Recent events in Washington, D.C., reminded me of an anguished question that I’ve had on my mind since 1997: if ranchers and environmentalists can get along, why can’t Democrats and Republicans?

That was the year I co-founded the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a common ground where ranchers, conservationists, scientists and others could meet to explore their shared interests rather than argue their differences. By doing so, we became part of the “the radical center,” a term coined by rancher Bill McDonald in southern Arizona to describe an emerging consensus-based approach to land management challenges in the West.

At the time, the conflict between ranchers and environmentalists had reached a fever pitch, with federal agencies and others caught in crossfire. It was an example of how the West had balkanized into ideological fiefdoms by the mid-1990s. One important consequence of the trench warfare was gridlock where it hurt the most – on the ground. Very little progress was being made on necessary projects, such as lighting prescribed fires, improving the chances of endangered species on private land, or helping ranchers fend off the predatory interests of real estate developers. Instead, it became a war of attrition, with the only real winners being those who had no interest in the long-term environmental or social health of the region.

The radical center was a deliberate push-back against this destructive process of balkanization. It was “radical” (whose dictionary definition means “root”) because it challenged various orthodoxies at work at the time, including the conventional belief that conservation and ranching were part of a ‘zero sum’ game where one could only advance as far as the other retreated. There were plenty of examples to the contrary, as Bill McDonald and the collaborative group he helped to co-found, the Malpai Borderlands Group, demonstrated. Success, however, also meant working in the “center” – which refers to the pragmatic, middle-ground between extremes. It meant partnerships, respect, and trust. But most of all, the “center” meant action – a plan signed, a prescribed fire lit, a workshop held, a hand shook. Words were nice, but working in the radical center meant walking the talk.

In 1997, two Sierra Club activists – myself and Barbara Johnson – and rancher Jim Winder decided to put the radical center to a test in New Mexico. Jim had an idea: start a nonprofit organization that would step outside the continuum of brawling between ranchers and environmentalists and create a ‘third way’ that emphasized progressive cattle and land management practices. We called it the ‘New Ranch’ and invited any rancher, conservationist, agency person, scientist or member of the public who was interested in “sharing common-sense solutions to the rangeland conflict” to join us. We took a public vow of no legislation and no litigation. We promised ourselves to not waste any energy trying to pry open closed minds. We focused instead on those who literally wanted to start over at the grass and the roots.

Quivira was different from other radical centrist groups at the time principally because we weren’t confined to a watershed or a bounded region. We went wherever we could find ‘eager learners’ willing to try new ideas, embarking on a lengthy series of workshops, tours, outdoor classrooms, conferences, clinics, and public speaking engagements around the Southwest.

In the process, we helped to define what the radical center in the so-called ‘grazing debate’ actually meant, culminating in an “Invitation to Join the Radical Center” signed by ranchers, conservationists, and others in 2003 that we hoped would signal the end of conflict and the beginning of a era of peace.

Here’s an excerpt and a list of its radical centrist conditions:

“We therefore reject the acrimony of past decades that has dominated debate over livestock grazing on public lands, for it has yielded little but hard feelings among people who are united by their common love of land and who should be natural allies. We pledge our efforts to form the `Radical Center’ where:

  • “The ranching community accepts and aspires to a progressively higher standard of environmental performance;
  • “The environmental community resolves to work constructively with the people who occupy and use the lands it would protect;
  • “The personnel of federal and state land management agencies focus not on the defense of procedure but on the production of tangible results;
  • “The research community strives to make their work more relevant to broader constituencies;
  • “The land grant colleges return to their original charters, conducting and disseminating information in ways that benefit local landscapes and the communities that depend on them;
  • “The consumer buys food that strengthens the bond between their own health and the health of the land;
  • “The public recognizes and rewards those who maintain and improve the health of all land; and
  • “All participants learn better how to share both authority and responsibility.”

Here’s a photo of an early radical center workshop we hosted:File0006

Fast forward to today. Were we successful? Did the radical center hold? Yes, mostly. Indisputably, attitudes toward ranchers and livestock production among a cross-section of the American public, including lawmakers, opinion leaders, newspaper letter-writers and many conservationists, have shifted substantially toward the positive. As a result, the so-called ‘grazing wars’ have largely faded from view, though there is still some shouting going on in places. More importantly, portions of the radical center list above have been successfully enacted to one degree or another. Especially encouraging has been the explosion of watershed-based collaboratives across the West. Collaborative conservation, once an outlier itself, has now become mainstream – to the point of institutionalization by universities, national NGOs, and agencies.

There are other examples of the radical center in action, even in the policy arena, as groups continue their quest for common ground. While the region’s former tribalism has not faded away, it is clear that ranchers and environmentalists can get along when they have larger, common goals in sight. So why can’t Democrats and Republicans? Could there be a political equivalent of our grassroots-focused radical center idea? Could there be progress in statehouses and in Washington, D.C, in the way there’s been productive collaboration in watersheds across the West?

It’s a question I get asked a lot – and I wish I had a good answer. In my experience, the radical center works because it is studiously non-political. We focus on soil, grass and water, literally the common ground below our feet. In the case of the Quivira Coalition, we took a vow to do no litigation or legislation. We also avoided “nuclear” social and natural resource management issues, such as the Mexican wolf and oil-and-gas development. This allowed us to stay neutral politically which we saw as critical to our success as a collaborative conservation organization, as well to the radical center idea in general. Trust needed to be restored after decades of bad blood between ranchers and environmentalists and the quickest way to do that was to focus on soil, grass, and water – the grassroots beneath our feet.

Democrats and Republicans, of course, can’t avoid politics, legislation or litigation. Picking fights and aiming to win elections by defeating the other party are essential elements to any political system and it’s foolish to think they can be minimized to any significant degree. Does that mean there can’t be collaboration, however? Could there be some political equivalent to soil, grass and water in which Democrats and Republicans could come together and agree? In theory, yes. Out West, land restoration and wildlife management are two arenas involving politics and policy where a great deal of common ground has been created in recent years. Locally-sourced food has been another positive contact point, especially between urban and rural residents.

What about guns, however, or abortion or taxes or poverty programs or national defense? Is there a radical center here? Yes, I think. Gay marriage was once a hugely divisive issue in this nation, with little hope of common ground – and now look the progress that has been made! A type of radical center seems to have prevailed with this formerly contentious topic. Could it happen with other topics? I think so – but I’m out of my field of expertise on this. All I can say is that some sort of radical center needs to happen politically in this great nation, and soon, if we’re going to solve any of the mounting, pressing problems we face. The cynic in me thinks it’s impossible given the rivers of bad blood that now exist between Democrats and Republicans, but the optimist in me recalls how bad things looked in the mid-1990s for any kind of détente between ranchers and environmentalists.

So, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Here’s a start, I hope: