The sweeping vistas of the American West are vast, and home to deep divisions over how the millions of acres — a mix of private and public land that supports families, communities and wildlife — should be used.
In 2011, the nonprofit Western Landowners Alliance, based in Santa Fe, formed to help give ranch owners and managers a voice in the conversation, and also to provide a network among peers to share information about what works — and what doesn’t — in managing a ranch sustainably.
“Our focus is keeping lands economically viable and prosperous, and to not have such a polarized conversation on how to do that,” said Lesli Allison, a founding member and executive director of the alliance.
The polarization is visible on many fronts, Allison said.
“It’s environmentalists versus the ranchers, it’s urban versus rural, Trump versus Clinton, but the people are ready for public dialogue and they are tired of polarization. You can’t manage these lands by sound bite and the landowners haven’t been represented,” she said.
The organization is focused on the Rocky Mountain West to the West Coast.
“We’re a voice for landowners and common sense, pragmatic policies at the state and federal level,” she said.
The organization also offers a network of people with deep experience in managing lands across the West sustainably for food, fuel and ecology.
Kelly Bennett’s family recently bought a 5,000-acre ranch, with cattle, wheat and hay, near Ennis, Montana, about 45 miles from Bozeman in the southwest corner of the state. It was the last piece of a much larger operation that had been sold in pieces over the years to help the owning family make ends meet, Bennett said.
The Bennett family used to ranch near Fort Collins, but that was three generations back, said Bennett. He’s a board member with the alliance, a managing partner with Denver-based energy consulting firm Ponderosa Advisors LLC, and a co-founder of Denver-based Water Sage, a data and mapping company focused on water rights ownership in the West.
“Now, we’re back on the land and we knew it needed work and there had to be science and information out there that could help us,” he said.
They found a wealth of information among the members of the association, including advice on what kind of fencing to use that will keep cattle in but also allow for wildlife — including migrating herds of elk and deer — to move safely through the property, Bennett said.
“We want to protect the land but we don’t have a $1 billion endowment to work with. The average landowner needs the land to make money,” he said.
With the alliance, “we’re building the tools to help people stay on the land and keep it sustained so they don’t have to sell it,” Bennett said.
Ken Mirr helps people buy and sell ranches via the Denver-based Mirr Ranch Group. He works on agreements related to conservation easements — agreements that offer a financial incentive to ensure a section of land won’t be developed.
He’s also a board member for the alliance, and believes working with ranch owners and operators is a way to leverage sustainable practices across thousands of acres of land.
“Some ranchers may have 400 acres via a deed and manage 200,000 or 300,000 acres of public land, and 80 percent of the wildlife depends on private lands to survive,” Mirr said.
“Ranchers own vast amounts of land and for them to collaborate, it means a huge amount to them and to the land,” Mirr said.
Cathy Proctor covers energy, the environment and transportation for the Denver Business Journal and edits the weekly “Energy Inc.” email newsletter. Phone: 303-803-9233. Subscribe to the Energy Inc. newsletter