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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Forging the New West

For decades, environmentalists and ranchers have fought bitterly over the effects of grazing livestock on public lands, often squaring off in court. But these days, the debate is a little less acrimonious, and—thanks in large part to Courtney White ’82—the two groups have even begun to work together.

White is executive director of the Quivira Coalition, a 10-year-old conservation group that promotes environmentally sustainable ranching. Taking its name from an old Spanish term that refers to the “unknown territory beyond the frontier” or “an elusive golden dream,” the coalition has helped to bridge the divide between environmental groups that are concerned about damage to the land and wildlife from overgrazing, and ranchers who are worried about losing their federal grazing permits—and their way of life.

White co-founded the coalition in 1997 with rancher Jim Winder. White, who was working for the Sierra Club at the time, was impressed by Winder’s conservation-minded approach to ranching, and the two began talking about how to create a “progressive ranching” movement in which environmentalists and ranchers could find common ground and work together for the benefit of both the land and local economies. A few meetings later, the Quivira Coalition was born.

“What Jim and I found was that environmentalists and ranchers had more in common than differences,” says White, who got a taste of public land conflicts while working as an archaeologist for the National Park Service in the mid-1990s.

In his new book, Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West (Island Press, 2008), White recounts the coalition’s evolution from a handful of members to a widely-respected organization of thousands of environmentalists, ranchers, federal and state land management officials, ecologists, and members of the public. Over the years, both environmentalists and ranchers have begun to see things from the others’ perspective, resulting in more collaboration and better land management, says White. At the coalition’s annual conference, held in Albuquerque each January, the halls are filled with an unusual sight: ranchers in western shirts and cowboy hats mingling with environmentalists in Patagonia fleece and hiking boots. Clearly, the “new ranch” concept is gaining ground.

For White, the book also traces his personal journey in trying to forge a progressive ranching movement characterized by resilience—of both the ecosystem and the ranching industry.

“We’re trying to work at the nexus of ecology and agriculture,” White says. “And, personally, I think that’s where the action’s going to be in the future—not just for environmentalists, but for ranchers, landowners, and everyone else. The principles of healthy lands and healthy economics are the same.”

White says his time at Reed helped shape his conservation vision. “Reed taught me that things are always more complicated than they appear,” he says. “The critical thinking that’s at the core of a Reed education set me up for critically analyzing the conflict between environmentalists and ranchers.”

Reed also had a lasting effect on White’s personal life. He met his wife, fellow Reedie Genevieve Head ’83, in the college’s parking lot the first day he arrived, 30 years ago this summer. “I got a lot out of Reed, but the best thing was meeting Gen,” he says.

Like his decades-long marriage, White’s effort to bring together disparate interests to work toward a shared goal has been successful largely because of careful attention to relationship-building.

“Fundamentally, what makes the world work are relationships—between people; between people and the land; and between ecological processes,” he says. “When we started, the ranchers accused us of being an environmental group, and the environmentalists accused us of being handmaidens of the ranching community. But the range wars have largely faded away.”

—April Reese

reed magazine logoSpring 2008