Western Landowners Alliance strives for economics, conservation balance
In 2011, a group of conservation-minded landowners met for the first time, with the intention of developing an organization to represent those landowners and land managers across the West who were passionate about improving the health of western landscapes along with the livelihood and prosperity of rural economies through conservation.
The Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) was incorporated in 2012, and they applied for their 501(c)3 designation the following year.
“We’ve seen so much polarized debate been industry and environmental groups,” WLA Executive Director Lesli Allison says. “Landowners are really the piece that connects those two pieces. They care a lot about the environment but also must make a living on the land.”
“We believe WLA helps all sides engage in really positive discussions about conservation,” she comments.
From the beginning
In their beginning, Allison notes Texas landowner Paul Vahldiek moved to Colorado, he began to observe the landscape and noticed it wasn’t very healthy.
“The aspens on the ranch weren’t regenerating and streams weren’t in good shape,” Allison says. “He wanted to understand the land better and understand what was happening.”
Vahldiek began working with conservation biologists at several organizations to increase wildlife connectivity and improve the health of the landscape.
“After his experience, Paul and others called a meeting of owners and land managers in 2011. We had about 8 million acres of deeded and leased land represented in that meeting, and we knew right away there was a strong interest in doing positive things on the land,” Allision comments.
Today, WLA works across the western U.S. with the mission of “advancing policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.”
“We put working lands first,” Allison emphasizes, noting both deeded and leased public lands are included. “Working lands are the cornerstone of the West, and we need to keep those lands financially viable and profitable to support rural economies.”
Their second priority is to improve wildlife connectivity across the western states and ensure that native plant communities thrive.
“To do that, we focus on removing barriers for landowners,” Allison says.
“A lot of times, it’s not enough just to want to take care of the land. We need the knowledge, financial means and public policy to do so,” she continues.
The first piece of sustaining working lands, connected landscapes and native species is through use of knowledge and sciences on the land.
“There are a lot of resources available through academic organizations, university Extension and more trying to teach landowners how to manage their land,” Allison explains. “There is also a wealth of knowledge and experience within the landowner community but few opportunities to share that knowledge with one another. “
As a result, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing has become an important piece of WLA’s work.
“We host field tours and forums to provide an opportunity to share lessons learned and experience,” she adds. “It’s a lot of fun for people to get together and trade experiences.”
Finances and policy
WLA also understands that, aside from knowledge, it’s also essential to have financial means to implement conservation measures on the land.
“Owning and managing land is expensive, and it can be hard to make a living in ag,” Allison says. “We want to be able to improve the health and profitability of ag lands in the West so we can conserve them and the next generation can come back and make a living.”
The final piece of working on the landscape is public policy.
“We have to have public policy that supports conservation, and sometimes, policies can get in the way,” Allison notes. “For example, we have plenty of landowners who want to help recover endangered species, but if the result of increasing species on their land is just more regulation for the ranch, it can be a significant disincentive.”
On the ground
Rick Danvir, WLA advisor, says the organization has worked throughout Wyoming in several areas, but he notes a significant role in interacting with ranchers and wildlife groups to focus on wildlife corridors.
“I started representing WLA when there was a group working on the Red Desert to Hoback mule deer migration, as the issue was pinpointed as an area of importance,” he explains. “One of the reasons these migration corridors exist is because private landowners have allowed them to, and we recognize the importance of landowners.”
Danvir says WLA has also been involved in grazing studies that established the efficacy and importance of strategic rotational grazing on ranches of all size, and the organization has recently focused on working with the Western Governors’ Association on its Endangered Species Act initiative and to improve forestry and range stewardship.
“The work of WLA is landowner-led and member-driven,” Danvir emphasizes. “We’re an evolving organization that believes in locally driven efforts. This organization provides a great opportunity for Wyoming landowners who want to be involved in the conversation.”
As the organization continues to grow, Allison says a primary goal of WLA is to continue to increase the size of the network to enhance their ability for sharing knowledge and influencing policy.
“We’re a young, growing organization,” she explains. “The more people we have with us, the better we can share knowledge and have a better influence in public policy.”
“We have some fantastic stories to tell, and we’d like to help improve understanding among stakeholders and improve the public dialogue,” Allision continues.
Recently, new staff members have been added to support the work of WLA in different states across the country.
“Often, people try to put us in a box,” Allision explains. “We’re either ranchers or not, environmentalists or not. The point of WLA is to not stay in any box.”
She continues, “People are trying to find solutions to complex challenges in complex landscapes where there are no black-and-white solutions. WLA is an organization where people can come together, away from the rhetoric and polarization of the conversations that we are having today.”
Today, landscapes across the West are changing, and Allison explains the U.S. is moving from an era of conservation where the focus was on protecting wild places by segregating them from human impact through wilderness and other designations, but now, we are entering a new era that requires a different approach.
“As we move forward, we will have a lot more conversations about conservation in working landscapes. These are the lands that produce our food, fiber, energy and other resources while also supporting our ecosystems on an increasingly crowded planet. And, importantly, these are peopled landscapes,” Allison emphasizes. “That’s going to mean developing positive working relationships, more flexibility and the ability interact together. WLA plans on being a part of that conversation and working together into the future.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.