AoR 54: Conservation Ranching, Wildland Fire, & Climate Change--The Wicked Problem SRM 2021 Plenaries

The Society for Range Management's annual meeting will be held virtually Feb 15-18, and the keynote speakers for the plenary sessions will address three 'wicked problems' in range. Drs. Lynn Huntsinger and Nathan Sayre, who are moderating two of the plenary sessions, discuss the outline of these wicked problems to introduce the important subject matter for this year's conference. 

Transcript

[ Music ]

>> 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 ArtOfRange.com.

[ Music ]

Welcome back to The Art of Range. We're going to do something a little bit different today than the traditional interview on a single topic. We're going to have some discussion around the topics that will be discussed at the plenary or the keynote sessions at the Society for Range Management's annual meeting. That meeting is going to be held virtually for the first time this year. Last year's meeting was in February just before COVID swept the country. This year's meeting will be February 15th through the 18th. And the entire conference will be held virtually. One significant opportunity from this is the possibility of having people participate in the annual meeting that would not ordinarily be able to travel either due to logistics, such as a ranch family that needs to do something that looks a bit like work in the middle of February, or the expense of spending nearly a week in a larger US city. So the registration is significantly less than normal. I believe it's $100 per person for SRM members, and does not involve any travel. Toward that end, the planning committee wanted to focus these plenary sessions -- the plenary sessions are the talks that don't have anything else planned over the top of them -- focused the plenary sessions on what have sometimes been called wicked problems. So each session is going to have two talks followed by an extended time of discussion with questions from the moderator, discussion among the speakers and the moderator, and questions and comments from the virtual audience. And in my limited experience with several virtual conferences over the last year, we may have more people speak up and provide some questions and conversation in that format than we normally do in a large conference hall, where it's a little more intimidating to stand up in a group of 500 people and talk into a microphone. So I'm actually quite optimistic that we're going to have good participation and maybe have a conversation and questions from folks that would not usually ask them. So we have on the on the podcast today two of the moderators for the three plenary sessions. We have Dr. Nathan Sayre and Dr. Lynn Huntsinger. Nathan and Lynn, welcome.

>> Thank you.

>> Thank you, Tip.

>> There's probably some formal definition out there for what a wicked problem is, but just off the cuff, my initial thoughts are that a wicked problem is one that is large in its geographic scope. One that has a significant effect on human society at large, not just say the world of range people. That is multidisciplinary -- you know, a problem that spans subject matter areas or the solutions for which have to span subject matter areas. And then obviously, one that's not easily solved. As we wanted to get some keynote speakers who are not necessarily the traditional rangeland science, SRM person, people that are working on some of these rangeland related issues, but may be working outside of or across traditional range science boundaries. So maybe the first point of discussion here might be, would either of you like to refine my quick definition of a wicked problem?

>> I think that more or less summarizes it in my thinking. The only thing I might add is that I think wicked problems are also problems that don't lend themselves to easy sort of scientific reduction. They don't lend themselves to the types of controlled experiments yielding sort of extrapolatable or universal conclusions, because they tend to be highly context dependent or sort of subject to, you know, different outcomes from similar starting points. So that it's much harder to sort of do a study and draw a conclusion and then go solve the problem.

>> And Tip, from my perspective, I've always thought of them as a little bit -- maybe this is what part of multidisciplinarity, but they have both scientific and emotional content that can't be ignored and that we're not used to as researchers with coping with. In other words, there's very powerful feelings involved. And that makes the problem even more difficult. Because as Nathan was saying, it usually can't be solved with an experiment or a measurement. We're confronted with so many of those. It's amazing. So it is something that's very important to grapple with today.

>> I like that. I would accept those friendly amendments. The three wicked problems that will be addressed during these plenary sessions, again February 15-18, are valuing ranching and conservation, both ranching and conservation and maybe the value of conservation to ranching and some of the challenges in trying to assign value to both of those things together. The next one will be adapting to climate change on rangelands. You know, here again, there's a lot of things that we don't know. Much of what we do know isn't all that encouraging. On the other hand, many of the things that we should be doing in terms of sound management on rangelands are the things that would prepare both rangeland ecosystems and the people that depend on them for changing climate. And the third wicked problem is wildland fire. This is a wide reaching and divisive dilemma. And there's quite a bit to be discussed there. Maybe the next thing we should do is have each of you provide a little more introduction to who you are, even though you've both been on the podcast before, and explain why you accepted the invitation to be a moderator to handle some of these wicked problems.

>> I did want to say on reflecting more on wicked problems and feelings, it's also deep-seated values. And we know that that's very much complicated, complicates decisions when it's a matter of values. But I'm very excited to be a moderator for the plenary session. The topic is close to my heart. I'm a professor of rangeland management at the University of California at Berkeley. And I think I've spent most of my career thinking about and promoting the idea that ranches are a very good positive -- can be and are a very good conservation, positive land use. And that is part of the plenary session that I'm going to be leading. I've also, you know, in these years come to realize that one of the barriers to sustained long-term conservation of ranching -- and ranches, I think there's a lot of consensus across the conservation, ranching and range management communities that ranches can preserve biodiversity, open space, watershed, a whole host of goods. And that we as range managers can develop strategies for enhancing those goods. But we have not done as much to confront the problem of how do we keep those ranches running? How do we make sure that a ranch can do the conservation job for the long term? And I think one of the communication barriers between range managers, conservationists and ranchers has to do with economics. The California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, I've heard one of the difficulties for ranchers in joining that group is feeling that conservationists understand their bottom line economic situations and what they need to do to maintain the ranch financially. That conservationists are very involved with, let's save this animal or let's preserve these species, but not so much, how do we make sure that you the rancher can earn enough to persist? And then there's also a host of other problems to do with -- well, I guess that's the main one I think that my group list would talk about.

>> So, thank you, Tip. And thank you, Lynn. It's a pleasure to join you both again. My name is Nathan Sayre. I'm a professor of geography also at University of California Berkeley. I am a human geographer, which is to say a social scientist. I have studied ranching and rangelands, especially in the western United States throughout my career, coming into it somewhat inadvertently. I did my PhD in anthropology and have sort of delved into the politics around endangered species and conservation and ranching under the pressure of urbanization, subdivision and development pressures, initially in Arizona. I've worked for many years with the Malpi Borderlands group, which is a community-based conservation initiative, nonprofit formed by ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico. One of the topics that was front and center from the beginning in my work was fire and how to manage fire, the role, the ecological effects of fire in rangelands, especially in the southwest, how they interact with wildlife and endangered species' habitat. And the ranchers that I came to know and work with were essentially, in many ways -- the thing that brought them together was precisely the question of, how can we bring fire back to these rangelands that need fire in order to remain as productive and diverse and profitable for ranchers as they have been in the past, or as they could be in the future. Since then, I've also written a book on the history of rangelands science, and looked very closely at how it came to be that we in the United States have suppressed so many fires, have put them out, have prevented them from starting, have disallowed them from being used by managers. And the deeper history of that, sort of the rationales and logics that informed the anti-wildland fire policies of the 20th century in the United States. The wicked problem that we're dealing with now in terms of wildland fire is the legacy of that century of suppression. So it doesn't fully summarize what I've kind of think of it when I think about working with ranchers and rangelands. A lot of my interests and concerns echo what Lynn said a moment ago. But I was very happy to agree to chair or moderate a plenary on this topic, because fire is a fascinating topic, not just in the southwest, not just in California -- although very intensely interesting topic in California these days. But actually pretty much everywhere. And rangelands are a particularly significant, important piece of that discussion.

>> You know, Nathan, there's a good intersection there in California, because I think as most people listening know, we've had tremendous fires in the last few years. Four million acres last year alone. We've already got fires here in January now because of a spell of dry weather. And this is influencing ranchers too, very strongly. Because they had a long tradition in this state of burning as they did on the Malpi, I suppose. And as you're saying, that was suppressed, and that's affected the amount of rangeland today available for grazing, because of the growth of woody vegetation at a time when people need more grazing land. So I think that's an interesting intersection between our talks. And in fact, it's caused a revitalization of the concept of burn boss and a big interest in ranchers groups forming burning associations, and doing more burning here.

>> Absolutely. Interestingly, if you look at the West as a whole, one of the things that I found buried in the archives of the Forest Service was evidence to suggest that for the Forest Service, one of the key tools they embraced early on in the 1920s, give or take, for preventing fires in forests was to allow grazing. And to in fact encourage grazing, to try to bring livestock into even very remote parts of the National Forests. Because they knew that the fine fuels that livestock consumed were also, you know, the grasses, were the key fine fuel to allow fires to start and to allow them to spread. They were trying to protect the trees. But the idea was that the grazing would be a key tool. They never quite wanted to say that that was their tool. They put a lot more emphasis on Smokey the Bear and firefighters and airplanes and fire lines and bulldozers and that kind of thing. But grazing was an important tool. And as grazing has receded from many places, particularly where there are houses and people who would rather not have those livestock, that has been one of many -- not the only one by any means, but one of many contributing factors to the fire landscapes we face right now.

>> That's such an interesting history. What happened to all that? Because ranchers in California used to burn and then when they stopped, trees and brush came in, in many areas where they hadn't been formerly. And now we have so many trees dying of drought every time there's a significant drought because they're just in inappropriate places and too crowded. It's a fascinating sort of interweaving of human policy and values and ecological change. Because I think you're right, the Forest Service is very much focused on trees. And grazing was sort of this, you know, hidden thing. Today we really need to bring it back, because in many areas, especially areas that are regrowing now, it can really limit brush establishment under the right conditions. So I'd certainly like to see more of it today.

>> I think that gets at something you were saying a few minutes ago, Lynn, about the nature of wicked problems. Not only are they involving emotions, but those strong emotions result in these issues being very polarizing. And then oftentimes with more than two poles, you know, for example, in wildland fire, there are people who would advocate for just letting everything burn in order to cause, you know, some massive ecological reset. And with the assumption that once we get past that point, there will be some kind of, you know, natural fire return interval that will allow those ecosystems to be relatively stable. You have other people who are adamantly opposed to that, you know, either because those ecosystems are not what they were during the period of time for which we think we have some evidence of the historic fire return interval. But also because they probably can't continue that way, because there's people in the middle of all of it. And the collateral damage of just letting everything burn is not really socially sustainable.

>> Well, we had civilizations and cultures here, the native indigenous Californians who really burned a lot and kept the understories pretty clear. Because they it was better for hunting, better for wildlife, better for collecting acorns, better for the kind of vegetation that they needed for many things. And that I mean, fire was suppressed, so were the people who did it. So we do have that history, we have indigenous people in California who can help us restore some of that burning. In many places, grazing can work very well to maintain prescribed burning, because it is a little bit complicated to carry it out in many places. But together, those are just two terrific tools. I'd like to see more indigenous leadership and participation in restoring our fire-resistant landscapes. They talk about resilience, but if you're living in the forest, maybe you want resistance, is my theory. But you know, the other -- I just wanted to mention a paper that I wrote with a graduate student and a cooperative extension specialist where we interviewed people whose forests had burnt in one of these big fires in the last five years. And people were very, very interested in restoring the forest, just as you mentioned, to being exactly the way they had known it. If we asked them about, "Well, do you want to maybe restore this to a more fire-resilient forest because we're expecting more droughts with climate change and warming and things like that?" And one of the answers that I thought was most enlightening was "Oh, well, I think what does my little tiny property have to do with all this? You know? How could I -- why does this big problem need to be addressed on my small property?" There's a phenomenon I'll just say one more thing, that we came across working on this paper called solace stalgia, where people long for and miss their environments that they had before. And that was so powerful. And that also contributes to what we're talking about as a wicked problem.

>> Yeah, your description of people being resistant to making changes on what they consider to be a relatively small piece of the landscape reminds me of some work that we've done in trying to promote solutions to nonpoint source pollution. You know, by definition nonpoint source pollution is a situation where, you know, every little piece, every little landowner is a contributor. And collectively, it has a significant impact. But no single one of those individuals or individual pieces of a landscape are by themselves, a gigantic problem. And it sounds like we need nonpoint source solutions to things like fire. Yeah, your comment about indigenous peoples reminded me of a book that was recommended to me a couple of years ago. You too may have seen it. The book was Charles Mann's book 1491, about the history of the Americas before Columbus. And I feel like one of the big takeaways for me from that book was the extent to which people have been shaping the landscape in a more significant way than we tend to give credit to, both because the populations of indigenous peoples both in North America and South America were likely much larger than we previously thought. And because those peoples had more influence on the landscape than was previously thought.

>> Yeah, Charles Mann -- it's a magnificent book. And he's written several others around those themes since that one. I'm also reminded of the books that Stephen Pine has written about fire and the history of fire in different parts of the world. And I'm reminded of my -- here in the geography department, my intellectual ancestor. I actually am sitting in his office right now, Carl Sauer, who made the argument in the second year of the Journal of Range Management, actually. He published a paper about climax and grasslands and fire. He was arguing against the idea of climax. But in that paper he pointed out that humans as we think of them now, homo sapiens, and grasslands and fire coevolved with each other. And that we would probably not have become homo sapiens without the control of fire that was obtained by our ancestors 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. And that everywhere humans have gone, fire has gone with them. And they have used fire to manage the landscapes they've lived in. Grasslands being perhaps a key example from an evolutionary point of view, but certainly not the only one. And this gets to the question of wicked problems. In a sense, fire is one of those wicked phenomena, precisely because it can't be reduced to any simple sort of summary judgment. You can't say fire is good, or fire is bad, just like you can't say grazing is good or grazing is bad. The details always matter so much. And the history matters, the context matters. And you'll get different results from what looks like the same fire in the same place at two different times or in different places at the same time, in ways that, you know, really open up into some of the questions that -- you know, you're talking about The Art of Range. The artistic part of range and range management is a similar phenomenon. What it takes to do it well is not something you can write down in a book and say, "Here's the recipe, just go do it." It requires a certain kind of artistry and feeling. And I think fires and understanding how to use them -- when I said earlier that grazing was a way to suppress fires for the Forest Service, it doesn't mean that if you just sent a bunch of cows out there now you'd solve the wildfire problem today. It also doesn't mean that it's an either/or, that you get to have fire or you get to have livestock grazing. We actually need to understand how to use them both and use them together.

>> That's exactly right. You know I've been -- we graze in California, but we graze for -- we've been grazing for biodiversity, for income, for this and that. But we haven't really studied how to graze for fire reduction at this point. And we really should, it's time to do that. There's places where it's going to work, places where it won't. All kinds of factors that we need to understand better. But I think it's an exciting area for range managers to delve into managing grazing for fire hazard reduction. And so important. I just can't tell you how awful these fires have been really.

>> We've done a great job describing the problem. Nathan, do you want to provide a brief introduction to the people that we've condemned to try to speak on this issue?

>> Yeah, I'd be happy to. There are two speakers in the plenary that I'm moderating. Jon Keeley and Navashni Govender. Jon Keeley is a research scientist with the US Geological Survey. He's based out of Sequoia National Park here in California. He's been there for about 20 years. Before that he had a 20-year career as professor of ecology at Occidental College. And he's also now an adjunct professor at UCLA. And he's been studying fire and fire ecology for his entire career, with an emphasis on, among other things, the interaction of fire with climate, the interaction of fire with invasive plants. He is interested in the growth of wildfire in California and the various causes, factors contributing to the that growth. And he intends to speak about several examples from the United States that illustrate the sort of diversity of dynamics that you can expect to find in rangelands with regard to fire. So, for example, the Southwest, as I mentioned earlier, is a landscape where historical overgrazing has led to diminishing fire frequencies and areas burned. Which has changed the vegetation and made fire less likely to happen on its own. You've seen grasslands give way to shrub lands that do not carry fire or burn as easily. And that condition becomes, in a sense, almost permanent. You can take the livestock away and hope that the lack of grazing or the rest will somehow bring the fire back. But in many cases, it won't. The shrubs will prevent the grasses from coming back and you will not solve the problem by undoing what you think caused it. Another place he is going to talk about is the Great Basin. The Great Basin is a place where we have seen grasses take over former shrub lands or steppe lands. Those grasses tend to be annuals that are very prolific and very fire-prone and they take over in ways that lead to more fires. And those fires in many cases not only kill the shrubs or set the shrubs back but also lead to still more of these annual grasses. And as he points out, you lose the patches of shrub lands from which recolonization might occur under prior conditions. And then he also intends to speak about California and the role of fire interacting with Chaparral, interacting with also annual grasses, many of them invasive in the context of rangelands in California. Our second speaker, Navashni Govender comes from South Africa. She is the Senior Manager for conservation management at Kruger National Park, one of the world's most famous national parks. It's where you can see the elephants and the rhinos and the giraffes and the lions. She is doing studies on fire, long-term studies of fire ecology in Kruger National Park. She previously was in the science branch of Kruger but now is in the conservation branch, which I believe has put her in in a much more management oriented position rather than simply research. So she actually mentioned that I guess under South African law, much of the country -- it's required that local landowners form what are called fire protection associations, which is an interesting idea. We might think about how we might use something like that in the United States. Which is to say local landowners who come together and think about how to manage their landscapes, manage their properties and their vegetation, including grazing to achieve the goals that they identify for that landscape. Inside of Kruger, they think of fire very much as a tool. She said along with elephants fire are the major -- fire's the major driver of vegetation there. These examples I think will give us a nice opportunity to reflect on the diversity of dynamics. You know, in some places fire leads to grasses. In some other places, fire does not lead to grasses, or it leads to grasses that we don't want so many of. Grasses and fire have coevolved. But it's again not something you can make a simple rule and say it applies everywhere. So I'm looking forward to the conversations that come out of these two talks.

>> I'm looking forward to it. I'm wondering if you have any plans to replicate the elephant research in Central California?

>> You know, we joked about that. We've joked about needing some elephants in the southwest to eat all the mesquite trees. Yeah, Jon seemed interested in possibly getting some mega herbivores from South Africa. But it sounds like it's not that easy to get them.

>> Yeah, I'm sure not. Lynn, let's talk a bit about this plenary session on valuing ranching and conservation. We've gone round and round looking for a possible catchy title that is descriptive and intriguing. Do you want to say a little more about what you see as the big idea here?

>> Okay. We haven't actually finalized what we're going to talk about. So it's an exciting -- just be excited in anticipation about it. You know, in California we have conducted -- we really are pushing on the prescribed burning idea for preserving, reducing fire hazard and restoring forests and grasslands. And we've succeeded in doing less than 100,000 acres of prescribed burning annual despite this huge effort. We graze 20 to 30 million acres in California. So there's a lot of potential there. But this will come to nothing. We can't use grazing as a tool for fire hazard reduction, or for biodiversity, conservation or land conservation without the participation and enthusiasm of California ranchers. So the wicked problem, I guess, although -- the wicked problem is how do we get that enthusiasm and maintain it from our ranchers and from conservationists and from scientists working together? Because that's what it's going to take. And that means agencies, nonprofits and private landowners as well. I focus a lot on California, but my session focuses on the west. And I'm very pleased that Carter Cruz, the director of conservation and biodiversity for Turner Enterprises, is one of the panelists. And Carter is really eager, I think, to share what the Turner ranches are doing to become sustainable, more sustainable. What they see happening in the future, how they're going to draw on their resources, and education and research opportunities, and the goals that we all have for ranch conservation to build a sustainable future for the ranch. Now, the grazing animal in this case is the bison. So there's a large herbivore for you. It's not quite an elephant, but it's pretty big. And it's a species that's native to Montana, and to the area where the Turner ranch in Montana is. And I'm very excited to learn more about the bison, and how do you ranch bison, right? They're large, imposing animals and it also kind of builds a connection with our last annual meeting where we visited a bison ranch in Colorado run by a local tribe. So I think there's an exciting connection there too. But that's a very sophisticated enterprise. They've given a lot of thought to marketing, to management. Obviously, Carter's very involved in biodiversity conservation, but also in this idea that the long-term bottom line has to be thought about and has to be considered. So I'm very excited to find out what his thoughts and the thoughts of the enterprise are for fostering a really sustainable long-term outlook for ranch conservation.

>> Yeah, I'm interested to see how that is received. I really like the idea of what they're doing and my thinking on this was changed somewhat by speaking with James Rogers, with the Winecap Gamble Ranch. They're a million-acre corporately owned ranch in northeastern Nevada. And he spoke pretty forcefully on the roles of corporate ranching in the commercial ranching world. I guess primarily, you know, one of his perspectives is that these large ranches can take financial and even ecological risks to help solve problems, the problems that commercial ranchers have in a way that family scale commercial ranches cannot and probably should not. So they're able to try things on in both large-scale experimentation, and maybe larger-scale application of things that, you know, the range science community has been saying we should do for some time, that's more difficult to apply at a smaller scale. But I think the other big thing that they're trying to help define is that, you know, one of the difficulties in the social and economic sustainability of ranching is that, you know, the annual monetary profit that's possible in commodity beef production doesn't come anywhere close to representing or approximating the many non-livestock values of large natural landscapes that are only kept natural by virtue of having an agricultural business running on them that is land intensive. And so finding some other ways to both articulate the different values that are present on large, intact landscapes and finding some ways maybe to make it -- for ranches to receive some value from that, I think is a really significant way that these corporate ranches which sometimes get a bad rap are serving family ranches.

>> Yeah, I think that everything you've said is true. Even small ranches often rely on outside income. But obviously, they don't have, you know, somebody works -- members of the family work. That was pointed out as early as 1972 by research in Arizona by Smith and Martin. But in fact, there's a role for that. And if a commercial ranch or a large ranch can take the risks, it's easier for them, and learn new things about how to do things in a value-added way, that does eventually benefit everybody. I think bison might not be appropriate for smaller ranches. Or it might be. We don't know -- we don't know enough yet. And so with a larger ranch, having the chance to take the risk and find out exactly what it entails, that can be helpful. Because there's is a value added there. Many people are very committed to the health benefits of eating bison. There's of course a whole host of other things to explore. And we know that many of these larger corporate properties are doing different kinds of grazing systems and they can take the risk in trying out new things in that area, finding ways to market ecosystem services of various kinds through tours and through things like bird watching or other areas where there's funds for supporting production of biodiversity. And all of that contributes to the knowledge base, I think, for how everybody might be able to take advantage of some of the opportunities that are out there. So I know that that is a tension and somewhat of a conundrum. But I also think there's some real advantages there. If this works out, and if this knowledge is shared, and if people can take advantage of what other people learn, I think that's a real opportunity. I do think it's an interesting situation in the United States as we transition to new generations. I'd be interested in what the panelists in my group think will change as generations change. Because we are talking about a multigenerational system, and we've seen a lot of different trends talked about, that ranch daughters are taking over some of these ranches, and things like that, that are very interesting for the future of ranching. So I'm really interested in what the group might have to say about that as well. I wanted to mention our other group panelists is Sasha Gennet, who is the director of sustainable grazing lands programs for North America for the Nature Conservancy. And the Nature Conservancy has been a real leader for a long time in ranch conservation, including down in Nathan's country of the Malpi. So I'm very interested in hearing what the Nature Conservancy is doing, how they work with the ranches that they have easements on, that they support in various ways, and how they view the future of ranching playing out. Will there be more corporate branches or more smaller ranches? Those kinds of questions I think are really important. Will there be more absentee ownership? And what are some of the impacts of absentee ownership on ranching? Sometimes it can be positive. Sometimes it can be a problem. So what's happening with that? And what do they see as trends there? And also how the Nature Conservancy and other nonprofits think about ranch sustainability in terms of the economics of ranching enterprises? How aware are they? And how do they see the nonprofits contributing to that, or accounting for that, in the way that easements and collaborative programs develop? Because I do know that that is an interesting area for people. I've seen areas of the world where ranches are large and mostly in absentee ownership. And the people that do the care for the ranch, and that take care of it every day are caretakers who live on the ranch themselves for multi generations. But who starting out as a new family don't necessarily have the capital to buy a ranch. That's becoming a problem and a limitation in the United States as well. And how is that going to play out? So I think there's a lot to talk about. And I don't want to neglect the NRCS, the role of NRCS, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies in this whole picture that may emerge of how ranching's future will look.

>> This too is an issue where there has maybe been a longer history of polarization. Where you have people who are adamant that ranching destroys natural ecosystems. And then you have other folks that are adamant that ranching is the only means of preserving natural ecosystems, and then quite a few in the middle. You know, it seems that this is a big point of contention. Because there are not any other sectors of agriculture that are practicing on essentially, you know, native or natural, intact landscapes. You don't plant an acre of corn without taking out everything that was there before. But you can raise livestock on a live landscape that, you know, can look the same, or close to the same as it was before there were livestock there. But of course, if it's done poorly, it can be pretty ugly. And so the two of you have been occupying this radical middle, as Richard Knight, says for longer than I have. Do you see -- do we see enough success on the part of sustainable ranching and ranchers that that polarization is lessening? This would be a good year for some moderation.

>> Well, this would be a really good question for Sasha and Carter to address. I really would be interested in their point of view. Mine's kind of California centric where I think there really is a consensus building because of our environment. And we are not alone among places in the world with a similar environment in having both a large fire problem and a tremendous opportunity for biodiversity enhancement through grazing. It's really well documented in many parts of the world in our kinds of climate, that grazing can be very wildlife and habitat positive. Nathan mentioned our "invasive grasses" in California. There are some and there's new ones all the time. But there is also a very stable backbone of nonnative grasses in California that dominate the grassland that have been here for a couple hundred years and have been the backbone of the grazing industry. And the only way to make those manageable in a cost-effective way and to keep them from suppressing habitat values and enhancing fire hazard is through grazing. And more and more people are coming to recognize that there will always be -- and here's where we get into the values and emotion area -- people who don't, they just have a negative reaction. You know, I've really been interested in this problem. You see rangeland, and as you mentioned, it doesn't require a complete conversion, not even much of a conversion at all of the ecosystem. It's an extensive land use, and people see ranches and graze lands -- most of the year the cattle come through, but a lot of the year, there's nothing there, no cattle there. There's things there, but there's no cattle, and they assume they're pristine, natural, you know, natural lands that just came into being, you know, on their own. And that if you just fence it and keep everybody out, including cattle, it will be fine. You know, it's going to just stay that way. But it's a very dynamic landscape, as Nathan also pointed out, in much of the West, and we're blind. We think of these people as being blind to the fact that ranchers have had a role in managing that landscape for a couple hundred years. And also to the fact that indigenous people had a very strong role creating and managing that landscape for thousands of years. And when you fence it or exclude humans and their influence, it changes to something very different that may not be habitable, really, especially when you talk about fire. So we've got to do a better job of thinking about this interrelationship of people and the environment and the history of that, and stop assuming that this is some wilderness in North America in general. I've heard my indigenous friends say, "This wasn't a wilderness. This is our home and our garden." And I've talked to ranchers who say, "You know, my grandfather" -- and, you know, I know someone who's been in this area right here for five generations. He's still here, his family's still here. And they know that they created that landscape. They know that they've created valuable habitat for more than one -- several endangered species on their land by their activities, and maintained it. And that's a really interesting phenomenon. But in terms of the wicked problem, I kind of went off. But in terms of the wicked problem, there is this feeling when people see cows, for some people, that, "Oh, that's exploitation." For some reason, they don't necessarily feel the same when they see a cornfield. And yet, one has a very different and manipulable and fairly light -- can have a fairly light impact on the land. But it's just an idea that this is an unnatural activity. And the other one that I think is particularly wicked is the idea that -- and this is where it takes me back to where I was started, that people shouldn't make money off of public lands. We have a great deal of grazing on public lands in California, not necessarily federal. State, local municipal lands, for the reasons I've just talked about -- very useful for management. And I've even heard of public groups telling an agency that they wanted to make sure that nobody made money off of that land, off of using that land, that that is somehow wrong. And of course, a rancher can't do what's necessary to be done in terms of grazing without supporting the ranch. It's an incredible deal that some of these agencies and groups are getting that a rancher pays to manage the fire hazard and pays to manage the land, because they can make an income from it. So that needs kind of a revision of thinking to. You know, this is a break. Taxpayers not only don't pay for the management of our regional parks around here, for the grazing that reduces a fire hazard, by cattle anyway. And that helps maintain biodiversity. The park gets that, you know, a considerable sum, in fees from people who graze that land. So it's a little special here in California. But I think some of these values and deep feelings come into play when we talk about using grazing for conservation and grazing as a conservation positive. That keep us from understanding, one, this long-term relationship and creation of the landscape. But also two, why people use it and how it's not necessarily bad to earn an income from using it, while accomplishing all these other goals. I think that's a very interesting problem that we've simply got to get past if we're going to have a long-term conservation situation.

>> I'm looking forward to hearing Carter and Sasha talk about that. I'm chuckling at our final sentence in the description of this plenary session. How can public perception, consumer preferences, food industry drivers, cattle market signals, stewardship incentive programs and institutionalized land tenure arrangements be used to support the broad, valuable suite of environmental and cultural goods produced through rangeland ranching? That question could occupy us for a couple of weeks' worth of sessions. I think I might have actually written that. It sounds a little too expansive, but it gives them some room to talk about something I suppose.

>> Well, you've covered all the bases, Tip. And I'm sure people will talk about their favorite topics.

>> That's right.

>> And I think we're also going to have opportunities for questions from the audience, right?

>> Yes, we will.

>> So I think we'll cover a lot of ground and we'll cover the ground people are interested in. I would like to -- I don't want to talk too much and too graphically about food because become distractingly hungry during those kinds of discussions.

>> This would likely be immediately prior to lunch as well for many people's time zone. So that could be a difficulty.

>> Eat a snack before you come.

>> I wanted to actually, before we wrap up, to mention the organizer of the plenary that I'm moderating, Devin McGranahan, who was until just recently, a professor at North Dakota State University. And he's now taking a position with the Agricultural and Research Service. In his part of the world, the northern Great Plains, to circle back to your question a moment ago, Tip, there's a lot of interest growing in collaborations between ranchers and conservationists around birds and bird habitat and the importance of fire for grasslands and grasslands for birds, and the and the concern around the rapid decline in abundance of many grassland obligate bird species in the Great Plains. He also told me he feels like one of the unifying themes of this plenary is not just wildland fire and its complexity and its diversity, but the idea, the concept of a fire regime. The effects of fire should be understood not in terms of individual events that, you know, say burn down a forest, you know, spare a community. From an ecological point of view, the question is really the regime. How frequently do fires happen? What are the conditions in which they typically happen? How intense are they? How large are they? And how quickly do they return? And those are the types of questions that open up, you know, larger issues such as habitat, you know, because the habitat is going to -- the birds are going to respond to the habitat on a timescale that is not just this year or next year. It's actually over the course of decades and centuries and even longer. It's one thing for us to imagine trying to restore the fire regimes that prevailed say when indigenous peoples managed California, for example. Or that prevailed prior to the arrival of Europeans in the southwest, when a lot of those shrub lands were grasslands. We know quite a bit about those fire regimes. And we can tell ourselves, "Well, that's what we need to get back to." But the fact of climate change going on over the, you know, let's just say over the last 100 years, its signal has emerged more or less distinctly in different parts of the world. By now, it's really hard to dispute that it's, you know, that this is happening. And that means those fire regimes are, you know, even if we wanted to achieve them, even if we had the tools and the money, those regimes might not actually hold in the way that they have evolutionarily. And we are starting to see fire behavior. Fire scientists are talking about wildland fire behavior that is simply sort of indescribable in terms of the previous models and scientific research and knowledge. We are seeing fires do things that we didn't think could happen. And that is clearly a symptom of climate change and makes the question of how do we manage fire? How do we bring fire back into the toolkit and use it effectively and economically, that much more complicated.

>> I totally agree with that. I think we talk about a lot management versus fire. You know, do we need better management or -- I mean, management versus climate change. Is it a management issue? Or is it a climate change issue? The fact is, those two things are both factors. In our current situation, a lot of vegetation and landscapes have changed. And climate is definitely changing. And there's a desperate need for all the tools that we have. And that's one of the reasons why grazing has to play an important part. We really need the research to understand the relationship between vegetation and climate change and fire. So I think there's a lot of opportunity there for doing that. Traditional grazing has always -- just to address your original point, Tipton, has always been you know, in the thousands of years of the history of pastoralism and grazing of landscapes -- has always been relegated to the more harsher vegetate, harsher marginal environments. And people have learned how to cope with those, how to adapt. A lot of that has been by moving animals around to various kinds of dynamic changes, to the kinds of cold or drought that occur on rangelands even without climate change. Can grazing continue to be flexible? How can we continue to make our grazing patterns and our grazing uses flexible and adaptive? There are some big barriers. And you know, there was -- fences are one of them. Under a traditional pastoralism scenario, you don't see a lot of fences, because animals move around from the mountains to the valleys, from one region to another, as dictated by these variations in the weather. But we don't do that anymore. That doesn't work with the way we live in the United States. There's probably opportunities to enhance some of that, but it's another real challenge. Or I guess what we've done is we have the inherent capacity to be flexible. Animals can move, range animals can be fairly tough. There's a lot of different kinds of range animals that are better suited to this vegetation or that vegetation and this vegetation and different climates and so on. We have a lot of opportunities to be flexible. How can we be? I guess what we've done is really provided some of our views of the future research that we really need, we really need to understand, of course, fire regimes and how they work, and how we can implement them given that we have houses mixed in with a lot of this vegetation. That we've had so much vegetation in some areas that we literally can't use either grazing or burning, things like that. And we have changes in the way land tenure is structured and et cetera, et cetera. So I would challenge new scientists to work on these problems, and help us find a way to the future.

>> I think that's a good conclusion. I would add to the list of challenges that as Nathan and others have argued, the people who are dependent on these marginal landscapes are themselves often marginalized. And that doesn't make it easier to exercise flexibility and to manage in ways that may be good for the landscape.

>> Well, you are absolutely right.

>> I don't think we addressed that in our in our sessions. But those are some questions that would be fun for discussion inside of these plenaries once we get to the Q&A. The meeting registration is open and I suspect there's no early registration cut off because of the nature of the meeting. If you go to Rangelands.org, that's the Society for Range Management's main website. The link to the annual meeting will be at the top of that webpage. And I would encourage listeners to take a look at the program and consider registering. I truly think it'll be worth your while. This is one of the only meetings that I attend every single year, because it is always relevant. And this one in particular I believe will be relevant to anybody who has an interest in rangeland landscapes and livestock production. Do either of you want to make a concluding remark?

>> I am so looking forward to this, Tip. And I really thank you and the SRM for the opportunity to lead this plenary session. I think it's going to be a lot of fun.

>> Yeah, I would echo that. Thank you, Tip, the chance to talk. Good to hear your voice again. Pleasure to spend this hour talking with you and Lynn. I am looking forward to the meetings as well. I have a kind of nostalgic feeling because last year's SRM meeting was just about the last time I traveled. And certainly the last time I attended a big meeting like this. But our session, our plenary session is -- if I have it correctly, it's the afternoon of February 17th. And I hope everyone will tune in. And Tip, didn't you say that the plenary sessions are actually open access, is that correct?

>> I believe that may be the case.

>> So it might be that someone could listen in even if they weren't paying the registration fee for SRM. I suppose SRM might not want them to know that. But if that's the case, I hope we could have even a broader audience.

>> I think that would be great then. And even though I sincerely hope that we don't have an entirely virtual meeting ever again, I do think that being forced into this format is going to open up some possibilities for getting the information from these meetings out to more people than they have in the past. I actually had a conversation with an executive for a state livestock association, just about this time last year, and was showing that person the program for the SRA meeting. And they said, "Holy cow, every single one of these is, you know, relevant to the issues that all of our members have in the western states." And both ranchers and association representatives should be participating in that. I wholeheartedly agree. And I really hope that a number of ranchers that would not usually travel to a meeting will participate in this one and that that will become a habit in the years to follow. So thank you, Dr. Nathan Sayre and Lynn Huntsinger, for participating today. And thank you, especially for being willing to moderate these sessions. I am personally really looking forward to them. And I'm confident that they're going to be useful to everybody who's participating. And I look forward to visiting with you in a few weeks.

>> Thank you very much.

>> Thank you.

>> 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 email to show@ArtOfRange.com. For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at ArtOfRange.com. Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission -- empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at ArtOfRange.com. 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.

[ Music ]

Mentioned Resources

Register for the conference at annualmeeting2021.rangelands.org/.
Establish a membership for reduced registration at rangelands.org/.

We want your input

Future funding for the podcast will depend on listener feedback. Please take 1-2 minutes to respond to a 6-question survey after each episode.

Give Feedback

Taking suggestions

Have a question for us to answer on air, or a topic suggestion for a future episode? Email show@artofrange.com