Rural West Conference explores adaptation strategies for maintaining healthy ecosystems and populations in a changing world
Convening in the service of scholarship and solutions
On Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1, 2023, the Bill Lane Center for the American West convened its 9th Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. Bringing together academics, practitioners, and experts on the urgent issues facing rural communities, the event always serves as a catalyst for the kind of innovative research and partnerships that make real-world solutions possible.
This year, at Colorado State University (CSU), the conference took up the broad topic of "Human and Ecosystem Health in the Rural West." Over the course of four panels and a keynote, guest speakers shared knowledge and experience on a range of issues broadly related to health: sustainable ranching, including regenerative grazing and carbon sequestration practices; rural health in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic; and the impact of the Colorado River Basin crisis on California and the West.
Opening keynote: How partnerships between ranches and a university have enhanced stewardship and education
The conference opened on Friday, March 31, with dinner and a keynote presentation by Bill Romme and Tony Vorster, research scientists and founders of the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship Program at CSU. It was an inspiring place to start, as Romme and Vorster have worked hard to bring ranchers together with academic ecologists in a mutually beneficial partnership.
When the Bill Lane Center determined that the challenges facing ranchers today were an important topic to bring to this year's conference, the planning team focused on selecting speakers with a deep respect for the cultural, social, economic, and ecological importance of western American ranchland. With their innovative vision for a rural West in which sustainable practices can preserve the health of rangelands as well as the livelihoods of ranchers, Romme and Vorster more than checked those boxes.
The media often paints a black-and-white picture of livestock farming in which ranchers clash with conservationists over land management practices and resource use. While many ranchers are excellent stewards of the land, with livestock operations that are the economic, social, and cultural mainstay of rural communities, they have also been vilified in political and cultural discourse for contributing to soil erosion, degradation of the landscape and global warming (among other things).
Romme and Vorster’s CSU program is a model for dissolving these tensions. It is founded on the premise that nurturing and preserving the diverse ecosystems that make up western landscapes benefits both ranchers and the natural habitats they manage. Keeping the needs and priorities of today’s ranch managers front-of-mind, the research scientists developed curriculum in concert with a steering committee of practitioners on the ground. They knew that to address big planetary problems like climate change, they also had to take seriously the financial, regulatory, social, and environmental complexities ranchers were up against. In the Western Ranch Management and Ecosystem Stewardship program, this means students spend significant amounts of time on experiential learning at ranches, and back at the university, the same students engage in complementary coursework.
“It has been a rich experience for all,” said Vorster during the keynote. “Ranchers gain assistance from students as well as insights from research tailored to their needs, and students – the next generation of ranchers – gain hands-on experience.” With their story of a win-win scenario for both people and planet, Romme and Vorster set the stage for a conference that focused on innovation and solutions, even in the face of significant threats to rural vitality.
Panel 1: The possibilities and challenges of regenerative grazing
Panel one continued the conversation on sustainable ranching from the previous evening, with a specific focus on regenerative grazing. Dallas Hall Defrees, a fifth-generation cattle rancher with an established career in rangeland ecology and management, moderated the discussion. Defrees currently serves as regenerative ranching program director at Sustainable Northwest, an organization that works to keep lands healthy and prosperous by finding entrepreneurial solutions to natural resource challenges.
What is regenerative grazing? As noted by the panelists, there is currently no single regulatory definition or consensus on the meaning of the term, but it generally refers to the holistic practice of ranching in harmony with nature. In other words, it incorporates a philosophy and approach to land management that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all aspects of agriculture. In a survey of more than 100 ranchers and farmers invested in sustaining healthy ecosystems and climate-resilient operations, the Natural Resources Defense Council collected knowledge on regenerative practices and came up with the following helpful description:
"...regenerative agriculture asks us to think about how all aspects of agriculture are connected through a web—a network of entities who grow, enhance, exchange, distribute, and consume goods and services—instead of a linear supply chain. It’s about farming and ranching in a style that nourishes people and the earth, with specific practices varying from grower to grower and from region to region. There’s no strict rule book, but the holistic principles behind the dynamic system of regenerative agriculture are meant to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequity, and leave our land, waters, and climate in better shape for future generations."
Paul DeLaune, a professor of environmental soil science with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, kicked off the presentations. He offered an overview of regenerative agriculture from a research perspective, explaining some of the difficulties faced by those engaged in the practice. Limited water supply, extreme weather, limited crop options, and pest pressures were just some of the problems he named.
Water in the soil is the most limiting factor for creating productive grazing land, DeLaune explained. Armoring the soil with a good cover crop (which helps bring water into the soil rather than allow it to run off); minimal disturbance (low-till or no-till practices); enhancing plant diversity; keeping living roots year-round; and integrating livestock without overgrazing were several soil-health principles he endorsed.
“Can we intensify systems to do more for croplands during the fallow periods,” DeLaune asked? “Soil health is key, with cover crop and crop rotation providing protection for the soil.”
Can we intensify systems to do more for croplands during the fallow periods? Soil health is key, with cover crop and crop rotation providing protection for the soil
Delane Atcitty, executive director of the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance (INCA), spoke next. At INCA, a nonprofit focused on re-emphasizing Indigenous conservation principles, Atcitty works to foster Native agriculture by helping tribal farmers and ranchers optimize use of their natural resources. Some tribes have under-utilized ranches, Atcitty explained. Some need counsel on the benefits of custom grazing in the face of rising fertilizer costs, or education for stocker operators so they can identify and remove sick cattle before illness spreads. Tribes need preparation for the future in carbon credit and would benefit from an Indigenous livestock association, which Atcitty is working to establish. Using outreach tools, education, partnerships and loans, INCA tackles a comprehensive list of challenges facing tribal communities, always with a conservation mindset. Their goal is to improve the health, productivity and profitability of Indigenous people and lands.
Next up on the regenerative grazing panel were Glenn Elzinga and Caryl Elzinga, owners and operators of Alderspring Ranch. On over 46,000 acres of rangeland in eastern Idaho, the Elzinga family grazes organic, grass-fed cattle who spend their entire lives freely roaming wild mountain pastures. Incorporating “planned grazing, regenerative protocols and nutrient cycling,” Glenn, Caryl, their seven daughters, and a handful of interns and employees work year-round to guarantee the health of their soil, grasses, wildlife, cattle, and the surrounding habitat. They are prime examples of sustainable land management and stewardship.
“What we wanted to think about was ‘restoration ecology,’” Caryl remarked. “’Grass-fed’ and ‘organic’ are marketing terms. What we are interested in doing on our ranch is restoring a functioning ecosystem.”
"Instead of a ranch acting on an ecosystem, we have a ranch that is part of it,” Glenn concurred, noting that their operation is both profitable and ecologically sound. “We are working with nature instead of against it. We have ecological resilience."
Both trained as scientists – Glenn, a forest ecologist, Caryl, a doctoral-level plant ecologist – the Elzingas have a story that is best absorbed by either spending some time on their ranch, or, if that’s not possible, perusing the colorful photographs and storytelling featured on their website, blog, and Instagram account. The Elzinga’s digital presence showcases an abundance of knowledge and resources about Alderspring’s regenerative practices, which include rotational grazing, minimal tillage, cover crops, frost seeding to increase plant diversity, and pasture winter feeding.
During the discussion portion, panelists answered questions about some of the obstacles regenerative agriculture is up against, noting a “disconnect” in ranching and farming communities that has led to a segmentation of the business. Some farmers are raising crops, some are raising pigs. “We need to think holistically instead,” said Glenn Elzinga. “But so many don’t know what ‘holistically’ actually means, in practice. We used to know. ‘Regenerative’ is actually what we used to do a long time ago,” he said, referring to the ecological farming and ranching practices Native people used 200 years ago.
Delane Atcitty agreed, remarking that Indigenous people knew how to live in balance with nature long before “regenerative” and “sustainable” became the latest buzzwords. But tribes have been in survival mode for so long, Atcitty reflected, that returning to an old way of life requires patience and a re-establishment of equilibrium with the natural world. “To me, it’s about going back to the way things were – going back to herding your own animals, being on the land again," he said. "At one time, that’s all we were – on the land and in sync with the land."
To me, it’s about going back to the way things were – going back to herding your own animals, being on the land again. At one time, that’s all we were – on the land and in sync with the land.
Thus, along with acknowledging that the Rural West Conference was held on lands that are the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute Nations and peoples, it is perhaps equally important to point out that many of the regenerative principles highlighted at the Rural West Conference are also the traditional and ancestral practices of Indigenous people, the original stewards of the lands in question. In spite of the U.S. government’s attempts to eradicate Native farming and ranching practices, in the West, with its dwindling natural resources, a return to the Indigenous past seems to be the only sustainable way forward.
Panel 2: Carbon Sequestration and Ranching
The conference’s second panel also explored sustainable ranching, this time with a focus on carbon sequestration. Christy Wyckoff, a member of the Bill Lane Center’s advisory council, moderated the discussion, offering introductory thoughts on the future of ranching, the carbon marketplace, and the science of keeping carbon in the ground.
Aside from being an experienced wildlife ecologist with a PhD in Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, Wyckoff has skin in the ranching game; after years working for the Santa Lucia Conservancy where she focused on new and better approaches to achieving the peaceful co-existence of humans and nature, Wyckoff is now restoring her own Redwing Ranch on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Her work transitioning rangeland from conventional to regenerative management, and her commitment to simultaneously holding the goals of “conservation and co-existence” in mind, has been the inspiration behind this year's Rural West Conference.
“The future of ranching is not weddings and events,” Wyckoff began. “We need additive, stacked enterprises that also benefit the world. Keeping carbon in the ground is key. Ideally, ranchers are getting paid for that,” she remarked, before turning the conversation over to panelists.
The future of ranching is not weddings and events. We need additive, stacked enterprises that also benefit the world. Keeping carbon in the ground is key. Ideally, ranchers are getting paid for that.
With a specific focus on the complexities of and opportunities for participation in the carbon credit market, as well as the current state of carbon market science, panel two included Jane Zelikova of Colorado State University, Bre Owens, stewardship coordinator for the Western Landowners Alliance, and Bill Milton of Milton Ranch.
Jane Zelikova was up first. She is currently executive director of CSU’s Soil Carbon Solutions Center, which aims to accelerate the deployment of soil-based climate solutions, measure their impacts, and bring them to scale.
“This is soil’s moment!” she began. “Interest in agricultural soil carbon – and soil health more broadly – is rapidly gaining traction with producers, companies, policy makers, carbon markets and civil society,” said Zelikova, who went on to introduce the basic science of how carbon sequestration works.
How do soils sequester carbon? Photosynthesis. First, plants capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. What the plants don’t need moves through their roots to feed soil organisms, and in the soil, the carbon stabilizes. A carbon pool forms, and the carbon can be stored or “sequestered” in the soil for a very long time. This is a win for the climate, because if it weren’t for soil, the carbon dioxide would be released back into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.
Zelikova then turned her focus to soil carbon markets. “Carbon markets have come in to financialize the potential for soil to sequester carbon. You have the “buy-side,” the “sales-side,” and the “supply-side,” she explained. Companies link buyers and sellers of carbon credits, and farmers/ranchers are paid based on the amount of carbon they sequester.
But there are barriers to establishing such carbon markets, Zelikova told conference attendees, and one of those barriers is the difficulty of measuring soil carbon at scale. “We need to build up the soil science so we can predict how much carbon will be stored based on practices,” she continued. Other criticisms of soil carbon markets are that the crediting protocols lack rigor.
What do farmers think of the carbon market? “The people who are interested in it are already doing it,” Zelikova said. “Ninety percent of farmers are aware of carbon markets, three percent are currently participating, and fifty-nine percent won’t participate without changes. Carbon markets don’t matter unless people want to participate,” she cautioned.
After Zelikova, panelist Bre Owens spoke about her work at the Western Landowner’s Alliance (WLA), which promotes “policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes, and native species.” Like the ranchers who presented on regenerative grazing, Owens emphasized that economic viability and conservation can go hand in hand on working lands. Financing climate-informed ranching practices pays off for both ecosystems and livestock operations, with the return on investment growing over time as land is stewarded and restored.
This year, Owens will be directing “climate-smart” land management research projects with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this role, Owens will help realize the USDA’s vision of partnering with rural communities to sustain their land-based economies while addressing the crisis of climate change. According to the Western Landowners Alliance Executive Director Lesli Allison, the projects Owens will be overseeing will help the WLA “collaboratively develop a new model for working lands management, conservation, and financing that values how ranching and ecosystem services like clean water, healthy soils, and carbon storage can go together.”
As Owens concluded her presentation, she called for “healthy, whole, functional landscapes based on functional ecosystem processes (carbon, nutrients, water and diversity). Landscapes need to be able to support life,” she continued. “And we need good stewardship. We need to look after one another's lands.”
We need healthy, whole, functional landscapes based on functional ecosystem processes. Landscapes need to be able to support life. And we need good stewardship. We need to look after one another's lands
To close out the second panel, Bill Milton of Milton Ranch in central Montana took the stage. Bill and his wife Dana are ranchers, environmentalists and innovators who have been refining their conservation practices for the past 30 years. They manage their rangeland with regenerative grazing, have significantly reduced disturbance to the natural landscape by replacing aging infrastructure on their ranch, and employ inventive techniques to protect wildlife with whom they share their land. This work has earned them multiple conservation awards.
Suggesting that his contribution to “all this work” is his ability to facilitate and build bridges, Milton explained how he connects ranchers to the process of taking care of their land and their communities.
“The problem we're dealing with is social,” he proposed. “If ranchers are going to survive, we can't do it independently. We have to collaborate with those who are trying to save the landscape, whether it's carbon sequestration or other ecosystem services. The opportunities are there.”
When it comes to ranchers getting value out of the carbon market, Milton believes integrating them into the decision-making and design is key. “How do we get communities across one to two million acres to agree on how to measure carbon and how to bring a package to this emerging market? We must include the people who are skilled in the field. The community on the ground who will realize the benefits needs to be involved in the design.”
Before the second panel ended, Bill Lane Center faculty director Bruce Cain pointed out that none of the panelists had mentioned the value of putting solar panels and wind turbines on rangeland. With energy demand outpacing supply in the American West, would it not make sense to incorporate renewable energy sources into ranching operations?
Panelists affirmed that this question is asked all the time, and they acknowledged some work being done on integrating solar panels and windmills with grazing. But others remained skeptical, claiming that developing a resilient landscape is inefficient, and we shouldn’t always be chasing efficiency. “There could be lots of unintended consequences,” said Bre Owens. “I don’t want to see more acres of rangeland lost. There is more potential on these lands than we understand. Ranching touches almost everything.”
Panel 3: Rural health in the wake of COVID-19
While the morning panels looked at the health of rangelands, the afternoon panels shifted focus to human health. Bruce Cain moderated “Rural Health in the Wake of COVID-19,” which explored how rural health care systems have had to adapt to the crisis brought on by a global pandemic. Bringing together scholars and practitioners both, the third panel considered the present state and future potential of rural health systems at what is certainly a critical inflection point.
To begin, Phil Polakoff painted a grim picture of rural health in America, with high rates of opioid addiction, alcoholism and other ailments. But Polakoff, a Lane Center affiliated scholar and founder/CEO at A Healthier WE, quickly turned to solutions. He identified four essential health action areas: creating healthier, more equitable communities; making health a shared value; fostering cross-sector collaborations to improve well-being; and strengthening the integration of health services and systems. He also advocated for a “bottom-up” rather than “top-down” model of addressing community health needs: “We have lots of money coming out of Washington, but is it getting down to the community level? It's not.”
Since a last-minute snow storm prevented her from joining the Rural West Conference in person, Angelina Salazar, CEO of Western Healthcare Alliance (WHA), delivered a virtual presentation following Polakoff’s. She outlined some of the major health challenges facing rural communities today, and the ways in which her organization can help small health care companies navigate those challenges.
WHA is a regional network of member-owned companies providing rural healthcare units with support, business solutions and resources for “locally-driven healthcare.” Some of the member services they provide are support with billing and collections, purchasing, recruitment and retention, leadership education and more.
“We are trying to build relationships and trust among CEOs of healthcare companies because problem-solving and collaboration can only happen when there is trust,” Salazar explained.
She outlined some of the main ways in which a large healthcare alliance can help small, independent hospitals stay viable. These included facilitating meetings of directors, helping them solve problems that they identify, offering a leadership academy geared toward rural health, and tackling the pharmaceutical industry.
“Managing hospitals is hard,” she acknowledged. “It’s hard for CEOs. There’s lots of turnover,” Salazar said. Among the other challenges she listed were staffing and housing shortages and legislators who are hard on hospitals.
But as part of a collaborative health care alliance, WHA member companies are stronger and more resourced. They were more resilient during the worst days of the pandemic as well, Salazar explained. “Because of the collaboration already in place, we were better able to cope with COVID.”
The final speaker on the health care panel was Cora Neumann, a public health expert at the Native American Development Corporation. She recounted how Montana tribes were devastated by the pandemic, but how stories of hope, resilience and incredible Native leadership nonetheless emerged.
Noting that Native Americans make up the largest minority in Montana – seven percent of the population – Neumann shared that they also carry the largest burden of health disparities. While the rate of pandemic deaths among Native Americans in the U.S. was twice as high as the rate among white Americans, in Montana, it was 11 times as high. There were huge losses, Neumann reported, and the media carried story after story of devastation.
What Neumann wanted to do was lift up the stories of “hidden heroes” in Native communities. Tribes were among the first to mask and implement stay-at-home orders, Neumann shared. Native leaders worked to increase voter registration among tribes, lead online tutorials to spread public health messages, and organize mask campaigns and food drives. “People got creative,” Neumann remarked.
More recently, Neumann has been involved in development of a new clinic in Billings that will revitalize Indigenous knowledge, including food and health practices. In late 2022, the Native American Development Corporation, which focuses primarily on economic development, purchased a building to expand their reach and programming. Noting the connection between economic security and health, Neumann expressed excitement that the organization is dedicating resources to a wellness center. Her hope is that it will provide the kind of culturally integrated health care and social services Montana’s tribal communities need.
Panel 4: Colorado River water scarcity and its impact on the Western region
Four panelists concluded the conference with a lively discussion of the Colorado River Basin - its history, its water scarcity, and the policy challenges facing states dependent on its water supply. Opening the panel was moderator Felicia Marcus, William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, as well as an attorney, consultant and member of the Water Policy Group.
“The goal of this panel is to give you a glimpse [of Colorado River water issues] beyond the discourse in the media,” Marcus began. After offering a “Colorado River 101” overview on how the West has poorly managed its limited water, how the region is in the midst of a mega-drought, and how climate change makes this all worse, Marcus admonished that the West has to figure out how to adapt and be more responsible with our water use. She then turned to the water supply conflict facing the seven states and 10-30 tribes that are part of the Colorado River Basin. (While many sources cite 30 tribes as the official number living in the Colorado River Basin, 10 tribes hold 20 percent of the river’s total water rights.)
The conflict surrounding the dwindling water of the Colorado River is much too complex and protracted to fully summarize here, but suffice it to say that the seven states and many tribes making up the Basin all rely on the Colorado River for water. There’s not enough left for all of them to share, and the states have not reached consensus on a solution to the water crisis. As of early April 2023, the federal government has proposed that they might step in to cut the states’ water allotments.
Marcus provided a handout by Philip Womble of Stanford’s Water in the West program that summarizes where things currently stand with the Colorado River crisis. And panelist Jennifer Gimbel, senior water policy scholar at CSU’s Colorado Water Center at Colorado State University, pointed conference attendees to “Quenching Thirst in the Colorado River Basin,” a resource she co-authored on the history of the water conflict.
Gimbel spoke first, outlining present-day Colorado River operations, which can be traced all the way back to the Colorado River Compact. An interstate water contract developed in the early twentieth century, it contains laws and policies governing how Colorado River supply should be distributed among the seven basin states. But tribes in the Colorado River Basin also hold rights to the water, and the Compact didn’t take into account the current climate crisis and megadrought. So new conservation principles, environmental justice considerations and climate change adaptation strategies undoubtedly need to come into play if the populations depending on the Colorado River are to have their water and drink it too.
“I don't think we can buy our way out of this,” remarked Jennifer Gimbel at the end of her presentation. “There has to be some serious investment in how to move forward in the future. We will figure this out. It's gonna hurt, but we will figure it out.”
Bidtah Becker spoke next. She is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the chief legal counsel to the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice-President. In the past, Becker has served on the Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin, where she co-chaired the Universal Access to Clean Water effort.
Though there are 30 federally recognized tribes in the Basin, Native Americans were left out of Colorado River Compact. Since their water rights remain unresolved, their share of Colorado River water remains unquantified. (It takes a lawsuit – or many – to quantify water rights for Native Americans). Tribes today are still being denied access to their water, Becker explained, a resource to which they are legally entitled. “We have never even quantified our water rights in Arizona,” said Becker. “That keeps me up at night.”
Sometimes through tears, Becker recounted a story of Native water access dominated by the all-too-familiar themes of exclusion and injustice: “Tribal water - the legal property of tribes - was being used by somebody else. Tribes weren't getting paid for it, they weren't getting to use it. Who else does that happen to?” she asked.
To conclude the water panel, Kathryn Sorensen, an agricultural and resource economist at the Kyl Center for Water Policy, shared her perspective on Colorado River water use and the problematic 1922 Compact. “While the Compact divided the river into two basins and established allotments, it didn’t take into account the needs of tribes. And tribes still don’t have full access to the Colorado River,” she said.
Regarding agricultural water use, Sorensen admitted that agriculture is very efficient. But it still accounts for 70 percent of the water in the Colorado River System.
“Everyone thinks their own water use is justified and that no one else’s is,” Sorensen continued, noting that this attitude characterizes much of the conflict between the Upper River and Lower River Basin states. “But we have an obligation to provide safe, clean water to everyone. And we have to remember that.”
The question remains, how to do it? The water panelists seemed to agree that many strategies will have to be deployed: conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, desalination, better groundwater management, and nature-based solutions. Whatever policies decision-makers land upon to address the Colorado River crisis, they will undoubtedly take into account a sobering reality: the climate change discussion around resource management is no longer centered primarily on mitigation as it was a decade ago. This year, noted Lane Center Director Bruce Cain, many of the panels focused instead on adaptation.
Inspiring conversation and ongoing questions
Cain gave closing remarks to an audience energized by the innovation on display in so many of the panelists’ principles and practices. Always focused on solutions to the West’s most pressing problems, Cain warned that “technical solutions aren’t all that’s needed. It’s easy to think of these climate change challenges as purely technical. But the bottom line is that we also have to change human behavior. The way we farm, the way we allocate water to agriculture, the way we handle population growth.” There are real people behind these problems, and it’s the people who will need to adapt their behavior to a changing climate and a changing world.
Of course, at the end of such an idea-rich conference, many questions remain. The Bill Lane Center hopes to address questions emerging from the conference about how best to incentivize behavior change and practices that benefit human and ecosystem health. The Center also looks forward to continuing research related to carbon markets, regenerative grazing, resource management, water policy, rural health, and all the issues that make the American West such a rich, complex, and rewarding region to study.
The Bill Lane Center's Rural West Initiative is made possible by generous support from the Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Foundation.