AoR 22: Rick Knight, Conservation Value of Private Ranchlands

The value of large public lands is largely dependent on adjacent private lands. Charismatic megafauna that characterize the American West will, perhaps ironically, only survive if large livestock ranches remain profitable. Rick Knight, conservation biologist at Colorado State University, discusses with Tip the unequal ecological value of private lands, the rise of the radical center, and the economics of maintaining habitat through ranching. 


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on 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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We're going to post two separate episodes from my interview with Rick Knight of Colorado State University. In the first we discussed the conservation value of private ranchlands and how private lands are critical to the ecological value of public lands. In the second episode we discussed the encouraging rise of the radical center, the agreement among otherwise diverse and opinionated minds that the ecosystem goods and services provided by private ranchlands are extremely valuable. We will talk about programs popping up around the country that incorporate payment for ecosystem services, both private market based programs and government stewardship incentive programs.

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Welcome back to the Art of Range. My guest today on the show is Dr. Richard Knight from Colorado State University. Rick, welcome.

>> Thanks, Tip, glad to be here.

>> We're going to get into talking about some of the issues around social sustainability of ranching and maybe where we're at in that national conversation, to use an overused term. Before we get there I think that what you do is pretty interesting. I've spent a fair bit of time in this space between the ranching community and the environmental activist community and have found that there's quite a lot of common ground there. And you've spent a lot of time exploring that common ground and tried to make it bigger. How did -- what do you do now for Colorado State University and how did you end up doing that for a living?

>> Well, truth be told, I think the stuff that I have been doing working with ranch families across the American West is something I do in my private time. It turns out that I am a Professor of Wildlife Conservation, so supposedly my graduate students, you know, focus on conducting wildlife research and the courses I teach focus around conserving natural resources. It just so happens, it was a roundabout way, Tip, I was on the Board of Governors for the Society for Conservation Biology for 11 years and these were back in those, sort of those days of cattle free by 93. And I was noticing that my colleagues on the Board of Governors for the Society for Conservation Biology were pretty adamant against ranching as a legitimate land use in the American West. Incidentally, they were also pretty adamant against logging and water development for that matter and for that matter energy development as well. So because I had done extensive fieldwork in ranchlands, on private ranchlands across the American West I was a little bit puzzled by it. It was my sense that these ranches, particularly when we were comparing them with public lands, supported much healthier populations of wildlife. And I had never taken a course in range science. I was aware there was a society for range management and I knew that you could get an undergraduate degree up to a Ph.D. in Range Science, and I was aware of all that, but I'd never paid any attention to it. To me rangelands were just another component of wildlife habitat. So I started kind of digging in and I started asking colleagues where was the literature that said raising livestock on Western rangelands was detrimental to the maintenance of biological diversity? And I was really for the first time in my life as kind of a young Ph.D. I was starting to realize, well, scientists can do value driven work as well. And we used to always think science was colorblind, it didn't see black, it didn't see white, it was just the facts and see what the facts tell us. Meanwhile, I was living in Colorado and Colorado like a number of Western states was experiencing this phenomenal population increase, and these were the days when people when they moved to Colorado they wanted to live the Colorado dream. And the Colorado dream was having acreage and a couple of horses and honey milk in the fall and wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots and snap shirts and stuff like that. And so all this phenomenal growth certainly a certain amount of it was occurring in towns and cities, but increasingly it was occurring on former ranchlands. And so we had 35-acre ranchettes invading the land just as rapidly as we were seeing herds of black angus depart. And I was looking around and I was thinking, oh, my gosh, we're losing literally the size of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is a quarter of a million acres, we're losing that much of private farm and ranchlands in Colorado every year to this immigration of people who wanted to come and buy 35 acres and live the Colorado dream. So I was sort of seeing this enormous demographic shift taking place across the West, and at the same time as a Professor of Wildlife Conservation and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Conservation Biology and on the Board of Governors of the Society I was hearing all of my colleagues say these horrible things about raising livestock as a land use. I was trying to reconcile all this, and I think the thing that really kicked this off with funding from the NRCS I was able to have a graduate student look at biodiversity. In this case it was carnivore communities, neotropical migratory songbird communities, and plant communities on three different land uses. They were working cattle ranches, they were former cattle ranches that had been sold to a developer and subdivided into 35-acre ranchettes, and they were protected areas in which livestock had been removed 35 to 40 years ago. And importantly all three of these study areas were of the same soil type, same plant community and the elevation was the same. And Jeremy Maestas [assumed spelling], who is now a Wildlife Biologist with the NRCS, Jeremy's study revealed that believe it or not it was the working cattle ranches that supported the most amount of biological diversity that conservationists believe is valuable and is also under threat. Not surprisingly the 35-acre ranchettes unfortunately had bird communities and plant communities and carnivore communities that you might find in a city suburb because of that influence of a family every 35 acres it had homogenized those former wildlands, you know, the working wildlands of a cattle ranch into pretty much what we'd find in a Fort Collins Colorado suburb. And the protected areas, so these areas that don't have any homes on them, but unfortunately have lost cows as a wildlife management technique, were the most invasive plant communities of all the three different land uses. So anyhow that paper was published in Conservation Biology and it set in motion this sort of ever increasing momentum for people across the American West to take a second look at cattle ranching as a land use and heretofore it had been sort of classified as, well, you can't support biodiversity of conservation value in cows at the same time on the same piece of land. And this has been sort of gradually transforming increasing numbers of urban, suburban and rural people's perspectives that maybe livestock grazing in the American West is one of the few sustainable land uses the American West has ever seen. So that was a long way, Tip, of answering a very simple question.

>> No, that's good. One of the quotes that I like is from Jim Corbett, I believe is where it came from, and I believe the quote is that ranching now represents one of the only livelihoods that is a true interdependence between man and nature. He was part of the corvera [assumed spelling] coalition, is he not?

>> Jim Corbett was kind of a mentor of Nathan Sayer, who is Department Head of Geography at Berkeley, and I think he'd done a podcast with him. Jim passed away and, to be honest with you, I'm not sure but it was maybe around 10 or 12 years ago.

>> Okay.

>> Yes, but Corbett was very instrumental in the formation of the Malpai Borderlands Group, and I sat on their Science Board for the past 25 years.

>> One of the introductory pieces in the paper that you wrote that is from the plenary session that you gave at the Society for Range Management in 2007 is kind of a thesis statement that I think sets a good backdrop for what we're going to talk about. You say that ecologically ranching as a land use is compatible with the natural heritage of the West, it keeps lands open and stewarded, it keeps human densities low and it safeguards private lands from fragmentation. Economically ranching provides homegrown food, pays its own way, and supports a fiscally responsible economy. Culturally ranching covers a timeframe dating back over 400 years, one of the oldest land uses that Euromericans have given the New World. So a natural alliance exists between urban consumers of food and open space and the rural producers of food and open space. Regretfully this logical symbiosis has waned during past decades. A strong rural-urban partnership is as essential to a healthy West as is a strong public-private land connection, as these relationships deepen so too will the health of the human and natural communities of this region. You wrote that probably in 2006 in preparation for this meeting in February of 2007, that was a decade-and-a-half after cattle free by 93. You know, my sense is that this was a slogan that was used to express the frustration by at least a segment of the population, the US population, that some of the unsustainable grazing practices that did lead to some widespread plant community degradation across parts of the West either had not changed enough or that we had not seen some of that degradation reversed in the decades under more proper grazing. But that really I think set us up for some really socially antagonistic situations through the 90s and part of the aughts, and I see that with many of the older ranchers that I work with. They have a pretty aggressive stance toward environmentalists, and if your livelihood is at stake I thoroughly understand that. How much of that cattle free by 93 sentiment is still out there? Are people beginning to respond to this new information that shows that sustainably managed private lands and possibly even somewhat unsustainably managed private rangelands are still a lot better than almost all of the alternatives? How much of that is still out there?

>> Boy, Tip, I actually gave a talk a couple years ago titled, and I have to paraphrase it, it was something like Cattlemen Today Are Wearing White Hats, They Aren't Wearing the Black Hats Anymore. Things have changed so much, so just getting back to the fact that livestock grazing has degraded private and public rangelands, the National Academy of Sciences did an in-depth review and Linda Joyce was the Senior Author on that review, trying to examine the empirical aspects of livestock grazing harming rangelands. And that was the National Academy of Sciences, so that's our preeminent scientific body in the United States of America and that failed to find any affects. It's probably convenient for some people to pretend they haven't heard of that study. And then Tom Stohlgram [assumed spelling], who is one of the most distinguished plant ecologists today in the United States, he just stepped down at Colorado State, Tom looked at, and Tom is not pro-cows and cattle ranching, Tom is a plant ecologist, Tom cares about the health of plant communities. Tom did a study where he looked at ex-closures, so these are fenced out areas on for service grazing leases in five Western states, and did these in-depth plant community studies on the ex-closures and then the adjacent unfenced areas where livestock have grazed, do graze. And Tom found no differences in plant species' richness and soil carbon and soil nitrogen, in number of invasive plant species. So you've got these two definitive studies, which throw not just a little bit of cold water, but buckets of cold water on this maybe intuitively appealing belief that livestock grazing hurts the natural heritage of the West. So that's going on, and then of course the study that we did at Colorado State that is comparing the three principal land uses today of the West, protected areas, areas that support livestock, and areas that support houses, showing that it was the working cattle ranches that had the neotropical migratory birds, the carnivores and the native plant communities that we would love to see more of instead of less of. And then what was going on is, and I still don't quite get this but it was almost like environmentalism was in disarray and decline. All of a sudden all across the American West popping up in watershed after watershed we started seeing these rancher initiated and rancher led collaborative conservation efforts. The Malpai Borderlands Group was probably the one that's gotten the most attention and, as I said a minute ago, I've been on their Science Board since they started. It's a million-acre collaborative where urban and rural people are coming together to work darn hard to try to keep the ranchers on the land and keep the housing developments at bay. But they are everywhere, I was on the Board of the Blackfoot of the Diablo Trust in northern Arizona, I was on the Board of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance in eastern Montana. We actually started one of these watershed based rancher led collaborative conservation efforts in the 400,000-acre watershed that my wife and I live here in the Livermore Valley north of Fort Collins. But state after state had them, and all of us -- and meanwhile out of the blue the Colorado Cattlemen's Association are our nation's first state cattlemen's organization formed the nation's first statewide agricultural land trust, the Colorado Cattlemen Agricultural Land Trust. It then inspired, let's see, seven other Western states from Texas to California, to Montana, to Wyoming, to Idaho, Washington and Oregon to form statewide agricultural land trusts. And now you've got this partnership of rangeland trusts and these 10 Western states, eight Western agricultural land trusts have conserved over 2.5 million acres of private land in conservation easements, working with 1,300 Western ranch families. So it's, you know, I think that cattle free by 93 probably has morphed into beef is what's for dinner, open space is what's for dessert. Yes, it's actually hard to put your finger on it, but I think it was because our traditional conservation efforts had maybe sort of lost a little steam, had skipped a couple of steps, were faltering. And ranchers maybe because it's their livelihoods that were at stake and maybe because they actually control the private land and maybe because they really ranch for the livelihood, I mean it's something they hold very dearly. These guys stepped up, these men and women stepped up, and they started coming up with all these creative and innovative ways to conserve the Western rangelands and in so doing, of course, tying down open space and producing food and, of course, all that entire rich array of ecosystem services that support human lives and economies.

>> Let me see if I can piece together a string of logic here, that kind of sounds like a geometric proof. First, private land really across the West is the most productive land and, therefore, the most valuable. And at least in the case of ranching operations on those private lands most of them depend on Federal grazing allotments. If Federal grazing were restricted in some way then the economic viability of those ranches is jeopardized because they can't maintain an economy of scale or they're too dependent or significantly dependent on those Federal acres. So then if that happens the private landowners who are pretty much under economic pressure all across the West to convert to anything other than ranching may do just that. And then if we had this land conversion to ex-urban or suburban development that sets off a cascade of negative environmental affects, some of which you've already identified. Is that chain of events, that string too long to be legitimate? In other words, is this a slippery slope fallacy where it sounds logical, but the slide isn't actually happening or are we seeing that happening over the last 20-30 years?

>> Yes. No, Tip, that's actually a really nice way to connect it. And, in fact, I think most everybody understands or appreciates that the American West is blended. It's this incredibly complicated mosaic of private and public lands, and so I mean it would be great if all the public lands were east of Interstate 15 and all the private lands were west of Interstate 15, but virtually every county in the American West has polygons of private land and public land. So, not surprisingly as you point out, the history of an awful lot of cattle ranches across the American West have that historic connection where they have deeded land and then they have this grazing dependency, at least part of the year on public lands. And so you've got this public-private bargain, this amazing public-private bargain that occupies a significant portion of the American West. So, well, in fact, actually in the southern Rocky ecoregion, which is the whole State of Colorado, the southern part of Wyoming and the northern part of New Mexico, a study that a graduate student of mine conducted, Collen Talbert, he found out that 43% of the boundaries of our for service and BLM land, so imagine all the space of for service and BLM lands in that three-state region, 43% of the perimeters of that public land were private land ranches that had a grazing lease on those public lands. So you talk about, you could almost, I mean it's melodramatic possibly but you can almost make the point that the fates of this vast part of the American West are between the Federal public lands and the private ranchlands are entwined. If you broke that connection, that public-private partnership that's gone on for over 100 years, if you severed that, as you say those private land ranchers don't have enough private land to sustain an economically viable cow herd and so their alternative is either to really overgraze that amount of private land they own or sell the ranch. And I hope it's not news to anybody paying attention today in the American West that when private ranches go up for sale they often end up in the hands of an unscrupulous developer and reappear as 35-acre ranchettes, or in Wyoming they could be in 20-acre ranchettes, or in Arizona they could be in five- or 10-acre ranchettes. And the tragedy about this is that you've, now you have, well, there's all kinds of sort of heartbreaks associated with this, but one of them is all of a sudden our public lands are literally being surrounded by rural housing developments. So whether it's the night lights of the ranchettes, the dogs or the cats, or where they dump their garbage, or all the invasive plants that are spreading outward from these home sites onto the public lands, whether it's the public lands trying to do prescribed fires and all the neighboring ranchette owners saying you're not going to do a prescribed fire, there's virtually everything the for service tries to do or the BLM is trying to do is going to be handicapped now because they're neighbors, instead of one family on 1,500 acres it's 150 families. So you've got that going on and, of course, you've lost the production of food. Here's the other thing, Tip, and I'm sure you're aware of this, I have noticed that many of my friends are unaware of this, it turns out if you look at the cost to county government to provide services to ranch families versus to small acreage families and then compare the property taxes that come off those properties to the county which supports, of course, the county's ability to provide services it turns out that ranching is the only one that actually generates a surplus and that small acreage development generate a deficit. For example, in my county alone, Larimer County in North Central Colorado, they would have to increase the property taxes of small acreage developments 128% to meet the cost of Larimer County Government providing services, and whether it's school buses or sheriffs or maintaining the roads or replacing the culverts when they get out, compared to for every dollar of property taxes coming off a Larimer County ranch, so for every dollar of property taxes the county provides on average $.15 of services, so it actually generates a surplus. So you've got this ecological sort of pressure on the Federal lands and then you've got this economic pressure on the county governments, both of those are sort of double whammies and they're not presenting a West that works.

>> Yes.

>> Ranching is a land use, you know, as you mentioned, it's one of those rare historical land uses that works well culturally, ecologically and economically, so that's that triple bottom line that we're always trying to elusively search for today in America.

>> Yes. I'm seeing a campaign slogan in your future, Rich Knight for Governor.

>> I'd increase taxes 150%.

>> Oh, my God, so when I point that out at meetings of our, with our neighbors who live on the small acreage properties, they act dumbfounded and they don't believe it. I'll tell you there has never been a cost of county services study done anywhere in the American West that has found small acreage development property taxes are covering the cost to county in providing services. There is not a single one of those. The American Farmland Trust did a meta-analysis of all these costs of county services from the East Coast to the West Coast and they couldn't find a single one. So and for some reason we seem to be concerned about the ecological aspects of ranching, now we're starting to appreciate that they are positive, but we tend to ignore the economic aspects of it. And it turns out the alternative to ranches are small acreage developments and, unfortunately, they actually put county governments in the red.

>> Uh-huh, so an amazing study was published this year in the Journal Ecological Applications and Ecological Applications is the Applied Ecological Journal of the Ecological Society of America, that's the preeminent group of scientists that study the ecology of all our lands. And, lo and behold, it turns out that private rangelands are twice as biologically productive as the Federal rangelands. So if you were going to do a return on investment the place to put your money, of course, would be on the private lands because they are twice as biologically productive. So just maybe think of ecosystem services or you can think of the depth of the soil, you can think of the elevation in which those private lands occur at. Another graduate student of mine actually looked at, did a comparison of Federal lands where livestock graze and the private ranchlands where livestock graze and we found out that the private ranchlands had the most, had the deepest soils, were the best watered, occurred at the lower elevations, and were less likely to be steep. So the Federal lands were more likely to be steep, were more poorly watered, had more, had less rich soil. So again if I put my hat of conservation biologist on and I'm taking an analytical look at the American West and I'm trying to do an objective analysis, if I want to conserve the natural heritage that is such, it's one of the iconic aspects of the American West, and somebody told me, well, Rick, we have a limited number of resources available to actually go out there and conserve lands to ensure the maintenance of the plant and animal communities that comprise the West, you would put your money on the private lands. The private lands are by far more productive than are Federal lands, so that's kind of an ironic shift on things. I think we tend to think of our Federal lands as being where the grizzly bears and the wolves roam. Well, it turns out the biological diversity is at its richest, at its finest on those private lands, they have the better soils, they're better watered, lower elevations. So this study, I think most ecologists that have been paying attention to Western landscapes, the private and public segments of it, had always appreciated this, but it was these ecologists from the University of Montana that just came out with this paper in Ecological Applications that actually sunk the stake and now we have more empirical evidence that makes the case we really better pay attention to the land uses that are occurring on the private lands. And you're probably aware of this, in the American West about half of the lands in the American West are actually private lands. The state that I live in, Colorado, 63% of the land in Colorado is private land. Across America it's 61% of America is private land. So ranchers are holding down those lands and generating food and also ecosystem services, and I would think the least we could do is give them a tip of the hat.

>> This was the first in a two-part series with Rick Knight. Come back in two weeks for part two, where we discuss the various kinds of ecosystem goods and services, ways to value them, and programs to compensate ranchers for these public goods.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range broadcast. 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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