AoR 83: A Synthesis of Ranch-Level Sustainability Indicators for Land Managers, Part 2

This episode is the second in a two-part series with the authors of a recent article in the journal Rangeland Ecology & Management telling the story behind their work on ranch sustainability: Clare Kazanski & Marissa Ahlering (The Nature Conservancy), Patrick Lendrum (World Wildlife Fund), and Sheri Spiegal (Jornada Experimental Range). Sheri was recently honored with the USDA ARS Early Career Scientist of the Year Award. The organizations represented by these and other contributing authors are all involved in evaluating environmental and social success in ranching. Quoting from the article: "There is a need for greater clarity on which indicators are most effective for assessing and monitoring sustainable management and continuous improvement of ranching operations. Our objective was to synthesize existing guidance on monitoring and assessing ranch-scale sustainability in the United States and to identify core ecological, social, and economic indicators that could identify well-managed ranching, support adaptive management, and demonstrate producers’ sustainability and continuous improvement to retailers and consumers. We evaluated 21 range and pastureland assessments from nongovernmental organizations, agencies, and academics that totaled 180 indicators. From this, we selected 20 commonly used “core” indicators (12 ecological and 8 socioeconomic)" that can be used to measure ranch sustainability.


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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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This episode, Number 83, is the second in a two-part series on the synthesis of ranch-level sustainability indicators for land managers. Yes, it makes me wonder too, a certification or a rangeland health assessment are typically designed to give, you know, a rating or a thumbs up or a two thumbs up or down I suppose, at a particular point in time, and they're not designed to offer quantitative metrics that can be compared over time. But we want to track progress in sustainability, you know, for those who are in the range science world, you know there's this distinction between assessments and trend monitoring, and things that you can measure and see changing over time. So for example, with interpretive indicators of ranch land health, this is designed to be an assessment. But if you want to track progress, you would have to use a protocol like the Monitoring Manual for Grassland, Shrubland and Savanna Ecosystems produced by the Jornada. And it offers metrics that get at many of those ecological indicators. What are some of the indicators in this list that could be used for monitoring rather than assessment, and did you make any attempt to identify those things?

>> I think that's a really important question, Tip. If we could just take one step back, and we could maybe circle back there, even though this is your podcast, I'm going to ask you a question.

>> Yes, go ahead [laughs].

>> So I think in that, in that discussion we just had about all the different indicator frameworks in that big Table 1 of the paper that hopefully people can tune in and look up, I feel like some of them, and this kind of gets -- this confuses me sometimes about indicators. Like, some of them are more about performance of either management or policy approaches, or just some kind of manipulation or management of the landscape. And then others are about kind of like the state of affairs in a landscape, and like the condition of a landscape. Does anybody else get confused, or does anybody else get a little bit confused -- not confused, but concerned that maybe we're not being clear enough on the differences of those types of indicators, or is that my own personal hangup? Sounds like I'm alone. Am I alone in this one [laughs]?

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>> Well, this is Clare. And Sheri, I think it's a really great -- like, it's a really great question. I guess for me, how I think about it, go back to like, the goal. And you know, one of the things that I found really helpful through this process of sorting through all these indicators, and also looking at the connections between them, and how they inform each other, was that, you know, some are -- some are kind of telling you that story of process, and some are more outcomes. And some might be both. And outcomes may also be somewhat in the eyes of the beholder, based on individual values and goals for one's own operation, and what they're trying to accomplish. And so I think, you know, I guess Tip and Sheri, it's a question that I think to answer it, I think really is important to go back to what is, you know, what is the goal of that manager and for that operation? And then, based on that, what might be really important kind of things to track over -- well, things that might -- sorry. Scratch that. What might be important elements to focus on and indicators for an operation. And I will note that we did, you know, we did focus on including indicators that all could change over time, but I think there's some that stand out as being much more responsive on shorter timelines than others. So just for example, you know, plant productivity is something that changes, you know, year to year due to many different factors.

>> Independent from management.

>> Exactly. Exactly. And that you know, could be an indicator. and also influences many different things, you know. So we have this -- I think we might talk a little bit about this crazy spaghetti figure that we have in the paper, showing all these connections, but you know, one of the things that we -- that was sort of helpful in visualizing is, you know, which of these indicators are influencing other things? And which ones are influenced by other things? Which ones sort of, kind of are more outcome-like. And an example of that, you know, soil carbon is something that does change over time, but can be hard to detect changes on short time lines. And certainly influences other things, but also is, you know, responds to various other indicators. So this distinction I think is an important one, and hopefully I think, you know -- for me personally, like, drawing out all the connections was helpful to sort of visualize some of that. But again, I think really that question of, you know, what are those things to focus on really do come back to what the goals are for a particular manager or operation.

>> Yes, and I think there can be a difference in different locations between leading indicators and lagging indicators, you know, as well as context-specific metrics. I'm just thinking for example, of soil stability. You know, you might -- on an assessment, you might check that the soil is stable [laughs]. Or with abundance of native plants, you know, we might say that yes, all expected plant functional groups are present, but in a monitoring approach, you would assign a number to the number of plant functional groups, or the number of species within each plant functional group, and that is something that could be compared over time. But the -- I think too, maybe what you mentioned several minutes ago is that the relative value of an individual indicator might vary significantly from place to place. I was recently down south of Albuquerque in New Mexico, and I was really surprised in a location that, you know, would score at the top of the chart on a rangeland health matrix, has really loose soil. And it surprises me that the soil is so loose, because most places in the northwest, you know, even where we have significant amounts of bare ground, interspaces between plants that are natural, that are expected, still you don't have loose soil. And so soil stability has almost -- doesn't have as much value as a monitoring metric where I live as it would in much of the southwest. Because the soil is always stable here, even in places that are, you know, extremely degraded plant communities, the soil is still stable. And so that's not a useful metric. And so I think some of the value in this is identifying this broad list of things that they would not be reasonable or feasible for most people to measure them all the time. But they're things that are worth considering in determining what might be a handful of useful things that you do expect could change, or that you might be able to influence with management.

>> I like it. I like it. But it's still is important to come up with a core set, even though there's variation among regions, and even among, I don't know, range types within a region. Do we still agree that having a course set has a useful purpose? Correct?

>> Yes. Oh yes. And all the different categories of indicators are certainly applicable. I think they're applicable everywhere, which is related to another question I wanted to ask, and maybe we'll get to it. But I feel like these are indicators that would be valid on any rangelands anywhere in the world and not just within our own, you know, socioeconomic cultural context in North America. And I'm curious if you've had any discussion about that. And then we can take a look at the spaghetti diagram on the next page.

>> I'll jump in briefly. This is Patrick. I think you're absolutely right. And I think by design that's sort of the intent as well, whether we're talking U.S. or international, or Southern Great Plains, or Northern Great Plains. These indicators don't dive into the specifics so much that they feel restrictive. They're more really sort of universal characteristics of rangelands and the communities living on those rangelands. So while personally, from World Wildlife side, we haven't, I guess, employed these indicators in other landscapes that we work like we are in the Northern Great Plains. We are talking with our colleagues in Australia, in Latin America, sharing this list of indicators and seeing if they are appropriate and there would be uptake. And so far, there has been great interest in having a set of indicators, or core indicators in those other regions as well.

>> Yes. This is Corrie, and I'll just jump in a little bit. I agree that there's this real utility in having some standard kind of areas of interest or key components of rangelands that we understand across cultural contexts, but I would put in a caution for maybe failing to see some of the local values if we try to assert one set of indicators broadly without some local conversations. So I think just as in this group of assessment protocols, we saw that there was some gaps in terms of the values that they were pulling out, I just want to always be acknowledging the fact that, you know, these are really heterogeneous, sociological systems, and every context is going to have its own set of values from diverse stakeholders that use those. And so definitely the importance of having some that are coming across, but also being aware of heterogeneity both in terms of that ecological and social [inaudible].

>> Yes. This is Clare. If I could just build on that a little bit. I think, you know, it's important to remember that this was, you know, these indicators and these core indicators are really looking for the commonality across the resources and the guidance that were available to us. And we really, you know, focused on the U.S. And I think it would be really interesting to do a similar synthesis in other places where grazing and livestock management is a really important part of the landscape to sort of test that question. Are these, you know, same things coming up? Are there things that are really different or articulated differently? And I think that would be really, really interesting and insightful, but just wasn't part of the scope here. But I think it's, you know, this is -- what we found is really a product of what those guidance documents were that we started with, and that we reviewed and synthesized, and so it's just important to note that this is sort of reflecting that. And we might find a really similar picture, but there might be other things and other values that emerge in other contexts.

>> Yes, and actually in the long-term Agroecosystem Research Network, we have an indicators working group, and we are actively planning a systematic stakeholder engagement effort around these different types of strategies that we're investigating in rangelands and pasturelands and croplands. And so yes, I'd be really happy to report back to all of you, and would be very excited if you guys wanted to collaborate on that.

>> Yes. That sounds like it'd be great. Great project.

>> I think, you know, I guess the last thing I would say in regards to these indicators that I think Corrie has put this in my brain at some point and it stuck [laughs]. And sometimes things stick, and sometimes don't. But this one did. Especially around the gaps and thinking about, like, not so much, like, why are the gaps there, and why have they been missed, but like, as in thinking about the gaps like what gets paid attention to is what we measure oftentimes. So if there are gaps around things we need to be paying attention to, maybe we need to think about making sure we're filling those gaps when it comes to indicators, especially around the socioeconomic side of things, where we saw more of those gaps.

>> Talk a bit about what the gaps were.

>> Well [laughs] -- well, now that I said there were gaps, I'm going to clarify what I meant by that. So when I say "gaps," I think what I mean is a gap in consistency. Because as Patrick pointed out, I mean, there were like 180 indicators that we compiled. And a lot of those really were social and economic. And so it's not like there are not indicators that exist and many of the frameworks have them in some way, shape, or form. I think what the gap was, was there were a lot less agreement around what those should be. But I don't know, Shari and Corrie might have a different take on that, too.

>> Yes. This is Corrie, and I'll jump in there. I think Marissa, that you're right. It's not that they're not there, it's just that they're not being consistently measured across, or maybe they're not being prioritized. It could also be that they're very challenging things to measure. So there's a lot of papers out there that look at ecosystem services, and the things they consistently miss are things that are challenging to actually measure. So we can only really assess and know from a broader scope and scale what we can measure. So the people that are embedded in the systems, they know the values that are there. And they understand that because they're part of the fabric of their lives. But it is hard to make those things physical or tangible. Sort of when you're thinking of scaling up from the ranch-level to understand a whole, you know, system of food production. So they are challenging. And I think, you know, in our assessment, there were some types of data that would be difficult to collect because they have private information in them, and so there might be a reticence to collect that kind of data. I think in other situations, probably there are indicators that are really important on a case-by-case basis at the ranch level that might not be as common across operations. So those are just a few of the things that I've seen about, you know, why some things might not be measured as well as others in terms of sustainability.

>> So well-said. I agree completely. I think the scale issue is a super-important one at this point, because we're going from kind of like plot scale, or pasture scale, where we might have a semblance of confidence that we can capture the variability in an ecological site, or in a soil series, or vegetation type. But then we're needing to really scale up to social systems that there's various -- it's expensive to collect data at that larger scale, and to do it in a way that's just, and that includes a lot of voices without impinging on those privacy issues that Corrie mentioned. And also, I wonder if we would revisit this podcast in 30 or 40 years, if we would be having a different conversation, and if this, you know, wouldn't be as much of a gap in consistency. I feel like in a lot of the circles that I get to travel in in rangeland ecology and management, there's a huge awakening to the importance of social science and the human dimensions. And everybody wants a social scientist on the team, and an Ag economist. And so, I don't know Corrie, what you think, if you think maybe in like a few decades from now, things might look different, or if that barrier of scale is still going to be -- if it's more a barrier of scale than like, expertise, I don't know.

>> I think that's a great question. And I think it is in part a barrier of scale in the sense that it is really hard to crosswalk these things. And I think a barrier sadly in epistemology, or the way that we know a system, because oftentimes it is really hard to kind of crosswalk rich qualitative data with quantitative data in metrics. So I agree with you, that I think it will improve, and I think that we see a lot of buildup in agencies, in academia, to try to bring in, and try to really integrate social science and more qualitative experiential ways of knowing with the data that we're used to collecting for scientific efforts. So I do think that it may change over time. I'm hopeful.

>> Yes, I think one example of that is a lot of these sustainability metrics are becoming increasingly of interest to various players in the supply chain. But there's probably still a lot of ranchers who may feel like this is not a useful, or maybe even a dangerous line of reasoning. They don't want a bunch of external standards. How would you respond to a rancher that doesn't want some of these sustainability metrics imposed on them by people farther up the food chain -- I mean supply chain?

>> That's an excellent question. And I'll start. I think that connectivity piece is key. So the fact is is that most of our ranchers are working in a conservation mindset, right? And they're stewards of the land, and they're conserving resources, and they are really the front lines of sustainability on rangelands. But even if they're doing everything that could get them certified, like if they then bring their calves to an auction, and those calves just go through conventional supply chain pathways, there's not many mechanisms to compensate them for that good work that they're doing, versus somebody who might not be doing that same kind of work on the land, and then puts their calves through in the same way. So it might be -- so that this -- I'm getting purely into economics, and less into your question, Tip, I think was more about privacy and not wanting to be totally scrutinized, which I think is a common human feeling, but I feel like if there would be a better, clearer mechanism to pay ranchers for the services that they're stewarding in helping to provide, it might change the conversation and the kind of valuation of these types of indicators. But that mechanism really isn't -- you don't see too many of them. You see more and more all the time, especially with these certification processes, but those aren't the norm that I can see yet.

>> This is Corrie, and I'll just jump in. I have some sort of interesting moments to recall in my own life over the years. I've interviewed, you know, hundreds of ranchers for qualitative research projects. And one thing that I've heard multiple times from people is this concern about top-down sustainability indicators being sort of forced on them, primarily by large, corporate buyers of beef. And the fact that, I think the concern was not so much that people would be under scrutiny, but that how would someone from outside of that system fully understand what sustainability was on the local landscape? And so one thing that I like about this paper is that we really, you know, have these kind of common key areas or key issues that we need to keep looking at on rangelands. But the way that those are applied in specific contexts are slightly, you know, could be variable, you know, of a range of what "good" is in, you know, the Chihuahuan Desert is going to be different than what the range of "good" is in the Northern Great Plains, of course. And so I think that what we have done here kind of is the first step in saying these are the broad things that we need to keep in mind, and maybe to get to those fine-scale specifics that you would be measuring at a ranch level to qualify, you know, would take maybe a little bit more purchase of [inaudible] and engaged research to understand what those indicators are capturing, what they're not capturing that maybe are of value to local people.

>> This is Patrick. I was just going to jump in too, and say -- I mean, on the onset, our intent is not to be imposing, right, these indicators on anyone. It's a list that is intended to be supportive, and provide guidance. And with World Wildlife Fund, we do have a program where we work with ranchers, work with producers, provide monitoring that includes everything on the ecological list that's in here. And we do have a spectrum of people that we work with, from those that are hesitant, don't want to be collecting, want to make sure it's not shared, to those that really want this information, either for their own operation, or for the communication standpoint. So I think part of it is about meeting people where they are, and creating that trust, and building in assurances that this information if it's collected, is for that landowner, won't be manipulated. Data can be aggregated, anonymized, all of those things. So it's certainly a concern when working on the ground, but I think there's more often than not ways to work together to make sure this benefits all involved.

>> Yes, that does seem to be a trend maybe of this interest in acknowledging the ecological benefits that are currently being produced, rather than attempting to force someone into it, based on, you know, core through regulation.

>> So do you guys think that that piece of adequate, kind of like payment for ecosystem services for lack of a better term is like, an important frontier? Or not so much? Or I guess it doesn't have to be binary, but --

>> To pay or to not pay? Maybe that's not the question.

[ Laughter ]

>> Again, Patrick here. Feel free to argue with me, anyone, but I think that, as part -- again using the "sustainable" buzzword -- as operations are sustainable, working towards continued improvement over time, if you want to use that as the definition of sustainable, then that should have that feedback loop that we were talking about earlier that builds in economic benefit from having healthy rangelands, sustainable operations, sustainable communities. And that that in itself will bring additional revenue. Payment for ecosystem services, we could spend a whole 'nother hour talking about that. Yes [laughs]. Can have benefits in places, can have detriments in places. But providing the funding, whether it's a cost-share program or something else upfront to make the changes necessary, I think is a good way to move forward. That sort of blends that financial and sustainable piece together.

>> Yes. This is Clare. Just to chime in a little bit here. I think our conversation is morphing in a way to, like, what do we do with this information now that we have this synthesis? And this was something that we grappled with together, and as is emerging in the conversation, there's so many questions about, you know, if -- you know, who -- you know, here's a synthesis of what's common across existing approaches and guidance on sort of what are key indicators. Where do we go from here? And who is the decider? And I think a key thing that we highlight in the paper is the critical importance of having those, you know, most affected by any decision part of that process. And so, working with ranchers to, you know, take it from here. To say OK, well, how does this work on your landscape? And you know, what is of value and helpful to you? What's, you know, this question of cost, who bears the cost, and who bears the benefit of, you know, of monitoring these indicators of understanding, kind of change over time? These are all questions that came up, and I think we didn't set out to answer, necessarily. But we do in the paper, shed some light on them, and highlight, you know, some of those key things that will be really important for the broader field to address and, you know, ideally -- and we're certainly working to this. And I know others are -- is doing it, you know, in collaboration with our colleagues in the ranching and grazing land coalition communities. And really kind of looking to that purchase for ecodevelopment. I think it's -- you know, one review we got which we really appreciated highlighted that this was kind of a wonky academic exercise to pull all these things together. And in some ways, it really was. It wasn't, you know, it wasn't grounded in a producer context, because we thought this could be a helpful resource to support that process. And just sort of making sense of what's already out there. But I think that next step would be really important to move this work forward and start to tackle some of those questions about what comes next, and the how, how to move forward.

>> Yes. Any other thoughts on what you -- think you all have thought about this quite a bit at this point. You know, what do you think are some of the, you know, the take-home messages for ranchers? If I'm somebody who's reading, I feel like one of the useful things for me, either as a range manager, or as a rancher are, you know, here are the list of things that I should be thinking about, because they are, you know, both drivers of long-term ecological and economic health, as well as indicators of, you know, prior success in management. And I think having a list of things that you're sort of keeping in your head all the time, and then potentially are things that can be used to communicate the benefits of ranching to the non-agricultural public, is tremendously useful. What are some other takeaways that you all have thought of?

>> I see indicators as a primo way to communicate, which you mentioned, Tip. Like I think they capture a lot of complexity. They capture goals and values. They capture a snapshot in time, or maybe change over time, like we started to discuss earlier with your question and that I railroaded. But I think that is -- I think that they're really important communication tools. And so I think it gets people talking in a common language. So ranchers talking in a common language. Folks in the community working with ranchers, talking in a common languages, and consumers, too. So I think that's one thing that I learned from this effort that I think is an important takeaway.

>> This is Marissa. I mean, the major baseline take-home point from the paper, right, is -- to me, anyway -- is that you know, there is a lot of agreement around ecological indicators, and you know, what is important ecologically to be thinking about on our rangelands? And less so on the social and economic side. But if you're a rancher, like, looking towards those ecological indicators, I think you could have some confidence in, like, OK, these are the things I kind of need to be thinking about in some way, shape, or form on my ranch. But for me, like -- so that's kind of like the take-home picture of the -- take-home picture -- take-home point of the paper, but for me, I think also in digging in and writing this paper, a lot of my learning came around -- a lot of that last discussion that we just had really, around thinking about how we operationalize and influence any of these indicators or metrics, is going to be really important in making sure that those benefits and costs are not really unevenly distributed. And that, you know, producers in particular, ranchers are absolutely need to be part of that conversation going forward. So.

>> Yes, this is Patrick. Those are both great points, and I totally echo those as well. I do think a big part like Marissa mentioned early on is our interest in getting into this was sort of how do you talk about and measure sustainability and maintain ranching as a grass-based economy? And going through this process really helps sort of illuminate ways that that can be done. Monitoring leads to communication, leads to adaptive management. It's just all critically important, sort of from the ground-up perspective. It didn't come out of this paper, but I was in a range and monitoring conference not too long ago. Hopefully we're all still learning and [laughs] attending those types of things, and always improving. And someone said something that really stuck with me. You know, as a land manager, if you're not monitoring, you're guessing. And I think that's a great point, and sort of the take-home piece that I've walked away with. Maybe not necessarily that the paper indicates, but it's helped me in thinking through this.

>> Yes, I think particularly in public lands settings, it helps get around some of the questions of are cows an appropriate use for the landscape? This removes some of the subjective feelings about whether or not cows should be there. To focus on whether or not the presence of livestock and the way they're being managed is compatible with all of these indicators of ecological sustainability in particular. And I think this helps provide a framework for thinking through are we helping or harming, or you know, essentially having no negative effect at all? I think this is a helpful way of thinking through that.

>> This is Clare. You know, I think one of the things that I kept coming back to throughout this process was the goal, and the question of the goal. Because you could collect a lot of information. You could track a lot of indicators, and we kind of narrowed it down to a subset of what is commonly put forward. But even that is a long, you know, that can be a long list. And so, you know, what we tried to do is sort of categorize what do these different indicators help us understand in the context of sustainability? You know, do they give us information about carbon or climate? Do they tell us about biodiversity? Do they tell us about water? Do they tell us about social well-being? And I think for me, that question of what is the goal? Are we trying to -- like we were talking about earlier -- track outcomes over time? Are we trying to learn and adapt and have information that will support us in that adaptive management? And so I think for me that, I keep coming back to, what is one trying to achieve? And I think, you know, that will depend on every individual land manager and their values, and what they're trying to do with their operation. But trying to start with that goal, and then come to something like this, to say, OK, how might I support that goal? What indicators might be useful for me?

>> I believe I mentioned when we started that the article is open access, and we will link to it in the show notes, which you can get to either from your podcasting platform or at the episode page at the My guests today -- let's see if I can get everybody's names right again -- were Patrick Lendrum, Corrie Knapp, Marissa Ahlering, Clare Kazanski, and Sheri Spiegal. And they have been involved with this effort to identify sustainability indicators in ranching. And I think this is a pretty useful effort, and I hope it leads to some other projects to come. Thank you all.

>> Thank you.

>> Thank you, Tip.

>> Yes. Thanks for having us.

>> 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. You just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email 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 Sate 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.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own, and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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