Our Working Landscapes: A Lot to Say Grace Over

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

There is an old saying that you might not hear much anymore. In my youth when family or friends were presented with a particularly complex set of circumstances, conditions or tasks their summary of the situation might be that it was “a lot to say grace over,” reflecting that there was so much on the table one hardly knew where to begin. But also implicit in that old saying are that while difficult and complex the problems are both solvable and, above all, cannot be walked away from.

Twenty years ago in the Blackfoot River Valley in western Montana the landowners, communities, agencies and institutions had a lot to say grace over. The challenges in this 1.5 million acre watershed of world-class natural resources were diverse. Water quality concerns, endangered species issues, noxious weed infestation and subdivision of working ranches in to smaller ranchettes for recreational living. The landscape was headed for a train wreck for both local people and for nature. However a small group of landowners envisioned a different path and the Blackfoot Challenge was born.

The Blackfoot Challenge was built on several key ideas. That the agricultural economy and local communities were as important as ecological integrity, that most stakeholders in the landscape could agree on about 80% of the issues and that effective collaboration and partnership could lead to win-win outcomes. The Blackfoot Challenge was and still is a landowner- and community-led organization. Over 20 years, it has worked with almost every private interest and local, state and federal agency with an interest in the landscape to put these ideas in to action. Those involved in the Blackfoot Challenge have been very successful in building a brighter future for both private and public resources in the valley. This effort should be an inspiring model for working landscapes across the country.

But has it been? Our working landscapes are under great stress all over the country. Never has the demand for the services they provide been greater. They are the source of our food, our water, our energy, our wildlife habitat and many other products and services that most of the country takes for granted. Collaboration and partnership have never been more needed, but for the most part large scale collaboration and partnership remain exceptions rather than the rule.

Partners for Conservation (PFC) is a relatively new national organization that has its roots in the strong commitment of the Blackfoot Challenge to sharing what the group has learned with the rest of the nation. PFC was established by landowners who have worked collaboratively with public and private partners around the country. The organization strives to make landscape-scale collaboration the preferred method of addressing our national natural resource and agricultural challenges. These landowner-leaders are deeply committed to this effort, not because it sounds nice, but because they have all experienced positive change in their landscapes when they reached out and became actively engaged in collaborative efforts. They know it works and are eager to share what they know.

Even though landscapes and agricultural production systems differ across the country, when you drill down to motivations, major concerns, issues, and aspirations for the future, private landowners are largely similar. Most of them want to leave their land to their children in a higher functional state than when they acquired it. They have to be able to make things work economically while also ensuring sustainability of their local communities. State, federal and local agencies have widely different missions but the ones that are most directly engaged on working landscapes share many of these same objectives even if they are not included in the mission statement. Given the scope of the challenges it is obvious that effective, sustainable solutions can only be achieved by pulling together and concentrating on what we can do rather than what we can’t do.

When landowners and other involved in these collaborations are asked about their success you find common threads. Primary among them is the development of trust between landowners or other local interests and the public partners. Without trust you are not going anywhere. To have trust first you have to have a relationship and before you have a productive relationship you have to have a conversation. A real conversation includes both talking and listening that results in increased understanding by those involved. This is not as easy as it sounds. Sustainable relationship building happens at its own pace based on the individual situation and setting. To even have that first conversation, leadership and courage are required. The risks involved in doing something different are real, for both public employees and private landowners. Once there is effective, transparent communication and trust the partners will be able to work collaboratively to develop a shared vision of success. It is mostly about building relationships between individuals. Rarely mentioned are the dollars, programs, political mandates etc. All that comes afterwards.

Nationally, we do have a lot to say grace over when it comes to maintaining and sustaining our working landscapes in the face of ever increasing demands. But we do know how to do this. Just because there is a lot on our plates we should not be tempted to get up from the table and walk away. Rather, we should seize the opportunity through efforts like Partners for Conservation, AGree, and others to conserve our natural resources while we sustain our communities.

Steve Jester is Executive Director of Partners for Conservation.. This blog is adapted from an AGree point of view paper, Increasing Sustainability of America’s Working Landscapes Through Improved Public-Private Collaborations at Multiple Scales authored by Jester along with Jim Faulstich, Vice Chairman of Partners for Conservation and Daybreak Ranch in South Dakota, and Jim Stone, Chairman of Partners for Conservation and a Montana cattle rancher.