Why Help Ranchers Improve Our Watershed?

In response to an article by Bobby Magill in the Ft. Collins Coloradoan about a new “Ecosystem Services” Conservation Effort in Larimer County, one reader questioned whether city dwellers should contribute funds to help farmers and ranchers reduce nutrient or sediment pollution that flows from their lands into the watershed.  Shouldn’t there be regulations that force landowners to assume these costs themselves? he asked.

A legitimate question.  Here is the answer prepared by the Steering Committee of the Colorado Conservation Exchange, the group promoting the ecosystem services concept.

There are hundreds of small livestock and horse operations in our watershed, and thousands of agricultural crop lands.  Individually, none of them releases significant pollution or sediment into lakes and streams.  Collectively, they hold the potential to improve water quality for all.

Stringent new government regulations prohibiting nutrient runoff would drive all but the largest of these enterprises out of business.  Alternatively, food prices would increase, shifting the added costs of compliance onto consumers. This would damage a large segment of our economy, not to mention endangering our local food supply.

A better idea is the creation of a voluntary marketplace whereby those who benefit from clean water can contribute to the cost of improved watershed stewardship.  Planting barrier strips, channeling runoff into pastures, moving corrals, and building erosion control structures require money and effort.  It’s less expensive for urban users–water utilities, breweries, factories and households–to share in these costs than it is to invest in expensive new water treatment technologies.  A number of ecosystem service markets in other parts of the country have demonstrated that everyone wins with these collaborative efforts.

Good stewardship of private lands provides other benefits to communities.  Owners of both Sylvan Dale and Roberts Ranch have donated as much as eighty percent of their land to conservation easements, creating permanent open space and wildlife habitat.  Both ranches use rapid rotation grazing to enhance native vegetation and reduce noxious weeds.  Irrigated hay pastures are kept free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which protects water quality.

All residents, urban and rural, enjoy the benefits of these ecosystem-enhancing practices.  Sharing their costs helps bridge the rural-urban divide.  Working land managers learn about the impact of their operations on surrounding communities.   Urban dwellers gain an understanding of food production techniques that protect the environment and the quality of life.  By partnering, each has a chance to walk in the other’s shoes (or boots).

Colorado Conservation Exchange Steering Committee members

David Jessup, Sylvan Dale Ranch

Josh Goldstein, CSU Dept. of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources

Patrick Flynn, CSU Center for Collaborative Conservation

Robin Reid, CSU Center for Collaborative Conservation

Hill Grimmet, Be Local

Heather Knight, The Nature Conservancy