New Agrarian Voices

Kate Clyatt, APPRENTICE, Mannix Brothers Ranch, MT

My Land Ethic

While there are many things that come to mind when I ponder my land ethic, the one that seems to serve as my foundation is the understanding that everything is interconnected. When it comes to land management, one way in which this manifests is the idea that humans are an integral component of the ecosystem, rather than apart from it. When you take this approach, humans are no longer at odds with our resources, but rather, are in partnership with the water, soil, grass, trees, microbes, animals, etc. Examples of this mutually beneficial relationship could include the logger restoring a forest to its historical stand densities and increasing forest resiliency while providing materials to serve as the infrastructure for human civilization. Another example is the management of wildlife populations through hunting quotas. Managed properly, hunting pressure can keep prey populations from overreaching an ecosystem’s carrying capacity. When you see yourself in partnership with the land, you seek to benefit it’s health along with your own.

I would argue that one of the most, if not the most, important tool in land management is the understanding and application of disturbance within ecosystems. Every ecosystem is shaped by a set of unique disturbance regimes. Fire, flooding, wind, and grazing are some forms of disturbance, but there are certainly many others. We, as land stewards, have learned the hard way how fast and far ecosystems can deteriorate without an intact disturbance regime. The same exact tool, whether it is a herd of grazers, a feller buncher, or a series of irrigation gates, can be used with drastically different results, depending on the how closely their use mimics natural disturbance. Understanding these disturbance regimes is a task within itself; applying them can be even more challenging. As with most healthy relationships, there needs to be a give and take. A rancher may choose to fence off most of the creek, leaving only one spot for cattle to drink, as to concentrate the damage in one area while restoring bank stability and channel narrowness to the rest of the stream. A logger might take a straight tree and leave a defect tree instead, understanding that both serve the same ecological function in a given context.

Finally, I think a huge part of any sustainable land ethic has to include people and our overly complicated societal dynamics. Ultimately, what type of management gets done on the land comes down to human decisions, whether it’s through policy, law suites, education, or my personal favorite: grassroots community efforts and collaboration. There are many different roles that people can play within sustainable land management of private lands – whether it’s scientists researching responses of climate change, lobbyists translating science into policy, NGOs raising funds for application of best practices, or the wide variety of landowners and public interests. As someone who has been in various roles within land management – from university and federal research to consulting to working with my boots on the ground as a ranch laborer, I hope to someday serve as a bridge between some of the divides that can occur when proper communication is lacking. I think the first step to doing this is to establish within a community. My chosen home is western Montana, and I feel blessed to have 5 years of community building under my belt here. I hope to continue to grow roots in this place, and become a piece of a larger web of collaboration of ideas and outreach. I firmly believe that ranching is the heart and soul of Montana. As the state’s (and world’s) populations continues to expand and modernize, I think it’s imperative not only to maintain working landscapes, but to make sure people understand how valuable these ranches are to society and to the health of our ecosystems.

There are a million other thoughts I have about my land ethic – these are only a few. It’s something I think about a lot, and continue to develop as I experience different perspectives and conflicts. I do not come from an agricultural background – I come from a conservation and environmentalist background. Through my own study and from listening to those who know more than I, I have come to firmly believe that properly stewarded working landscapes are the answer to maintaining the health of land, people, and all the other critters that inhabit this planet.

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