hadn't been there long. Most of them came from places with very different ecosystems and soils and climates and so forth. And so it wasn't unrealistic to sort of look at them and say, maybe they don't know what they're doing. They weren't necessarily even livestock producers before they got to the West, right? The second conceit was, yes, was an outgrowth of the enlightenment and the kind of hubris or confidence that sort of U.S. success and growth and prosperity and exceptionalism had generated. Confidence that the tools of science marshalled under the, you know, in a Democratic governing entity like the USDA, would figure out the solutions to problems more efficiently and more effectively than other types of methods. Now, that presupposes the effectiveness of science. As you say, you know, how do you get to everything else is equal in a landscape with so many variables and so much variability? It also, give those, give those livestock producers four or five generations to learn how to ranch or how to raise livestock on a particular piece of land. Chances are, they're going to figure some things out that will make that first conceit no longer true.

>> But then if you, because of the threshold problem, if you make a big enough mistake at some point, you have a punctuated change toward a degraded landscape that maybe then you can't recover from in a short time frame.

>> True, true. And that's, and that's been an issue in much of the Southwestern U.S. and other places as well. But it's also, I mean, you asked in the e mail about, you know, issues of desertification or instances of desertification in other parts of the world. You should get Diana Davis on the program and interview her about her book. It turns out that when somebody walks into a landscape and says, "this is degraded," on the one hand, it might be that they are saying something true about the landscape. On the other hand, they might be just telling you something about themselves and how they see the landscape, especially if it's one they haven't had a great deal of familiarity with previously. And the notion that the livestock of pastoralists and nomads in various parts of the world, particularly around the Mediterranean, but in other places as well, the notion that those livestock permanently destroyed the, you know, the lush, bountiful ecosystems of those areas from previous centuries. Turns out to say a lot more about the observer than about the landscape, or at least there's a good chance. And that's where Diana Davis can give you the full story. But it's a power play to show up and tell somebody that they have screwed up their landscape, right? And it can be done in a way that makes it sound like you're just trying to speak for their own interests and the good of the landscape. But in many instances, that hasn't been, in retrospect, what was going on.

>> Yeah, with that, with that comment, I was thinking of Walter Lowdermilk's report I think from the 1940s.

>> Yeah.

>> Of a survey he did across the Middle East and parts of Africa where, you know, where we believe that agriculture had collapsed. And I think he's considered I guess the father of the Soil Conservation Service. He was certainly one of the first heads of the SCS. But because of that and other things that we, that we read or hear, you know, I've held as a self evident truth that much of the eastern hemisphere had been grazed too hard competitively for thousands of years. You know, when you think about Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons," we often think of, or I think of, sort of a pastoralist system where you have a commons, where it's first come, first serve, and that that automatically leads to degradation. And I think that idea, in my own head, is I'm trying to untangle through some of what you wrote. I actually have quite a bit of faith in indigenous peoples, at least in their land [inaudible] practices. And one of the things that you said I think maybe in the essay from the Rangelands Partnership meeting back in Tucson is that the word sustainability is somewhat of a tautology, at least if you look at it long enough to [inaudible] scale. That which persists much be sustainable. And that which is sustainable persists. You know, you answered some of the question. Were reports of damage in other parts of the world exaggerated? And part of that is our own perspective, you know? But the person who's the  if somebody were here to defend what the United States did in terms of trying to advise other parts of the world, do you, in your own opinion, do you think there are range problems out there that can be helped by modern range science or could be helped? And where are those limits?

>> There are definitely are places where the resources that Western range science can bring to bear can be extremely useful in addressing rangeland problems and issues. The recipes of range science, as they were formulated in the first half of the 20th century, and then applied in much of the second half of the 20th century, I would say those recipes often produced way more problems than they solved. Right now, there's a great example of a long term collaboration going on in Mongolia between range scientists, both at the Jornada Experimental Range in Las Cruces and also Colorado State University in Fort Collins, that's an example, I think, of range science genuinely doing what we  what needs to be done in the way of engaging with the people living and using those lands, living on and using those lands, the policy makers who affect those landscapes and those people through their decisions. And recognizing that yes, there's the potential for damage, but there is also the potential for sustainable livelihoods through livestock production on rangelands. And those are landscapes that have been grazed by domesticated livestock for seven, eight, nine, a thousand years, right? You mentioned Garrett Hardin. I mean, that parable that he made famous goes way back. It's not  he didn't come up with it himself. But it's also, as an empirical matter, wildly untrue about the way most rangelands were managed and used for most of human history. It's only  it only applies if you have a certain kind of people who are ready to keep adding livestock no matter what, even up to the point where they are destroying that resource, right? Why is it that in a variable system abiotic drivers are more important than biotic drivers? You know, which is the new wisdom or the new knowledge we have about highly variable landscapes. Well, in one sense, it's because if you have too many livestock, they die when it stops raining.

>> Right, there are natural consequences.

>> Yeah, and so high mortality during drought. And then what happens? Well, you don't get animals back on that landscape from the natural reproduction of the surviving animals until years have passed, and probably the rains have returned, and, you know, the mother cows aren't going to get pregnant and have calves until they've got some nutrition, so it might be quite a while before you've got grazing pressure back up on that landscape unless the people you're talking about can go someplace else and buy more animals and bring them in, right?

>> Right, they didn't buy 500 tons of hay to supplement their lack of forage.

>> Exactly. And in many ways, it's to say that Garrett Hardin's thesis only works in a society with a profit motive that overrides sort of common sense, and a system that allows people to keep adding cattle or keep adding livestock even when there's no forage left. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The problems are much more, are much more severe in terms of that thesis. But it has an intuitive logic for those of us in this society where we are accustomed to that type of behavior, that kind of selfish behavior. And so we think of it as perfectly logical and obvious. But it really, there's also, there's fascinating new research being done in places like Africa and Asia, mostly by archaeologists working closely with a variety of paleoecologists and other scientists, and they have started to be able to reconstruct the effects of livestock from thousands of years ago on landscapes that were grazed by nomadic pastoralists, right? Landscapes where the animals would move around all the time. And they might have a very pronounced impact on a small space for a brief period of time and then move someplace else and not come back for a while. Those are not impacts that are easy to detect. But the methods now exist to detect them. And by and large, what we're discovering, the evidence suggests that these animals did no damage, and in some cases actually benefited landscapes, or benefited vegetation and soils in locations where they congregated for periods of time over centuries and millennia. So, the notion that these, that the sort of default assumption about livestock grazing is that it's damaging to ecosystems is simply false. Of course it depends on the landscape and the ecosystem, and it depends on how these animals are grazed. But it's wrong to assume that there's some kind of unavoidable contradiction between grazing and the sustainability of a landscape.

>> Right. Pastoralism intrigues me, and this is probably my own ignorance, but listening to you talk, I'm thinking back on some conversations with Karen Launchbaugh and Floyd Reed and Fred Provenza and Kirk Davies about grazing rules of thumb. And we pile on these, you know, list of factors that we need to apply in order to make grazing sustainable. And it feels like most of those are mimicking what happens naturally in transhumance pastoralism, where you're trying to limit the duration of the grazing period. Well, that's accommodated by animals moving on after they've been in a spot for a week or two. We're trying to  we say that we need to make sure that there's growing season regrowth for plants before animals come back to graze that same spot. That's also addressed there. You're limiting the severity of grazing is maybe not so critical, as long as you have a long period of time before the animals come back. Any other thoughts on what sustainable pastoralism looks like on  where you have shared lands? You know, it's easy enough to see how that's sustainable if you only have a single user or a single herd. But in places where you've got multiple herds using the same places, but still following that same pattern, how do cultures keep that from still being too much?

>> There are a lot of different examples. And it's a little difficult to generalize and sort of reduce it to a single answer. There are places where there are, you know, pretty elaborate systems of rules that, you know, that are applied and enforced by a community of people, and that community is, you know, if not rigidly defined, it's understood, sort of who's in this community. And people who weren't in the community are, in various ways, excluded from using the resource. But there are some fascinating examples as well where the resources there, and they're the rule, insofar as there is a rule, is basically that anyone can use it. And that can apply beyond the boundaries of a particular village or ethnic group or community. How does it work? Well, in a lot of ways, it's as simple as you just suggested. Why, if you're a grazer, if you're a herder or a pastoralist, why would you want to keep your animals in a place where there was either no water or no forage?

>> It's not good for the animals.

>> It's not good for the animals.

>> Right.

>> And to that extent, you will use a resource if there is forage and water. And if there is no forage and water, you will move someplace else and not try to, not try to keep your animals alive there. And it turns out that that is an arrangement that can, that can work, particularly if you're dealing with a landscape that there's a famous place in Chad, I believe, where there's a great big floodplain that floods seasonally, and it's basically flat, and the floodwaters deposit sediment and restore the fertility, and the forage growth is quite abundant, provided that the floodwaters are sufficient. And that's a landscape where, you know, there's either going to be a whole bunch of forage and water and a lot of people will bring their animals and utilize it, particularly when, in the dry season when other parts of the landscape are not green. But if, you know, once that forage is utilized and it dries up, or if it doesn't get a good year's worth of flooding, they won't go there. They'll go someplace else. And that, I don't know, that's a sort of simple answer or sounds too simple, but it has worked in many places for, again, thousands of years prior to the onset of what we consider to be, well, prior to the onset of commercial livestock production. I guess that's what it comes down to. If you switch the motive driving production to one of profit rather than one of subsistence, you've got very different dynamics to contend with at that point.

>> Yeah, that's interesting. One of the projects that I've been working on, along with Matt Ziegler, the audio technician that you never hear on the podcast, has been a series of short case study documentary films on ranches in the Pacific Northwest who are managing for rangeland resilience. And one of the economic pieces that has kind of fallen out of that is that where you have high ecological resilience and healthy rangelands. There's a direct tie to healthy economics. That tends to be profitable in lots of different ways. Not only because, you know, if you use the land lightly, you end up with, you know, a forage production buffer if you're not using everything all the time. But also there are significant animal health benefits where animals have access to a wide array of plants. You know, Fred Provenza would say it's a natural pharmacy. And it's been shown that those ranchers that manage for a highly diverse landscape have lower, lower pharmaceutical costs because animals are just healthier. There's a direct tie between ecology and economy that is a pretty big deal.

>> Yeah, Brandon Bestelmeyer and Rhonda Skaggs have seen this in Southern New Mexico with BLM permits. If you just look at the frequency with which a permit changes hands, which is almost always because of the base property cells, you'll find that the permits and land, on allotments where the vegetation is more degraded, turn over more quickly than the permits on, you know, where the land is in better condition. A very similar kind of idea.

>> I want to transition to a quick discussion of carrying capacity, because this was something that blew my socks off, and that doesn't happen every day. You show that carrying capacity was a shipping term.

>> Yeah.

>> But carrying capacity has been a fundamental principle of ecology, not just grazing management. How do we get from a term used to talk about a ship's cargo capacity above the weight of the ship to an ecological bedrock principle that seems to be through all of, at least the natural sciences?

>> You know, it's an intricate, complicated story, and I can't summon all the details straight from memory.

>> By the book.

>> Well, no, actually, there's an article, there's an article that came out earlier that tells the story in even more detail. It's one of these ideas that moved around. It traveled among different fields, different areas of scientific and scholarly inquiry. Beginning, well, basically the second half of the 19th century. It was coined, not just in shipping, but a specific moment in the history of shipping when steamships were displacing sailing vessels. Sailing vessels had always been assessed tariffs and duties based on how much cargo they could carry. And that was something that was just a fixed number for the haul of the boat, right? It had a certain volume, and so that was how much tax it had to pay every time it came into port. Steamships messed up that system because, of course, the inside of the haul of a steamboat has got to have a whole bunch of space dedicated to the actual, you know, engine itself, but also to the area where you keep all the coal, and the area where you keep all the fresh water. So, there's a whole bunch of volume in that haul that is not available for cargo. And the people who owned these steamships complained to the governments of these different countries that it wasn't fair to assign tariffs and duties on the entire volume of their hauls because so much of the haul wasn't available for hauling cargo. And so that's when they coined the term carrying capacity, not just to signify cargo, but to signify cargo net of the stuff that went along with the boat. And so this was actually about trade and tariffs and trade policy. Now, once that concept was in use and traveling around and available, and something about the alliteration I think made it roll off people's tongues, it found its way into other applications. And so it found its way into engineering. People started talking about the carrying capacity of trains, the carrying capacity of canals and aqueducts, the carrying capacity of electrical systems, sort of how much current could a wire carry, how much current could a lightning rod absorb safely. And all of these were engineered systems in which you could, you could sort of calculate the capacity of something you were making to do some task or carry some load that it was intended to carry. And this all made, you know, in that context, these types of calculations could be, could be fairly reliably quantified and measured and even tested, right? But then it started getting applied in other contexts. And it got applied to how much weight a mule could carry, or a pack train. It got  it even got applied to how much weight a human being could carry as he climbed out of a mine, for example. And subsequently, it got applied in the biological sciences. How much water could a vein in a cucumber plant carry? It got applied to, eventually, it got applied to rangelands. But this all came up because I started asking colleagues, you know, when range science begins, and mostly it's about the 1890s, you start seeing sort of official documented publications about ranch science. And everyone just uses carrying capacity right from the very beginning. And they don't pause to sort of ask, well, what is this concept or what does it mean. They just use it as if it's common knowledge. And that was a puzzle to me, and it was courtesy of a research assistant who dug down and found all these earlier uses that I was able to piece together this story. Eventually, you end up using it to describe systems that are not humanly controlled or engineered, systems that are not even very easily bounded or defined, and systems that where an average is not the same thing as an actual capacity, right? It's just a, it's just a calculated artifact. It is the average of a bunch of numbers over years. But it was interpreted as if it was kind of like the carrying capacity of your pickup truck, right? It's fixed somehow. And it doesn't change when, in fact, what we now know about rangelands, how many animals that piece of rangeland can support is going to change dramatically from year to year and season to season.

>> You make the statement in the book that ranching is the most ecologically sustainable segment of the country's beef industry, yet it is also the most economically marginal, and historically the most vilified by environmentalists. Why is it the most vilified?

>> I think it's because of the circumstance that so much of it is public land, right? It's the public lands ranching in particular that has earned the ire over the decades of the environmental community. And it goes back to the 1940s. There was a period of time when much, much like the Sagebrush Rebellion later, the ranching community in the West mounted an effort, lobbying Congress, trying to get Congress to turn the federal public lands over to the states or the counties or even to privatize them. And Bernard DeVoto, who was a very influential editor for Harper's, wrote a series of columns that really sort of outed them for them apparent agreed and their desire to sort of strip the patrimony of the country out of the hands of the public and use it for private gain. And that really is a motion that's a very important moment in the history of what we now call environmentalism. It predates the term environmentalism. But it had a very strong influence. And it set the sort of playing field for the conflicts between environmentalists and the ranching community really for the rest of the 20th century. If you go back further, you can find, of course, you know, Upton Sinclair vilifying the beef processing slaughterhouse industry in the very early 20th century. But Upton Sinclair wasn't doing it as an environmentalist, right? He was actually doing it as a labor activist, and he was concerned about the way the people were being treated and about the safety of the food that was coming out of those factories. And so the ranching community was really not relevant, and in many ways, even the feeding, there really weren't feedlots at that point either. So, in a lot of ways, the battle today has changed significantly just in the last 20 years thankfully. You know, in 1990, it was still basically the same battle lines that Bernard DeVoto helped to draw in the 1940s. Ranchers and environmentalists just detested each other and distrusted each other. Thankfully, in the 20 years since then, nearly 30 years now, the battle lines have really been dramatically redrawn. And in much of the West, many ranchers, not all, but many ranchers and many environmentalists, again, not all of them, have realized that they've got a lot to gain working together. And in many ways, because of their shared interest in not letting rangelands be converted to more intensive economic purposes. And this circle back to the beginning of our conversation, right? It turns out that if you can keep rangelands in rangelands, chances are that you are going to  it's going to be a benefit from an environmental perspective, a conservation perspective, for all kinds of things, for wildlife, for biotic diversity, vegetation, communities, water. And, in many ways, the best way, in many places, you can't keep that land in rangeland unless you also keep somebody in business making a livelihood from that rangeland. And it also turns out that, you know, many of our most important lands, rangelands from a biological point of view, are privately owned. And those private landowners have got a great deal of power slash influence slash discretion to make decisions that will benefit or not benefit those biological resources. And I also am of the opinion by now that most of the ranchers who have been in the business, you know, for multiple generations, if they don't know how to do it, at least reasonably well, they have long since gone out of business and disappeared. The first conceit about ranchers not knowing what they're doing is not true anymore, although, of course, there are places where newcomers have stepped into the business, and they may or may not know what they're doing.

>> I wanted to ask, you mentioned that the tide seems to have turned with regards to the debates, or at least some of the animosity between ranchers and environmentalists. And I agree with that. And I feel some of that locally. I think they tend to agree, ranchers and environmentalists, tend to agree on what the end goal is, you know, which I would articulate as healthy, you know, native or naturalized plant community. So, they sometimes differ over the means to get there, but largely agree. In writing the book, what did you find that was the most surprising or interesting or encouraging in your research? Surprising, I guess, there were some interesting details in the history of the forest service that I always found quite surprising, and I was startled by the candid recognition in the 1920s that if they really wanted to brand forest fires, the best way to do it was to let  was to make sure that people were grazing livestock pretty much everywhere. And then they came pretty close to saying, okay, we're just going to, you know, in the name of stopping fires, we're actually going to make overgrazing into something that we consider  

>> A policy.

>> Consider a normal part of our management strategy, right?

>> Yeah.

>> So, that was one surprise. I was also a little surprised by the candor with which the scientists in the Forest Service in the 1940s, for example, the candor with which they would admit to each other, among themselves, that they really didn't know what the carrying capacity of these lands was, that they, that they could try to measure it, but they really didn't think they could get closer than maybe plus or minus 20%. You know, and, of course, they never said that publicly, and they never said that to the ranching community. And if they had, it would have been, it would have really changed the debate, right? Because oftentimes, they were having pitched battles with ranchers over much smaller adjustments in stocking rates than that. So, that was surprising. As far as helpful, I really do, the hope I find is very much in what's happened in the last 20 or 25 years, courtesy of efforts like the Malpai Borderlands Group, and like countless other community based conservation efforts that have grown up around kind of an alliance among ranchers and the environmentalists, agency folks, scientists, sometimes just ordinary residents in rural parts of the West who are concerned about the threats to the landscape that they share and that they love. And that has, you know, it's still a very difficult nut to crack in a lot of ways. But at least it gets the conversation focused on not people's sort of myths and imaginations and sort of cliches about the condition of a landscape, but focused on what can we really do here, what are the threats, what are the opportunities, what's a realistic ambition for this area, what can we do together, where can we agree to disagree and leave those issues, you know, sort of for the future perhaps, and really set about preventing the kinds of fragmentation and intensification, land use change that we know will change the fabric of this, of this landscape and this community. And those efforts, I think, are very useful in long overdue corrective, both to the sort of, the log jam and animosity of the earlier fights between ranchers and environmentalists. And also useful correctives to the hubris of scientists and agencies. The Forest Service, you know, I have got a great deal of sympathy for the difficulties of the challenges that the Forest Service has faced, but their track record in managing the nation's rangelands over the last hundred years is really nothing, you know, they're not infallible, let's put it that way. And I hope that the book has helped to just sort of put that, put some of those details, some of those stories out there so that we can all just get over it. Because just because people made mistakes, you know, 25, 100 years ago, doesn't mean that they weren't trying to do the right thing, and doesn't mean that the people working on these problems today can't do better.

>> On that note, did you learn anything that you feel demands action today by land managers, you know, someplace where we're still getting it wrong, where something significant needs to change in a widespread fashion?

>> Two things. I do think this question of fire and fire management, fire, you know, fuels management, and the role of livestock grazing, I think there's a need for a more careful look at the utility of livestock grazing for fuels management. It happens around, here in the Bay Area, it happens, and nobody even bats an eye. You know, the hills, the Oakland Hills are grazed by goats in a very intensive way. They pay the goat herders to come and have the goats eat the grass so that when the dry season rolls around, you don't have, you know, just terrifying fire risks in the hills. There are a lot of places in the West where livestock grazing has been cut back or even eliminated on the periphery of sprawling cities, sometimes because the rancher gets tired of dealing with the suburbanites and the recreationists, and sometimes because the agency doesn't want to deal with the complaints of the suburbanites when they go hiking on the rangeland, right? That may be part of why we're having such trouble managing fire risk on the wildland urban interface. And maybe we need to look more carefully at that. The other one is a more general lesson, I think, which is that people have used rangelands as a kind of  they have projected onto rangelands their aspirations and anxieties in really remarkable ways over the last hundred years or so. Often, with this kind of wishful thinking, that, you know, they see a piece of rangeland and they think, this could be better, this could be done differently. Often, they are inspired or excited about the opportunity just because, in fact, compared to other parts of the landscape, rangelands look enticingly available, right? They aren't very expensive compared to other kinds of land. They're big. They look like there must be opportunities there to improve them or to put them to some purpose that will somehow either make them a lot of money or solve some big problem. Right now, it's happening in areas like, you know, let's put lots of solar panels all over rangelands, or let's put lots of windmills on rangelands. And oftentimes, these ideas are so tantalizing to people that they basically lose their sense of perspective and critical reasoning skills. We know a lot more about rangelands than a lot of people realize. And a lot of people, when they discover rangelands, they get very excited about something and they don't realize that they are, maybe reinventing the wheel is not quite the right term, but they are, they are repeating the sort of comedies and farces of the past. This is happening right now, in particular, with respect to questions of rangeland soil carbon. And I think that's something where we really, we need to be, what, a little bit more sober and critical and realize that we may be doing this, in part, because all these aspirations are more difficult on other places, on other kinds of land, right? In other words, just as we have in the past imagined desertification as a way of rationalizing getting rid of the pastoralists and the nomads, we may be rationalizing rangeland soil carbon sequestration as a way of avoiding the more difficult, but also more effective ways that we might deal with climate change.

>> Very good. If somebody wants to go buy your book, where do you recommend that they purchase it? How is the easiest way to get ahold of it?

>> Well, of course, we know what the easiest way is, right? You go to Amazon and you click once or twice and they send it to you and it arrives five minutes before you order it.

>> Google knows.

>> I would love it if people bought the book at their local bookstore. They can order it directly from the University of Chicago Press if they wish. If Amazon is the simplest way and the best way for people, I probably am, you know, yes, I've got my reservations about Amazon as well as anybody does, but I'm not  I also would love to see people buy the book. So, I'm in a compromised position, I'm afraid.

>> Very good. Anything else that you would like to comment on about the book before we finish off here?

>> Oh, boy. Not really. Thank you so much for your kind words about it and invitation to talk today. I mean, Berkeley may seem like an unusual place for ranchers to get useful knowledge, but the range program here is actually one of the oldest, if not the oldest, in the United States, and it has a storied history of actually generating many very mainstream ideas, as well as a number of not so mainstream ideas about ranchlands. And the fact that it's sociologists, I think, is perhaps the more interesting piece. I think there's a growing recognition that, in fact, our environmental problems and challenges have more to do with people than they have to do with ecosystems and the biophysical sciences per se. And the fact that we are able to lead the way here in the study of those social dimensions of rangelands I think continues our very long, almost a century now since Arthur Sampson was hired to teach range here at Berkeley. We are carrying it on, and we are proud to be a part of the rangeland community.

>> Very good. Lynn Huntsinger converted me thoroughly, and so now it's a done deal.

>> All right, excellent.

>> My guest today on the podcast was Dr. Nathan Sayre, and we will post links to some of the articles that were mentioned in this episode on the show notes website. Nathan, thank you for your time.

>> Thank you very much, Tip.

>> Thank you for listening to The Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an e mail to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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