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Healing Western Landscapes From Conservation’s ‘Radical Center’
By Ben Goldfarb
Avery Anderson Sponholtz
When Avery Anderson Sponholtz ’07 M.E.M. arrived in New Mexico for a summer internship with the Quivira Coalition in 2007, her first thought was that she might as well have gone to work on the moon. The parched land was riven by dry creek beds and brushed with only a sparse patina of grass. Scrubby desert willows and piñon pines clung to the loose soil. Where were the oaks? The maples? The elms?
“I’d spent two years in New Haven becoming familiar with northern hardwood forests,” recalls Sponholtz. “And then I moved to a place where it wasn’t obvious that any of these things were actually trees.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of her new employer, either. Sponholtz had spent the two previous summers researching wildlife conflicts in the Yellowstone area, where conservation groups and ranchers were at constant odds over how to manage the region’s carnivore populations. “I’d grown frustrated that many of the ranchers and conservation groups with whom I spoke couldn’t see that they shared goals,” Sponholtz says now. There had to be a way to bring the two communities together, but harmony didn’t appear to be forthcoming in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Sponholtz began to cast around for an alternative model.
She found one in the Quivira Coalition, a Santa Fe-based network of ranchers, farmers, scientists, conservationists, civil servants, and native peoples devoted to building resilience on western working landscapes. From the first day of her internship, Sponholtz could tell that Quivira wasn’t just interested in multi-stakeholder collaboration — it seemed practically obsessed with the concept.
Alumni on Campus
Avery Anderson Sponholtz will be at F&ES to speak about “Conservation on Working Lands” as part of the Beef & Grazing Series.
April 1, 2014 12 pm in Sage 24
For starters, the group did no policy work whatsoever — in fact, a prohibition on advocacy was written into its bylaws. Quivira’s founder, Courtney White, characterized traditional environmentalism as the “conflict industry.” She aspired to position Quivira at the “radical center” of land management: a cooperative middle ground on which ranchers and farmers managed their lands according to ecologically sound principles, environmentalists worked with agriculture rather than against it, and government scientists produced applied research with tangible implications for land management.
If that sounded Utopian, well, that was the whole point: Quivira’s very name is a colonial Spanish word that translates as “elusive golden dream.”
The golden dreamers who ran Quivira were committed to not only developing ideas about how to heal land, but also to implementing them. “Rather than a think tank, Quivira has strived to serve as a Do Tank,” explains Sponholtz, who stuck around after her internship to run Quivira’s New Agrarian Program, an apprenticeship program for young farmers and ranchers, before stepping into the position of Executive Director last year. “We see ranchers trying innovative land management techniques that their neighbors think are absolutely insane, and then we beta-test those good ideas,” she says.
Foremost among these crazy ideas: grazing cattle in a way that mimics the behavior of local wild herbivores, like elk and deer. Strategically nibbled grasses, says Sponholtz, die off at the root and return their carbon to the soil instead of the atmosphere, mitigating climate change, storing groundwater, and producing healthier land and more valuable cows in the process.
“The ranchers within Quivira’s community think of themselves as grass farmers and land stewards as much as they identify as beef producers.”
— Avery Anderson Sponholtz
“The ranchers within Quivira’s community think of themselves as grass farmers and land stewards as much as they identify as beef producers,” says Sponholtz. “At a core level, it’s irrelevant whether or not a particular rancher shares my understanding about climate science. If they’re out there every day implementing land management techniques that sequester carbon in soil, then we’re working towards a common goal.”
Another practice that Quivira espouses is restoring degraded stream habitats back to a stable form and function, often using little more than a few shrewdly placed branches and rocks. For Sponholtz, the benefits of rehabilitating streams have transcended improved water quality and trout habitat: her husband, Craig Sponholtz, is a stream restoration specialist and longtime Quivira partner. The two even met for the first time along a stream, at a Quivira workshop in northern New Mexico’s Valle Vidal.
For all of Quivira’s technical and biophysical innovations, Sponholtz is the first to acknowledge the cultural challenges the group still faces. The average age of a New Mexican farmer/rancher is 60, and the state’s minority populations are growing. Whether there will be young, enlightened agrarians to replace the outgoing generation may depend on how environmental groups deal with these demographic changes.
Sponholtz, who in just a few years went from bemused intern to one of New Mexico Business Weekly’s “40 Under Forty” leaders in 2011, understands the stakes as well as anyone. Quivira is committed to expanding its apprenticeship and training for new agrarians, and to better integrating diverse kinds of knowledge and expertise in its other programs. “If we as a movement don’t engage diverse communities, the movement dies,” she acknowledges. “The futures of conservation and agriculture depend on it.”
Ben Goldfarb is a 2013 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, High Country News, OnEarth Magazine, Yale Environment 360, and elsewhere.