In the 1990s, ranchers and environmentalists in the west were at each others’ throats. For decades, the ranchers had been granted permits by the federal government to graze cattle beyond their property lines so they could raise enough steers to make ends meet. But the Western grasslands are a brittle environment, and after years of overgrazing the land was showing signs of stress: Grasslands were turning into deserts, invasive plants were moving in from Mexico, and crucial topsoil was eroding. On some ranches, fences could be seen floating in the air over gullies ten feet deep.

Environmentalists blamed the cattle and went after ranchers with lawsuits, legislation, and sometimes even violent action to stop the grazing on public lands. In one instance, two young ranchers refused to follow new limits on the number of cattle they could graze in the federal areas. Environmentalists pounced, and eventually the men lost both their permit and their land.

To archeologist and Sierra Club member Courtney White, the battle was a tragedy, as he writes in his book Revolution on the Range. “Nothing had been gained—lives had been ruined not enriched; land had been abandoned, instead of stewarded properly; bad blood had been created, instead of hope; anger ruled, not joy.”

White decided to take action. With rancher Jim Winder, he founded the Quivira Coalition, an organization named after the designation for unexplored territory of the Southwest on Spanish colonial maps. The organization works to make peace between ranchers and environmentalists, while also working to improve Western grasslands. White dubs the harmony between ranchers, environmentalists, and the land as the “New Ranch,” and over the past ten years, the group has made seen signs of hope in efforts to transform the range.

“The issues haven’t subsided, but the public and the decision makers have gotten the message that there is a middle ground here that serves both sides,” says White. “The days of good cow versus bad cow are largely behind us. We take a little credit for this, but there were many other groups that popped up around the West to do the same thing.”

What White and Winder realized 10 years ago was that cattle were not the West’s problem — proper management was. The organization showed both sides of the conflict that by implementing ecological ranching practices like rotational grazing and pumping water to troughs in order to protect streams, cows can actually benefit the land. Quivira took environmentalists on tours of ranches bordering national wildlife refuges and found that, because cattle can fulfill an ecological niche absent since the age of the bison, sometimes land that was grazed every year was healthier than land that hadn’t been touched by hooves in decades.

Sid Goodloe, a rancher for more than 52 years, has been using sustainable methods of ranching since the ’60s. Though he was ecologically conscious, Goodloe resented the environmentalists — many of whom had never set foot on a ranch, let alone tried to manage one — who took a condescending view toward ranchers. “But when I saw that Courtney White was kind of a converted environmentalist, then I thought, ‘Well somebody is beginning to see the light and maybe [the dialogues the Quivira Coalition was promoting] is a way to tear down the wall between the environmental community and the ranchers,” he says. Now, as a Quivera Coalition board member, Goodloe works with both sides of the conflict to show how ranching and sustainability can coexist.

The Coalition has grown in its ten years, and with its growth has come an expansion of its programs. Quivira holds an annual conference bringing together more than 500 people (a third of them ranchers) to schmooze with people like naturalist Wendell Berry and writers Deborah Madison and Richard Louv. Quivira also continues to educate both environmentalists and ranchers through lectures, field days, newsletters, and books. In 2006 the Quivira Coalition even got into the ranching business itself when it began to operate the Valle Grande Ranch as a place to demonstrate that beef cattle and ecosystem health are not mutually exclusive. Through the New Ranch Network, the coalition is also helping ranchers who want to transition to ecological ranching methods with one-on-one consulting, small grants, and workshops. 

Cattlemen and greenies still hold some mutual suspicions. “Conservationists have not been entirely persuaded by the whole movement,” says Roger Peterson, a botanist and member of the Conservation Committee of the Northern New Mexico Sierra Club Group. “But there are few that object to the good that has resulted from the improved grazing management that the coalition has brought about.”

Ranchers, too, remain cautious, says Goodloe, but many are beginning to open up, especially through the Coalition’s practical ranch workshops. When cattle owners can visit ranches that are turning better-than-average profits using ecological methods, even the most stubborn are willing to take a look.

Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008