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Bridging Cultural Diversity to Achieve Conservation

Words Matter

Ellie M. Cohen


Grasshopper Sparrow—a key indicator of a healthy natural system dominated by native grasses. Photo by Tom Grey
I recently joined a few dozen ranchers, leaders of non-governmental conservation organizations, and government agency representatives at a barbeque sponsored by our partners at the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. The bucolic ranch setting in the Central Valley, within the Mokelumne River watershed, had an expansive view of Sierra Nevada peaks—snow-covered, thanks to the late-winter and early-spring rains. After lunch, we engaged in a lively conversation about what was working, and what we need to do more of, to advance effective conservation on ranch lands.

It didn’t take long for strong sentiments to surface about the words we use and the actions we take.

Several shared their concern that too many environmentalists still do not understand how prescribed cattle grazing can re-establish native vegetation, extend creek flows longer into the dry season, enhance soil carbon sequestration, and support biodiversity (see page 4 of this issue and also Observer 166, Fall 2011).

We discussed the challenges of the Endangered Species Act and the need for more flexibility and open communication to achieve win-win solutions. As some pointed out, “doing the right things” for effective working-lands conservation that can stand the test of time means acting collaboratively to sustain ecosystems for wildlife and for our communities.
Rangeland where prescribed grazing has restored native perennial grasses. Photo by Ellie M. Cohen / PRBO

We also talked at length about the need to expand outreach among ranchers to help break down long-standing stereotypes of the conservation community—stereotypes that often stymie urgently needed collaboration.

One Contra Coast County rancher reminded everyone that roughly one-third of the San Francisco Bay Area is comprised of “rangelands.” He pointed out that many science-based policy documents identify these working lands by habitat type, such as grassland, oak woodland, riparian, or serpentine, disregarding how they are used. This approach, he explained, dismisses rather than engages ranchers—who must be participants if watershed-scale conservation efforts in the region are to be successful. Others related to his comments from their own experiences across various regions of California.

I was struck by how much words matter, especially in our world of accelerating environmental change. To reduce the impacts of increasing development, habitat loss, over-fishing, pollution, and climate change on birds, other wildlife and our communities, we need to catalyze human ingenuity, and we need to engage one another across all sectors of society.

Our success hinges, in large part, on bridging the gap between what certain words connote culturally to different partners. Rather than reinforce these boundaries, when we engage with one another we need to first agree on the meaning of terms we use and then rework our conservation lexicon accordingly. This will be essential to breaking down long-held barriers between, and among, ranchers, scientists, environmentalists, public wildlife and habitat managers, farmers, fishermen, other private interests, policymakers, and the public.
Ellie M. Cohen

As I meandered home that day, through the Delta to the coastal watershed I call home, I felt inspired by the honest and frank conversation this culturally diverse group had engaged in. I imagined a time when each of us in the conservation world could put aside our own stereotypes of others, a time when we could all be flexible enough to allow for new definitions of words we have long used in very specific ways—a time when a range of diverse interests, steeped in a common language, could work together to achieve common goals. It seems to me that our future depends on it.