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Cowboy Keynote: Speaker urges honest discourse in land disputes

Gary Nabhan delivers the 2015 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering keynote address Thursday morning in the Elko Convention Center auditorium. Photo by: Jeffry Mullins

Gary Nabhan delivers the 2015 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering keynote address Thursday morning in the Elko Convention Center auditorium. Photo by: Jeffry Mullins

The most contentious disagreements over land management pit ranchers against environmentalists in range wars with endless back-and-forth battles.

But the stakeholders overwhelmingly agree with one another on a majority of issues, according to Gary Paul Nabhan, a professor at the University of Arizona, and this year’s keynote speaker for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

“If we share 90 percent of the same goals and values, why are we always jabbing at each other about that 10 percent where we have some divergent and probably productive debate to do,” he said to attendees in the Elko Convention Center auditorium Thursday morning.

His speech focused on the “radical center,” or collaborative groups found throughout the West that work to solve land problems through honest discourse.

Nabhan spoke from experience.

In an introduction, Western Folklife Center Executive Director David Roche described Nabhan as a “noted author and activist, orchard keeper, bee-pollination habitat restorer, wild foods forager, and McCarthur Genius award winner,” who knew about bringing varied interests to the table.

“As an ethnobotanist, he is intimately involved in what puts the ethnic into botany, the culture into agriculture, at a level of wisdom that honors the old ways and finds a path into the contemporary,” Roche said.

Over the past quarter century, collaborative conservation groups formed, including the ones Nabhan worked with.

“A lot of people had some very valid concerns about the way the West was going,” he said.

But the acrimonious tone got in the way of solutions.

So a few decades back, a bunch of people gathered in an Albuquerque hotel room to draft a manifesto.

“We had ranchers,” he said, “saying, ‘I have to bring this back to my community, to other ranchers, and I’m not going to water this down so their needs aren’t met. Hang in there. Can we rework this a bit?’”

The openness and mutual respect paid off. Two days later, they emerged having identified common ground. The talk led to on-the-ground rangeland improvements.

Such an effort is taking place in northeastern Nevada. Stewardship Alliance of Northern Elko County, or SANE, a group of ranchers recently drafted a plan with input from agency representatives and conservationists, to improve sage grouse habitat while maintaining their cattle operations.

Nabhan recognized the group in his address.

He also advocated for the dissolution of labels. Ranchers are concerned about sustainability, conservationists have oftentimes worked the land, and urbanites are eager to dine on quality, locally grown beef or mutton.

Collaboration isn’t a new idea, he added.

“Wherever people have put aside their differences to nurture cohesion in rural communities, that collaborative spirit has guided Western ethics and practices,” Nabhan said.

Those interested in learning more about collaborative conservationism and the future of ranching can sit in on roundtable discussions at the Gathering 9:30 – 11 a.m. Saturday in the Turquoise Room at the Elko Convention Center and 11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. the same day in the Convention Center’s Cedar Room.

The keynote address was sponsored by Nevada Humanities and Great Basin College, according to Roche.

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