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The paradox in rural communities is that oft-warring ranchers and biologists want the same thing.
© Chance Gowan, U.S. Forest Service, Salmon and Challis National Forests, Idaho

Why is it, I've often wondered, that so many biologists have become the sworn enemies of stockmen? In the West, where controversies usually center around livestock and riparian areas, it seems all but impossible for biologists and ranchers to explore middle ground and common goals. In the rare instances when they do try to come together, the cattlemen invariably wind up sitting on one side of the room, arms stiffly folded across their chests and hats pulled down low over their glaring eyes, while the biologists huddle on the opposite side of the room behind stacks of paper and reams of data.
     To many stockmen, the biologists often represent uncaring bureaucrats whose overtly single-minded focus on preservation threatens to force them out of business and ultimately destroy a heritage that is rapidly fading from the landscape. To many agency biologists, the cattlemen represent a menacing threat to the aquatic resources.
     In an objective evaluation, is this really a fair characterization of either side? And, for that matter, are there really two different sides? If we could somehow rip away the political and emotional fuzz, I think we would realize that we really are on the same side.
     I've been a professional biologist for almost 20 years. The first portion of my career was spent mostly in research projects throughout the West. It was a good foundation for understanding real science but a poor venue for understanding real life management implications.
     Much of the next portion of my career was spent working for a state fish and wildlife agency. It was there that I first encountered the fiery conflict between agency biologists and stockmen. At that time my charge was primarily big game management, which mostly entailed population dynamics, habitat evaluations, and setting hunting seasons. But I was also responsible for depredation complaints which usually came in the form of a phone call, the party on the other end blurting out, "Hello, this is John Rancher. I've had elk tearing up my new alfalfa seeding for the last two weeks. They've destroyed my fences and now I'm watching one as it makes dessert out of my wife's prize rose bush. I want you to come get your damn elk right now!!!"
     Immediately we were forced to opposite sides of the fence. The elk-the same elk I was sworn to protect-were threatening his livelihood, not to mention his wife's roses.
     Later in my career, mostly for family reasons, I resigned my commission as a state game biologist and entered the world of federal biology. I no longer had direct responsibility for the fish and wildlife. Instead, I had responsibility for the habitat and faced a myriad of new regulations and conflicting demands. When a problem arose I could no longer go get "my damn elk," but I had to figure out long-term solutions on the ground.
     About 10 years ago I began to develop a keen interest in riparian communities and aquatic systems, and I started taking graduate classes in these subjects. I discovered that I had a lot to learn, so I've stuck with it and I now make my living working almost exclusively with range/riparian-related issues.
     The question we have to ask each other is this: How do we-both the rancher and the biologist-relate to the land? What do we need from the land and what are we willing to give back to ensure that those needs can be met for us and our children's children? Funny thing is, once we open up our minds, set aside our preconceived notions and really talk to one another, we uncover a startling revelation-we want the same thing!
     We all would like our rangelands and riparian systems to remain healthy and functional while we utilize them, to tarry in equilibrium in accord with the needs and stresses placed on the land by man and the environment. Neither the rancher nor the biologist wants our riparian systems to be run into the ground and become non-functional. The land and her resources are precious to us all and must not be squandered by anyone. Both groups clearly understand this principle, but they haven't been able to get beyond the political schisms long enough to talk to one another and discover that they really are on the same side. The ironic paradox is that we are natural allies!
     I recently moved from a portion of Oregon that was undergoing significant change. Ranching was once an integral element of life there but like so many places in the West it was "discovered." People moved in from urban areas wanting their own little green acre. Eventually many of the ranches succumbed to escalating taxes and increasing criticism from well-meaning but poorly informed newcomers.
     The ranching families who had cared for and lived on the land for generations were gone. Some of the ranches were subdivided so more people could have their little green acre. But some of the outfits were purchased by a new breed. They were mostly corporations or wealthy people who had "real" jobs in some far-off city. Buying land on speculation, they figured "ranching" would be a good tax write-off. They had no identity with the land. They hadn't depended on it for generations. They couldn't understand the subtleties that the land was trying to show them and it suffered for the loss of that connection.
     The corporations, for the most part, were the worst. Run by bean counters who never left their offices and couldn't see the sores being inflicted by "bottom line" management, in the end the strength, stability and sense of purpose of the community was lost in the transient nature of the bottom line.
     Like it or not, the livestock industry is easy to throw rocks at. The politically correct view is that livestock are bad for the land; especially riparian areas. And let's face facts, improperly-managed livestock can wreak havoc on streams. But, and this is the important part, it is not necessarily so. In fact,  properly-managed livestock can be beneficial to the land. It takes a commitment, an understanding, and the care of one for whom the bottom line is important but it is not what drives them. If that were true, most ranchers would have sold out long ago.
     The truth is, most biologists share similar feelings. They don't fight all the headaches of being an agency biologist for the money or prestige. They, like the rancher, do it because it's in their heart. None of us want to see corporate ranches and subdivisions swallow up the land and change our close-knit communities into cold little cities, dominated by mini-malls and driven by the bottom line.
     So, what do we do? How do we get beyond all the past prejudices and harsh words? The answer is simple. Just do it! Begin by treating each other as mutual stewards of the land who have a commitment to a common, deep-seated concern for her well-being and future health. Recognize that we each have areas of expertise to share with the other.
     Commitment is the key. The biologists must commit to sticking it out. When I worked as a state biologist it was common for biologists to spend their whole career at one duty station. They developed a connection with the people, the community, and the intricacies of the land. They understood the strengths of the community, the vulnerabilities of the land, and learned the subtleties of how they worked together. It isn't that they were better biologists; rather, they had committed to be in it for the long run. They developed a sense of community and they found ways to work things out together. The ranchers need to commit to the future and, like it or not, recognize that some things have changed forever. There will always be rules, regulations, preservationists, listed species and, hopefully, biologists.
     The question remains, how do we do it? Right now, to me, the best answer seems to be collaborative stewardship. It's not just the latest buzz word, it is a way to put past conceptions behind us and facilitate all that I've been talking about. It's a way for natural allies to recognize each other, learn to talk to each other, and ultimately get things done.
     For collaborative stewardship to work, everybody in the community with an interest is invited. But you are only invited if you want to help make things work. If you come to bitch or point fingers and call names you will be escorted out the door. Everybody has to come to the table with an open mind and give it enough time to build trust. Mostly, everybody has to commit to working together to find solutions. Anybody can stand there and say, "No, I won't do that" or "No, you can't do that," but it takes a lot more to figure out answers.
     There is a definite process to follow. Nobody tries to force anybody to do anything. You work through it till you come up with a solution you all can live with and then everybody sticks to their part of the bargain. Sound too idealistic? It's not, and it's working. Just ask one of our fourth-generation ranchers. Their costs are down, conception rates and weight gains are up, and we're all riding together several times a week and having fun again.
     We are common allies! We need to recognize that and stand together. If people who don't work on the land continue to divide us we will certainly be consumed by political correctness, the bottom line, and tons of unnecessary regulations. In that eventuality, the biologists and the ranchers both lose, but the real losers are the land and our children. Let's make the choice together, before somebody in a far-off city makes it for us.

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Chance Gowan has worked for state and  federal agencies in natural resource management and research for the past 20 years, currently for the U.S. Forest Service. He has completed undergraduate and graduate course work at several western universities. He appreciates rural communities, wide open spaces, and his American Indian roots. "If you'd like more information on collaborative stewardship or how you might develop a program for your allotment," Chance says, "please feel free to write me at HC 63, Box  1671, Challis, Idaho 83226, or contact the Idaho Round Table at P.O. Box 285, Bliss, Idaho 83314. We'd be happy to  help in any way we can."


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