Quivira Coalition

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Robyn Morrison

The coalition is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with various projects located around the state.

Objective: To build resilience by fostering ecological, economic and social health on western landscapes through education, innovation, collaboration, and progressive public and private land stewardship.

Participants: USDA Forest Service; Bureau of Land Management; US Environmental Protection Agency; US Fish and Wildlife Service; New Mexico Game and Fish Department; New Mexico State Land Office; New Mexico Environmental Department; Natural Resources Conservation Service; Navajo Nation; Jemez Pueblo; Sandia, Santa Ana and Santa Clara Pueblos; Valle Vidal Grazing Association; Cerros de Taos Grazing Association; Amigos Bravos; Earth Works Institute; Farm to Table; Four Corners Institute; Hawks Aloft; Quail Unlimited; Malpai Borderlands Group; National Riparian Team; Public Service Company of New Mexico; New Mexico Natural History Museum; New Mexico Trout; Rio Puerco Management Committee; Taos Soil and Water Conservation District; The Conservation Fund; Trout Unlimited; the Canelo Hills Coalition; Cimarron Watershed Alliance; Southwest Grassfed Livestock Alliance; Four Corners Institute; and numerous other groups, agencies, ranchers, and consultants.

History: New Mexico's ranching history stretches back nearly 400 years, but the grazing techniques brought to this semi-arid desert from more temperate regions - combined with fire suppression and drought - led to dwindling grasslands and a steady encroachment of trees and shrubs. As cattle crowded into a shrinking base of grazing lands, the damage to meadows, savannas, and riparian areas reached epic proportions.

Federal land managers responded by forcing ranchers to cut back on cattle numbers at a time when beef prices were dismal and small ranching operations could little afford the financial strain of reducing their herd sizes. Meanwhile, the public was demanding more than just healthy land for ranchers and their cows. The public also wanted clean water and a healthy habitat for wildlife.

While some New Mexico counties and ranchers were joining the wise-use and county supremacy movements, environmental groups continued to haul federal land managers to court to force them to improve grazing management. In 1997, two environmental activists and a rancher from southwest New Mexico saw the futility of this take-it-to-court, “either/or” approach and formed the Quivira Coalition. “Quivira” is a Spanish term for an elusive golden dream, and was also used by early mapmakers’ to designate “unknown” territory. The Coalition concentrated on creating its own territory – a "third position” – demonstrating and encouraging ecologically and economically sustainable ranching. They call it the New Ranch, or the “radical center,” a neutral place “where people can come together to explore their common interests rather than argue their differences.”

 Señorito Canyon, 1990
The firstst project undertaken by the Coalition was a riparian restoration effort along several miles of barren stream known as Macho Creek in southwest New Mexico. The Coalition partnered with a rancher, the New Mexico State Land Office, and Quail Unlimited to construct 2.5 miles of electric fencing to keep cows out of the creek during the growing season. The Coalition also contracted with several organizations to monitor plant growth and bird populations. Armed with information scientifically gathered from the project, the Coalition demonstrated grazing tools that not only helped the rancher's bottom line, but also brought about ecological recovery, including healthy wildlife populations.

 Señorito Canyon, 1995
Photos courtesy of Bureau of Land Management

Following Macho Creek with a number of other successful partnerships and projects around the state, the Quivira Coalition has shown that the debate over grazing and healthy landscapes is not black and white. Continuing demonstrations of the New Ranch concept have convinced many ranchers and members of the environmental community that land can be restored while still being used for grazing. Since 1997, over one million acres, at least 20 linear miles of riparian drainages, and 10,000 people have benefited from the Coalition’s collaborative efforts. Its work now is concentrated in four core program areas:
  • An annual conference – attracting upwards of 500 attendees, and providing a forum for ranchers, environmentalists, public land managers, scientists, and others to exchange ideas on sustainable ranching. As of 2008, there had been seven annual conferences, exploring topics such as riparian restoration, progressive ranch management and grassbanking, climate change, birding, agro-tourism, food, and energy. In 2002, the Coalition inaugurated its annual Clarence Burch Award, “which recognizes individuals and organizations who have led by example in promoting and accomplishing outstanding stewardship of private and/or public lands.” The Award now carries $20,000 to be shared among the winners.
  • Outreach and education – including the publishing of books, field guides, bulletins, newsletters, journals and conference proceedings on topics as diverse as water harvesting from rural roads, environmental justice, public lands ranching, erosion control, grassfed beef, and rangeland monitoring. Most are made available at no charge, and the others can be purchased from the Coalition’s on-line bookstore. In addition, the Coalition has conducted over 100 educational events around the region, including a raft of workshops and on-the-ground tours that give participants a first-hand look at what’s working in the restoration of overgrazed rangeland and subsequent sustainable management.
  • The New Ranch Network – started in 2005, has assisted over thirty landowners, grazing associations, and other community organizations through a small grants program and a network of consultants, mentors, and specialists. The goal is to give 'eager learners' the assistance they need (on a 1:1 cash or in-kind match basis) to “ ‘make the leap’ to progressive stewardship through collaboration.” Assistance has included watershed planning, low-stress livestock clinics, grazing planning, monitoring, bird surveys and mapping. Additional consulting services are provided through the Coalition's Land Health Services program.
  • Land and water projects – include many Coalition-directed land health and riparian restoration demonstration projects around New Mexico. In addition to accomplishing needed restoration work, projects also provide another vehicle for the Quivira Coalition’s outreach and education work. The Comanche Creek Rio Grande Cutthroat trout habitat restoration project, for instance, demonstrates induced stream meandering and erosion control measures. The Sierra Club, the Boy Scouts, Trout Unlimited, and other groups and individuals volunteered their effort in construction, maintenance, and monitoring work on Comanche Creek. In the EPA-funded Cedro Creek restoration, 199 volunteers contributed 1,286 hours of work over the three years of the project, increasing the capacity of the land to store water and sustain wetland vegetation on 17 acres along the creek.
In 2004, the Quivira Coalition was bequeathed the 320-acre Red Canyon Ranch, to be "devoted to activities directed toward the preservation of the land and the wildlife, including, but not limited to, a wildlife refuge, research station, study retreat, or a demonstration ranch.” Needed road work and restoration to address erosion problems are underway now, the first steps toward realizing the Coalition’s long-term plan for Red Canyon.

Also in 2004, the Coalition purchased 240 acres of deeded land on Rowe Mesa from The Conservation Fund. The price included a 36,000-acre federal grazing allotment on national forest land, which was being operated as a grassbank. Now called the Valle Grande Ranch (VGR), the property is been managed “to support the Quivira Coalition’s mission of building resilience by reversing ecosystem service decline, creating sustainable prosperity, re-localizing food and energy, and by becoming a model for public land stewardship.” In 2006, the Coalition became a member of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers’ Association and produced and sold beef from its own small, but growing cattle herd on the VGR. VGR’s particular mission is to demonstrate that conservation and agriculture are compatible, and a major goal is to have the ranch financially stable by 2011.

Challenges/constraints: Criticism of the Quivira Coalition is more muted now than in its early years, but some ranchers still see no need to change their traditional grazing practices. Anti-grazing activists, meanwhile, continue to argue that an arid region that receives only five to seven inches of rain a year simply isn't the place for cattle, and that global warming will only make the situation worse. Other critics question the scientific validity of the positive conclusions drawn about the environmental benefits of holistic ranch management. Overall, however, response to Quivira’s work and its message – that conservation and agriculture are not only compatible, but that a “fusion” of the two is necessary for the health of the planet – has been positive.

Significant credit must be given to the Coalition’s co-founder and executive director, Courtney White, a passionate and persuasive public speaker as well as a thoughtful and prolific writer, who loses no opportunity to spread the Coalition’s news and views. The credibility of the message is enhanced by the Coalition’s commitment to “walk the talk,” to practice adaptive management, to acknowledge failures and to learn from them, and to continually strive to improve.

For instance, the success of the Macho Creek restoration – the Quivira Coalition’s first demonstration project – unraveled when the participating ranch was sold to new owners who were not interested in cattle. Without the oversight of an active steward, the electric fencing fell into disrepair and trespassing cattle from other ranches started camping out in the stream bottom. The area, which had flourished with grass and birds post-restoration, again became overgrazed and barren. In his 2008 book, Revolution on the Range, White devotes an entire chapter to Macho Creek and the lesson drawn from it – that land needs good, active, place-based stewards, “more care and attention, not less.”

The evolution of VGR under the Coalition’s stewardship is another example. Originally assembled and operated for six years as a grassbank by conservationist Bill deBuys, with the support of The Conservation Fund, the ranch was initially successful in its purpose of providing an alternative grazing site for cattle while their home ranches were undergoing land restoration treatments. But the rising cost of trucking the cattle and the decreasing availability of government or private grants to pay for the restoration work made continuing the operation increasingly difficult. The Quivira Coalition acquired the operation in 2004, but as White and co-author Craig Conley subsequently wrote in an article in Rangelands, “When we took over the Valle Grande project…we touted Grassbanks as ‘an idea whose time has come.’ Three years later, we’ve adjusted that to ‘an idea whose time is still coming.’” Meanwhile, as the Coalition’s 2007 annual report explained, VGR is serving as the organization’s test of “a conservation ranch with a business plan.”

For more information see:

Quivira Coalition Homepage
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