Read our Charter: Western Landowners Alliance Charter
For many of us, our lands are like family, and we want to know they will thrive. But the West’s natural beauty, productivity, and wildlife face ever-increasing challenges. Each year some 1.6 million acres of privately owned farms, ranches, and forests in the US are sold for development (USDA, 2007). As a result, the rural working heritage of the West is eroding, with families losing their land and communities experiencing painfully rapid changes. Meanwhile, wildlife are increasingly squeezed into smaller and less connected habitats and the wild and semi-wild open land that is left is increasingly fragmented, with few areas still graced by a full complement of native species. Such fragmentation causes cascades of indirect effects that ripple through ecosystems and diminish biodiversity, and the resilience and ecological services (like clean air & water) provided by the land.
Private ranches, farms, and forest properties are an important economic and cultural mainstay for rural communities throughout the West. These working lands* provide jobs and a high quality way of life. They also provide valuable open space, protect crucial habitat and wildlife corridors, harbor the majority of imperiled species, and control much of the water, including headwaters that are critical for healthy watersheds and downstream users.
Yet landowners face many challenges in keeping these lands healthy and intact, including an increasingly complex regulatory environment, and rising property values leading to higher property and estate taxes. The majority of family farms and ranches require off-farm income to survive. Few of the ecological services like carbon storage, habitat, and air purification provided by working lands have been monetized, and markets for high quality products that reflect good stewardship remain elusive. The high operational costs on working lands combined with residential real estate values creates great pressure to subdivide or leave the land entirely. In addition to land use changes, climate change, forest diseases, degradation of water quality and availability, declines in species diversity, invasive species, and other interrelated problems are rapidly altering Western landscapes and creating dense management challenges.
Faced with these challenges, in late July 2011, a diverse group of landowners and managers, conservation biologists, and private investment advisors – representing 8 million acres of deeded and leased land across nine Western states and Alberta – met for three days at the High Lonesome Ranch in western Colorado to explore what we could do. We asked:
- Is it possible to sustain mixed-use rural enterprises on private lands, while also preventing land fragmentation, restoring land health and native species, and conserving open space and habitat?
- Would we provide significant value if we developed a structured way for working lands innovators to network with each other, exchange good ideas and management strategies, and to cross-pollinate between existing regional or local landowner organizations?
The answer was an overwhelming YES! There is hunger for knowledge and networking amongst land owners/managers of how to sustain their business while increasing the conservation contribution of their lands. There is a growing recognition among many landowners that we can and must increase our collective power to prevent the fragmentation of important wildlife corridors and critical habitats, the loss of the working landscapes, and the economic decline and depopulation of rural communities of the West.
This nascent “Founders Group” then spent the better part of a year interviewing an extensive list of landowners and managers, academics, field staff for public land management agencies, and others who have been probing similar questions for years. We honed in on commonly cited challenges facing working lands, and probed interest in landowners to work together towards shared land health goals.
A Conservation-Minded Landowner Community for the West
Most interviewees expressed a desire for a West-wide organization that advocates on behalf of landowners who operate from a conservation-oriented land ethic; they want to work collectively with land management agencies to improve policies and incentives for conservation activities on working lands; and they think that, collectively, we can leverage the impact we each have individually on our isolated properties by organizing across the West and creating a community.
There is good reason for landowners to organize at the local level to address local needs, and there are some very effective local or regional landowner groups such as the Chama Peak Lands Alliance, Blackfoot Challenge, Quivira Coalition, and Malpai Borderlands Group to name a few. Yet the Founders Group agreed that the big problems facing the West must be addressed at the scale of the problem. The idea of the Western Landowners Alliance was born.
Building an Organization
Realizing a niche needs filling, the Founders Group met again at High Lonesome Ranch in March 2012 to design a new organization. There was a clear sense of history making in the air, with the recognition that this new organization has the potential to dramatically reshape tired culture wars and vitriol over land management of the West. The first official board meeting was held in December of 2012, with bylaws and a 501c3 non-profit application submitted in January of 2013.
Connecting for Solutions
It is well documented that lands of strong ecological health are more productive and resilient to stress. Such lands engender greater economic prosperity for the communities reliant on those lands, via direct commodity production and ecosystem services. These services include clean water and air, productive soil, carbon storage, hunting, angling and other recreational uses, aesthetics, and other benefits to communities.
The Western Landowners Alliance now represents landowners and managers from Sonora, Mexico to Alberta, Canada throughout the Intermountain West, banded together in dedication to assuring the land is whole, healthy, productive, and maintains a place for their families to prosper. We invite you to join us.
Lesli Allison | Joe Austin | Avery Anderson | Keith Bowers | Belle Chesnick | George Cooper | Mary Conover | Lavinia Currier | Belle Chesnick | Wes Davies | Stacy Davies | Rick Danvir Monique DiGiorgio | Jamie Dutcher | Jim Dutcher | Kenyon Fields | Todd Graham | Stephanie Gripne | Beth Haley | Jim Howell | Mark Kossler | Beau Larkin | Rose Letwin | Robert Keith | John Richardson | John Russell | Michael Stevens | Aaron Jones | Janine Salwasser | Hal Salwasser | Margo McKnight | Bill McDonald | Jim Orr | Mike Phillips | Luther Propst |Richard Pritzlaff | Susannah Smith | Dr. Michael Soulé | Scott Stewart | Nelson Shirley | Kate Stone | Craig Taggart | Whitney Tilt | Paul R. Vahldiek Jr. | Lissa Walls-Vahldiek | Matt Williamson | Mike Welch
* We use the terms “ranches,” “working lands,” “mixed-use lands” and “private lands” synonymously to denote large deeded parcels, or mixed parcels of deeded and public allotment land. We consider a variety of practices as qualifying as “working” use of the land, including grazing, timber management, guest services, and active conservation management.