For decades, local, state and federal programs have provided the potential for agriculture operations to embrace a land stewardship that preserves our water, soils and wildlife on public and private lands that meets the financial needs of family farms and ranches, all while conserving the land for the next generation.
Now, as President Donald Trump’s administration gets their feet under them to develop policies that will shape how our federal government interacts with private farmers and ranchers and state and local governments, there are tremendous opportunities to strengthen and streamline how we all interact.
There is a growing consensus on a few issues that could be improved to benefit both land managers and landscapes alike. A coalition of landowners known as the Western Landowners Alliance have identified three strategies that can create jobs, strengthen rural economies, increase water supplies, help wildlife and provide solid returns for taxpayer investments.
First, we need to improve the implementation of the Endangered Species Act to advance recovery and delist species more quickly and cost-effectively by providing support and incentives for proactive, voluntary conservation actions. The Departments of Interior and Agriculture, through administrative action, can and should place a greater emphasis on imperiled species recovery, opposed to a primary focus of species listing. Urban and industrial development and public recreation have displaced species from many of their native habitats and the majority of those remaining depend on private land for survival. As a result, the costs of conserving and recovering these species are incurred by ranchers and farmers who earn their livelihoods from the land. By providing support and incentives through voluntary conservation actions, private landowners can embrace a pro-active land management approach that will provide species habitat improvement without risk to their land or their bottom-line. This, in turn, saves taxpayers money by reducing the high costs and conflicts associated with listing and recovery.
Next, the Trump administration has an opportunity to strengthen rural economies and create jobs by engaging ranchers and farmers in practices that increase water security essential to communities and industries throughout the West. Water shortages are already jeopardizing everything from breadbasket agricultural production and energy development to outdoor recreation and placing much of the nation’s economy at risk. The way in which land is managed greatly impacts water supplies. With the appropriate technical, financial and policy support, farmers and ranchers can play an important role in increasing and securing these water resources. In particular, the USDA should explicitly include restoration of public and private lands as a central theme of its rural economic development strategy while incentivizing restoration-related markets. Further, DOI can establish a stakeholder process in an effort to restore BLM lands by increasing permit flexibility for innovative grazing management, rest, and seasonal use adjustments to meet restoration goals.
Third, the new administration should consider improving federal inter-agency cooperation and outreach with rural stakeholders to synchronize the management of land, wildlife, and natural resources across ownerships and jurisdictions. These efforts can provide guidance and funding to better enable agencies and local communities to engage in place-based, collaborative land use planning and implementation. Engaging private landowners with property adjacent to federal lands has the potential to result in cross boundary efforts.
Finally, we need to support and improve what is already working to keep the West’s working lands and rural economies economically productive and healthy. The Sage Grouse Initiative, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and the many place-based collaborative conservation initiatives are examples of programs that have proven successful and should serve as models going forward.
The prosperity of rural communities is directly connected to the health and productivity of both the public and private working lands on which they depend. Greater collaboration in the multiple-use management of these landscapes can significantly improve the outlook in the rural West while reducing costs to taxpayers, landowners, insurance companies and other businesses.