The Balancing Act of an Environmentalist Rancher

By Mike Stevens, Director, The Nature Conservancy, Washington Chapter

Me with our guard dogs

It’s a June morning in central Idaho. Pedro Loyola and I ride our horses along the Fish Creek divide, above the tree line of the 7,000- foot-high ridge, skirting late-season snow cornices. We are riding several hours into the Pioneer Mountain backcountry, just east of Sun Valley, to check on Optaciano, one of our herders, who is camped out with 900 ewes and 1,200 lambs. There have been wolves in the area, and, with no phone access, we have to ride in to see how everything is going. We come over a bump on the ridge and find the sheep lying down in a bright green meadow, full from the morning’s grazing, warmed by the sun.

I never set out to be a rancher.

My first guide to the outdoors was my stepdad, Larry. He was an old-school Californian who loved the ocean and mountains, and, most of all, Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra. Our family vacations consisted of loading up in his 1970s vintage Chevy truck and camping in places like Glass Mountain, White Mountain, and the Buttermilks. Larry could see that I, a late-blooming 14-year-old, needed confidence and some skills. So he found ways to challenge me and get me outdoors. At first, it was surfing and hiking and manual labor jobs.

Then, while completing a biology major in college, it was Larry who, without a degree or traditional career of his own, coached me as I applied to jobs with the National Park Service in Yosemite, the Forest Service in Alaska, Outward Bound in Colorado, and Teton Science School in Wyoming. These were places I could use my degree to teach, do field science and ski, climb and explore mountains.

By 2001, I was in my early thirties, living in Sun Valley, Idaho, newly married, and working on conservation projects for the Nature Conservancy. My wife and I lived on Silver Creek, a Nature Conservancy preserve, surrounded by spring-fed streams, farms, and sagebrush hills. We could watch moose, golden eagles, elk, sandhill cranes, and coyotes from our kitchen window.

One day, Brian and Kathleen, a couple from San Francisco, asked me to help them figure out a conservation plan for a set of ranches they had just bought. These were large working ranches, spanning a million acres of high desert and mountains, with a team of 20 Peruvian and American herders and ranchers and almost 10,000 sheep and 500 cattle. The landscape was remarkably unspoiled and supported large numbers of wildlife. Brian and Kathleen had the idea that they could make the ranching operation environmentally and economically sustainable while protecting and restoring this huge landscape.

Even though I had worked with foresters, farmers, and ranchers, I didn’t have experience actually logging, growing crops, or raising livestock. But I was lured by the challenge and the opportunity to work in an incredible place.

So, in early 2002, I began running this new company, Lava Lake Land & Livestock, and immediately realized three things. One, I had never had this much responsibility before. Two, I didn’t seem to know anything of immediate practical value, other than being able to speak Spanish. And three, it was unclear whether I was now a rancher, an environmentalist, or some terrible mash-up of the two — who would my friends be?

My good friend Pedro Loyola

Fortunately, there was Pedro. He had come from Peru in his early twenties and worked his way to becoming a skilled sheep rancher. He had been appointed foreman for Lava Lake. I began an intensive learning process with him and several other longtime ranchers as we worked together to run the company’s complicated logistics, to produce lambs for market, and to manage a large crew of employees and contractors. We navigated the challenges of coexisting with wolves, bringing new environmental standards to grazing, starting certified organic and grass-fed brands of lamb, and weathering fire, drought, torrential rain, and accidents.

It was a raw, hard several years.

On foot, skis, horseback, and via pickup truck, I learned in incredible detail the features and names of the mountains, river valleys, and open plains of the landscape.

I got grief from ranchers for being so inexperienced and criticism from environmentalists for having gone over to the wrong side. I had never had such a complicated relationship to the land as I did then. We at Lava Lake were unquestionably helping to heal one of the West’s iconic landscapes, rich with wildlife, but also impacting it through our grazing. We put endless care and effort into raising animals that we then sold for meat. I struggled to reconcile these things.

The easy part was falling deeply in love with the place.

On foot, skis, horseback, and via pickup truck, I learned in incredible detail the features and names of the mountains, river valleys, and open plains of the landscape. I watched pronghorn antelope, elk, deer, and sage grouse make their annual migrations. I recruited friends to run 75 miles across the Pioneers and mountain-bike 100 miles around the range; the only people we ran into were our herders. And because Pedro’s and my success was so utterly dependent on weather, our herders, and our animals, I learned to really appreciate well-timed rain, take tremendous pride in growing great lambs, and see streams come back to life with careful management.

As we continued to work as hard as ever on both the ranching and conservation parts of the business, the pain of these conflicts began to ease. Our gatherings and field outings attracted an almost comically diverse array of people: men from the Andes, old Basque and Scottish ranchers, foodies from the Bay Area, wealthy conservation donors, young mountain-towners, hunters, and botanists. Lava Lake began to receive national media and awards, but it was this rich, complicated community that enabled me to embrace the paradoxes and rewards of our work.

In 2012, my wife and I moved to Seattle so that I could return to the Nature Conservancy as its director for Washington state. It is my dream job: leading and supporting conservation efforts across the Northwest and around the world.

Nature is at the heart of our prosperity, quality of life, and health. In the face of population growth, demand for natural resources, and climate change, our need to protect nature for our own good — as well as for the sake of salmon, orcas, and bears — has never been clearer. I have learned that the path toward a vision of thriving nature and people includes fishermen, tribal leaders, loggers, urban climate activists, business owners, politicians, scientists, and Peruvian sheep ranchers — each with their own unique needs and perspective on nature. And I am grateful that, in addition to the enduring rewards of a life tied to the outdoors, my work has taught me the enduring power of embracing people in all our diversity and complexity.

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