The ROGUES of Baker County, Oregon

BAKER COUNTY, Oregon--Amid all the controversies that swirl around livestock grazing, fourteen northeast Oregon ranchers, employees, and landowners are determined to keep learning. Calling themselves the ROGUES (Reaching Our Goals Using Education), they are interested in changing the way they make decisions.

Vicki Wares, a sheep and cattle producer, observed that her own decisions tended to be crisis oriented and reactive. She helped organize the ROGUES for those who were interested in trying to switch from a focus on managing parts--such as irrigation water, wildlife, hay production, and family or personal issues--to a focus on managing wholes, such as an entire ranch consisting of people, land, and money.

Two years ago, Wares heard a presentation by Allan Savory, the expatriate Rhodesian wildlife biologist who founded the Center for Holistic Resource Management in Albuquerque.

Savory developed his holistic approach in response to the failure of conventional solutions and thinking to stop or reverse desertification and loss of biodiversity. In the 1980s many people assumed that his approach was a management system or collection of grazing methods. In the 1990s it has become increasingly clear that it is a decision-making process that differs from what most people use.

"It was as if we had been developing ever more sophisticated computer hardware over the centuries, as our knowledge and technology advanced, but had never changed the software that runs it," Savory says.

This spring the ROGUES organized a three-day grazing planning workshop. Don Nelson and Jeff Goebel of Cooperative Extension at Washington State University guided the course. Rancher Paul Wares hoped to learn "a way to plan, so that we're confident that what we do is good for us and good for the land."

"I see orthodox agriculture as headed down a dead-end street," said another participant, Mike Curless, manager of Hells Canyon Bison at Clear Creek near Halfway. Others cited land deterioration, family conflicts, and rising costs as incentives to change.

At the start of the workshop, participants were seated in a circle. Goebel asked each to introduce himself or herself, and express feelings and expectations. Each following day, the participants sat in a circle and expressed their feelings and observations about what they learned.

The consensus process encourages people to listen to each other with respect, said Goebel, and engages the whole brain in learning. The name of the problem isn't communication, he said--it is our capacity to listen. The answers to the important questions were in the room, both Goebel and Nelson stressed, and didn't need to come from outside experts.

Specific practices were not advocated; the decision process was. Asked whether riparian fencing was good, Nelson and Goebel responded, "what is your goal?" Goebel told the ranchers and landowners that "no one else has the interest and commitment to make these kinds of decisions for you."

At the universities, Nelson added, there is more and more knowledge being accumulated about less and less, yet little of this knowledge is being put into action.

Each day included some time looking at rangeland. The land, said Goebel, will tell you more than people will. Participants were asked to spread out, away from others, and make observations on the water cycle, the mineral or nutrient cycle, solar energy flow, and community dynamics or succession. Goebel stressed the importance of observing the ecosystem processes at the surface of the soil, saying "Don't look out, look down."

Our observations, Goebel noted, are generally accurate--it is our interpretations or assumptions about them that lead us astray. People were encouraged merely to observe, and not to make assumptions about the reason for what they observed. Many had difficulty refraining from this.

The assumptions we make, Goebel said, frequently stop the learning process; for example, once people can name or identify a plant they often quit making any further observations about it. While looking at the land, several people observed that whitetop seemed to prefer sites where ecological succession was low.

Observing an active gully on BLM land, participants concluded that the cause was an ineffective water cycle, because of a relatively high proportion of bare ground on the surrounding rangeland. Some observed that a popular agency "fix" has been straw-bale dams and fencing--which fail to deal with the cause of the problem.

Goebel reviewed some key concepts of holistic management. Biodiversity is not just a few rare or endangered organisms, but the support system for human life, he said.

The symptoms of biodiversity loss include soil erosion, increases in problem organisms such as weeds, pests, or endangered species, rising costs of agricultural production, failing rural communities, mounting crime, conflict, and violence, an increase in bureaucratic control, and finally, failing economies and cities. Policies and programs often address these symptoms, not the underlying causes, Goebel said.

Most people, urban and rural, make decisions by concentrating on production (or preservation, or eradication), reacting to problems or opportunities, and responding to research results, peer pressure, incentives, or regulations, Goebel said. Multiple and often conflicting goals are the norm, and biodiversity loss the unintended result.

By contrast, the holistic manager decides what to do according to a single comprehensive goal that is based on people's chosen positive values, and on the fundamental processes of the ecosystem. The holistic view is that the world functions in complex and overlapping wholes, rather than as an array of interrelated parts.

Both Nelson and Goebel stressed the importance of changing beliefs in order to change outcomes. Unless we change beliefs, they said, we will continue to address only symptoms of problems rather than the problems themselves.

A controversial distinction Savory has made is that between brittle and nonbrittle environments. A brittle environment, Goebel said, is one in which rainfall is low or seasonal, and there is massive dormancy of grasses with the dry season. Decay of dead plant material (which requires moisture to support fungi and other microorganisms) occurs slowly. In brittle environments, ecological succession is slow to start from a smooth surface such as rock or bare dirt. Brittle environments tend to contain herds of grazing animals, which formerly were kept bunched much of the time by pack-hunting predators such as wolves. Thus bunched, grazing animals do an effective job of cycling the vegetation back onto and into the soil via dung and urine. They also break and compact the soil surface so that rainfall can penetrate and new seedlings can become established.

By contrast, nonbrittle environments are those in which humidity is more plentiful throughout the year, and fungal decay is rapid, Goebel said. Bare ground is covered quickly by new plants, and grazing animals are not necessary to recycle plant material into the soil.

Like pH, there are variations in brittleness. Western Washington and Oregon tend toward the nonbrittle end of the scale, while much country east of the Cascades tend toward the brittle end.

Nelson pointed out how critical this distinction was in understanding the tendencies of tools we apply, such as grazing, fire, and rest. Properly planned grazing and adequate disturbance will tend to increase biodiversity in a brittle environment. Rest from grazing will tend to decrease biodiversity in a brittle environment, and too much rest is the single biggest cause of desertification worldwide, where two-thirds of the land tends toward brittleness.

Overgrazing, Nelson said, occurs when animals stay too long or come back too soon. He reviewed the fundamentals of grazing planning: how to plan for adequate recovery periods, reserves, and the dormant season. With a simple chart, a rancher can include all the factors that he might want to consider, such as wildlife, the differences between pastures, and seasonal events of all kinds. Nelson distinguished this kind of planned grazing from rotational grazing, which he says occurs when you stop thinking.

Contrary to what many believe, severe grazing is not harmful, Nelson said, as long as it is followed by an adequate recovery period. Animals graze plant by plant, he said, and the only way you can get a take half, leave half utilization is to knock out every other tooth in your cows, or to breed animals with a four-inch-thick lip.

Goebel explained to the group how to monitor rangeland for changes at the soil surface--such as the percentage of bare ground, the type and extent of soil cover, the effectiveness of mineral cycling, and the presence of young plants. Without feedback on what is going on at the soil surface, in the financial picture, and in human relationships, and without course corrections based on the feedback, the likelihood of achieving the kind of life we desire is slim, he said.

Nelson briefly reviewed the goal-oriented financial planning that is part of holistic management. The major opportunity for most producers to increase profitability, he said, was to cut expenses. The universities have tended to advise producers to overcapitalize and to use lots of technology.

The workshop discussions moved easily between plant physiology, estate planning, concepts of ecological succession, and the feelings and personal experiences of the participants.

Karin Wares contrasted the approach with her recent college education, which "lacked a coherent vision." Raised on a ranch, she couldn't wait to leave. In college, "the environmental stuff, the negative stuff about farming and ranching, put me in a quandary."

At the close of the spring workshop, the participants--again in a circle--commented on how satisfying and meaningful the wide-angle view and whole-brain approach of the workshop was. Said Rick Forrester, "I've learned some new things about myself, and about the land."

The summer meetings of the ROGUES group are consisting of rangeland monitoring on each other's land. They have been on their hands and knees looking at ants, litter, new seedlings, lichens, and mosses. Said Mary Forrester, "we usually just step on this stuff on our way across, and now we're looking at it."

Vicki Wares says, "The major thing we're learning is how good it is to work with other people. Everybody has something to give, and it's so enriching to do it together."