Land, Water and People: Embracing the diversity of environmental values

“The elk and trout were here first; they’re native,” said the high school boy. “The rancher needs to move the cattle off of the allotment.”

“But if the rancher can’t use the allotment, he may not be able to make ends meet,” responded the high school girl. “He might have to sell his herd, and then he might sell his ranch to a developer.”

The local high school students were discussing a make-believe scenario concerning how the forest service should respond to an over-grazed cattle allotment. In the scenario, the rancher had been running the same number of cattle on a national forest grazing allotment for decades without a problem until the resident elk population ballooned. The increased elk population combined with a couple of below average snowfall winters led to overgrazing issues. To complicate things, there were Rio Grande cutthroat trout in one of the creeks and the heavy grazing was leading to increased sedimentation putting the trout population at risk.

I used to teach environmental education for the Rio Grande National Forest and the conversation above was typical when the students discussed the grazing problem.

The students had spent most of the day collecting range, forest and river data. The data collecting was followed by a discussion of their results and then some make-believe scenarios designed to help the students consider their environmental values.

Studies have shown that people who have developed their environmental values based on their own studies are more likely to behave in accordance with their values. In addition, they are less likely to change their values based on opinions voiced by media personalities and celebrities. In other words, they own and live by their values.

In contrast, people who do not spend the time to understand the workings of the natural environment and how humans are connected to it, tend to go along with what is popular with their social group. Interestingly, their views can change rapidly based on what their friends or favorite celebrities say.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who studies the natural world and how humans interact with it will have the same environmental values. Let’s look at some quotes from a few well known historical figures.

Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time. By Gifford Pinchot, the first U.S. Forest Service Chief.

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. By Aldo Leopold, a forester, educator and writer.

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” By John Muir, a writer, sawmill operator and founder of the Sierra Club.

These three quotes are from three of the biggest names in the history of American environmental thinkers, but their values ranged from sustained utilization, to conservation, to preservation (in Muir’s later years).

All three of these environmental leanings have a place in the multiple use management of national forests. The Rio Grande National Forest is managed for grazing and timber production, a variety of recreational uses, wildlife habitat and clean water, and preservation of cultural resources and wilderness.

“Maybe the Division of Wildlife should allow for a special hunt in the area to decrease the number elk,” offered a third student.

The discussion went back and forth for a while and some of the students got quite passionate with their input. At one point, I had to remind the students to stay on subject and not get personal. That reminder is still relevant today as most folks are good people with different life experiences, which have led to a diversity of environmental values. Embracing that diversity is the first step to finding compromise that benefits all.

Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the San Luis Valley Public Lands Center.  He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.