Land Stewardship May Not Be What it Seems

March 24, 2014

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This article was originally published in the Fountain Valley School Winter 2013 Bulletin. 

For most of Earth’s history, “land management” was a meaningless term; nature simply managed itself. More recent efforts by humans to manage land in the image of nature have met with varying degrees of success. An increasing environmental consciousness has driven society to search for a balance between our highly consumptive culture and a desire to preserve our landscapes and the resources they provide. Complicating that search are often-antagonistic schools of thought on resource management, political considerations and the ethics of competing environmental agendas. So what can the natural world tell us about how to manage our resource base?  And how can Fountain Valley School play a role in developing a new model of land and resource management?

At its dawn, humankind existed as a small piece of nature—a largely insignificant component of the larger whole with minimal impact on mother earth. But clearly, that dynamic has changed. Human population has soared. As nations and their economies develop, the populace inevitably migrates toward cities (98 percent of Americans live in cities today), becoming further isolated from nature and its processes. At the same time, we have the greatest impact on nature that we have ever had due to the sheer number of humans, the infrastructure we have built and the manipulation of our natural resources. Our methods of providing food, energy, transportation and other consumables often fail to account for the negative externalities they produce, resulting in a significant, unfavorable impact on the natural systems that maintained equilibrium for eons.

Our impact has become so great that society as a whole has grown increasingly eco-conscious. Recent scientific data, environmental disasters and dire predictions of a dwindling resources base have caused the land management pendulum to swing far over to the conservation end of the spectrum. But “pure conservation” is rarely the answer. Letting land lie empty and fallow ignores an important truth: the land evolved with an essential, balanced network of producers and consumers. While that balance may have been altered by years of human impact, it’s still a necessary feature of any landscape. With human beings an undeniable force in the shaping of nature’s “new normal,” it is necessary to manage for a balance of important aspects relating to the growing human footprint.

Many of the pitfalls of modern land management stem from the complexities of nature itself.  Even in the natural world, “sustainability” is a misnomer; change is the rule, not the exception. The natural world is not the same as it was a thousand years ago, nor is it the same as it was a million years ago. Nature has always been a system made up of many interdependent phenomena that are in a constant state of fluctuation—the competing dichotomies of moisture and dryness, cold and heat, expansion and contraction, destruction and renewal—that evolves over time to create incremental change. Species that can adapt will thrive. Those that cannot are left by the wayside.

And so as much as we try to harness nature and control its processes, we’re never fully free from its vagaries—especially those of us who make a living directly from what the land will produce. We have learned that we must follow nature’s example and adapt to our surroundings.  As a rancher, I find that an increasingly important part of my job is finding ways to adapt to nature’s new normal. Natural and economic forces create boom and bust cattle markets. Drought brings hardship to our land and our herds. Rain spawns new life and new hope.

My business, Ranchlands, provides land management services for conservation-minded owners. Whether partnering with state government or agencies, private individuals, or conservation non-profits, my land management decisions are subject to intense scrutiny. Each organization’s goals are different, but they all expect some combination of conservation, social responsibility and economic returns. To balance those needs, I have been striving for decades to operate holistically—managing each system with an ever-present knowledge that it is part of an interconnected whole. Each goal involves choosing priorities. Each tactic has the potential for unforeseen consequences. In trying to manage for a healthy whole, I have learned to look at my land as a diversified resource base, moving beyond just cattle to implement a series of land-based businesses, each one working in tandem, each one supporting the others and ensuring that no single resource is overtaxed.

Two of my children, both FVS graduates, are playing a role in our family business. They bring with them the perspective of a new generation of young people, formed to a large degree by their experience at Fountain Valley.

My daughter Tess Phillips Leach ’04 has led the development of our recreation and hospitality program on two properties we manage. Our programs bring visitors to our ranches to experience our style of ranching, learn about our nature, and understand the important role that ranching and grazing play in the conservation of our western lands. These programs are an important part of our conservation efforts. By diversifying our income sources, we’re not forced to tax our grasslands beyond what is healthy in order to sustain the business. Tess’s efforts have taken her across the United States as well as to England, Germany, and Morocco as she revamps our marketing efforts to reach a wider domestic and international audience. It’s a prime example of adapting our practices to better utilize our resources.

My son, Duke Phillips ’06, has recently re-joined the business as well. After spending a year mustering cattle on Australia’s mammoth cattle stations, Duke has come on board to be responsible for our cattle and land management programs across all of our properties. Duke will be leading our conservation efforts, ensuring that each of our ventures is making the positive contributions to our business, our ecosystem and our communities that our partners expect.

I mentioned that we “strive” to practice holistic management. We don’t pretend to have all of the answers. Part of our holistic philosophy requires constant re-evaluation of our status and our strategies. On a regular basis, we look at various indicators to determine our level of success toward our goals. Are we promoting native species that were once scarce on the ranch?  Are we effectively controlling invasive species?  What effects are these programs having on our wild game populations?  How can we use our resources to diversify in order to create flexibility in times of economic or climatic duress?  How can we attract the very best people to our organization?  How can we use our livestock herds to improve biologic outcomes?  These reflective exercises help us identify whether our models are being effective, if our goals are being met, or if our objectives need to change.

The Fountain Valley School community is no different. It is a perfect example of the multidimensional challenges and opportunities associated with modern land management. The School has a rich Western heritage dating back to its original use as a working cattle ranch. Despite its change in mission, the land asset—1,100 acres of rolling prairie and riparian areas—remains fundamental to the School’s identity. It also represents a significant portion of the school’s financial assets, adding to the gravity surrounding our management decisions. The land is used by the school as an outdoor classroom, for recreation, for the production of agricultural products and as open space—a harbor for wildlife. The land has also features rich ecological diversity, irrigation resources, wildlife populations and native forage. The community of people living on the school property is diverse as well: students, administration, faculty and families. Alumni care deeply about the land they spend some of their most important formative years on. Surrounding the school are city neighborhoods, fire stations, hospitals, businesses and a network of roads, utility infrastructure and public use spaces. While it may be difficult to see how their goals align, each of these stakeholders has an interest in how the land is managed now and into the future.

All of this complexity leaves us with more questions than answers, but in land management that’s not always a bad place to start. What are our priorities for Fountain Valley School’s land resource?  Education?  Recreation?  Conservation?  Economics?  Who are the primary users?  Students?  Faculty?  Families?  Who else is affected by the ways in which we manage our land?  Neighbors?  Townspeople?  “Downstream” landowners?  What other items need to be taken into account when we formulate a management plan?  School curriculum?  Native and migratory animal species?  Water rights? Pollution—air, water, noise, lights?

The details may seem daunting, but there is a potentially life-changing opportunity in this challenge that we face. Is it not important to include in our management endeavors a process that provides learning opportunities to the students that come to study at Fountain Valley School?  Involving our students in our land management practices will instill in them a first-hand understanding of its complexities and the balance that we must strike in managing land and help prepare them to encounter equally complex and weighty decisions throughout their lives. The board of trustees, administration and faculty are working to not only institute a comprehensive land management plan, but to develop ways to include the stewardship of our FVS land into the school’s curriculum and student life.

Sometimes you just ride.
You reach up and climb on
And your horse moves out
Deep into the land.
And after a while,
It opens up and swallows you.
-Duke Phillips

Trustee Duke Phillips heads Fountain Valley’s committee on land management. He is both a current and alumni parent (Tess ’04Duke ’06Julie ’10, and Grace ’15). Since 1999, he and his wife, Janet, have operated Chico Basin Ranch, an 87,000 acre spread southeast of Colorado Springs. Chico Basin is a working cattle ranch practicing progressive management to create a sustainable ranching model and provide education and outdoor recreation opportunities.

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Fountain Valley School Bulletin. To view the article in its original form, click here.

For more information on Fountain Valley School, please visit their website here: fvs.edu.

Photography by Katie Loewen
// Fountain Valley School

2 replies to “Land Stewardship May Not Be What it Seems

  1. A R "felo" Guerra

    Agree with your observations & efforts. My family operates in south Texas & can relate to your work.

    1. Tess Leach

      Thanks for the comment and for reading the Review. Let us know if you’re ever in our area!

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