What Is Rangeland? A Q&A with Barry Irving

Courtesy of The Forestry Source (SAF), April 2018

What Is Rangeland? A Q&A with Barry Irving
SAF and SRM Sign a Memorandum of Agreement

By Andrea Watts

At the SAF Board meeting held on March 18, the Board of Directors approved a memorandum of agreement between SAF and the Society for Range Management (SRM). The purpose of the agreement is to “facilitate greater communication, cross-over, and member benefits between SRM and SAF. The focus is to establish co-member benefits, allowing expansion of both Societies’ memberships and reach. This commitment includes sharing relevant scientific content, news, and information between organizations and among members benefiting the scientific professional community.”

SRM is an international society. Although most of the membership is concentrated primarily in the United States, followed by Canada and Mexico, more than 24 countries, including Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, and Argentina, are represented within its ranks.

To learn more about range management and how this memorandum of agreement came about, I chatted with Barry Irving, president of SRM. A member since 1983, he has been involved in range management for more than 35 years and is a lecturer and land and resource manager at the University of Alberta in the Faculty Agriculture, Life & Environmental Sciences. In 2006, the Range Science Education Council and the Society for Range Management awarded him the Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award, and in 2017, he received the W.R. Chapline Land Stewardship Award from SRM.

What follows is our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Why did you pursue range management?
I was interested in wildlife, so I took the range and wildlife major in forestry at the University of Alberta. I transitioned into range because I graduated during the first oil downturn, and there weren’t a lot of jobs in wildlife or anything in resource management. I obtained a position with the University of Alberta at one of our ranches, and I just kept working my way up. The discipline you want to get into is not always the one you wind up staying in.

What type of landscape is considered rangeland?
Different people have different definitions. The classic definition is land that’s used for free-ranging herbivores as a source of forage, but it also produces multiple other environmental goods and services, such as carbon storage, wood and fiber, water, recreation, and, increasingly, housing and industrial complexes. Range is defined by its utilitarian side, which in its history has been livestock grazing. That is still a dominant end use, but other uses are gaining importance. It’s also defined by an ecological side, which to me means the long-term sustainability of a utilitarian practice.

The definition I tend to favor, which not everyone will agree with, is that [rangeland] is too something for cultivated agriculture—it’s too dry, it’s too wet, it’s too hilly, it’s too stony, or it’s too sandy.

Are there certain landscape features that make an area a range?
I don’t define the line of forest and then range and then forest again. I define it as forest that’s utilized as a source of forage for free-ranging ungulates, and therefore, I would claim a lot of forested areas as rangeland. There’s an overlap of land between forest and rangeland. Rangeland occurs in North America from coast to coast, north to south, and east to west, but typically it’s the western half of North America that people view as rangeland area.

How did the agreement between SRM and SAF come about?
That was a two-and-a-half-year process. It started with SAF President Bob Alverts coming to our annual meeting in Sacramento, and he was there for, for lack of a better word, cross-pollination. He invited one of our board of directors to meet with SAF’s Board in Washington. At the time of the SAF Board meeting, I was elected as second vice-president, but I hadn’t quite assumed the role. Nobody else could go, so my wife, Judy, and I went to Washington, and we were hosted for a day and a half, and I participated in the SAF Board meeting. We floated the concept of a cooperation of some sort, and both organizations began internal discussions. From there, SRM took the lead on developing an agreement for what we called “co-member benefits.” We have members who are interested in interacting in other societies but not necessarily having to be a full member of all the societies that they want to participate in.

We both signed the agreement in Sparks, Nevada, in February 2018.

What do you see as the benefits of this agreement?
The sharing of information. Perhaps we could both garner more member enthusiasm if we have this opportunity. If you’re a member of SAF, for example, you can also get access to SRM journals or come to SRM meetings and pay member rates. SRM members can acquire SAF journals at a reasonable cost or attend SAF meetings at member rates. It’s really about expanding the reach of information transfer and improving the member benefits for both organizations.

How are forestry and range management similar? What are areas for collaboration?
We’re both ecologically thinking groups, but we have to balance ecology with production. We have opportunities to work and help each other just on that. On the ground, we have areas that foresters would claim as forested land and range mangers would claim as rangeland. Having these two groups talking to each other rather than being adversaries is important, particularly on the forest-grassland fringe—the so-called transition zone.

Are there differences in how range managers view the landscape compared to foresters?
Between foresters and range mangers, I think in some cases it’s a difference in the scale of the production culture. Range managers and the disciplines that we represent are smaller in scale than foresters and the industrial clients that they might represent. This isn’t going to be 100 percent right, because there will be some places where forestry operators are quite small, and there are places where ranches are quite big. But, for the most part, forestry includes large companies, and people who actually use rangeland are small in comparison.

In terms of range management, what are issues you are seeing in Canada and the United States that your members are dealing with?
There’s the age-old declining budgets. A lot of rangeland is public land, and there are continually declining budgets and declining staffs at the national and, in our case, provincial levels for managing rangeland. At the same time, there are increasing demands on rangeland. As our populations expand, resources start to become limited. One of the places we expand into, especially for recreation from the urban standpoint, is rangeland. Increasing demands on rangeland by an increasing population—this is not going to change any time in the future.

At the land-base scale, we have rare and uncommon species that are becoming more important. Twenty years ago, foresters didn’t manage for the spotted owl or other endangered forest-habitat species, and range managers didn’t manage for desert tortoises or sage grouse. As those species become better known to the public, the pressure becomes more intense on management and taking them into account—and rightly so.

We have exotic invasions going on all the time, and some places are relatively immune to exotic invasions and some places are relatively susceptible. One of the biggest invasions right now are the Mediterranean annuals, especially cheatgrass, in the Great Basin. That’s an example of a pretty big geographic area—it’s a huge problem now, and it’s going to be a continuing challenge in the future. At the same time, we have the expanding urban and industrial footprint that’s coming along with increased population.

There is also the sage grouse, and their habitat loss is probably linked a bit to that exotic invasion by cheatgrass. Sage grouse habitat covers an area of rangeland that goes from southern Nevada and into southern Canada. They’re a species of interest and concern, and the poster child for endangered species on rangelands right now.

I also think there’s a bit of public and professional complacency as to the value and potential of these lands and what happens if we lose them. It’s almost the “endless resource” philosophy that we’ve had in our Western society for quite a while. At some point, it does become limiting, and then suddenly it’s endangered. Our greater public society tends to take rangelands and the professionals and practitioners who manage [them] for granted.

In that respect, do we need more outreach to the public to raise awareness that this is a finite resource?
Absolutely. We have groups of people in the general public who are telling a story of massive destruction—it’s the end of the world unless we stop those foresters harvesting trees and get the livestock off the public land—caused by what SRM and SAF members would consider to be sustainable utilitarian practice. It seems hard to believe, but sometimes the middle-ground message is the hardest message to portray. One of our principle messages from SRM is that moderate levels of use or harvest, supported by solid research, is a sustainable path forward. There is also a lack of recognition of professionalism, by the public and even within our own disciplines. Foresters probably have a stronger recognition of professionalism than we have in our range community.

Do you know why that is?
I think it might be due to the scale issue. When you work in a professional discipline for a living, you have to be able to demonstrate professionalism and meet minimum competency standards, and if you’re in a smaller group, you maybe don’t value those professional standards quite as much, because you know each other.

What does your Society do to educate the public that you are professionals?
We advocate [on] a local, regional, national, and international stage for the value of professionalism and professional standards. We, like SAF, certify university programs, certify professionals, and hold meetings at the local and international scales to allow and promote professional training.

One of our challenges is all those things are all volunteer. In Alberta, for example, we compete against groups that operate on government funding to pay people to put on meetings and do the logistics—the kinds of things that we expect to accomplish with purely a volunteer workforce.

In terms of range management where forest and range overlap, are there practices that foresters need to be aware of that affect livestock production, or are there issues with livestock that affect forestry?
Absolutely. I’m not so sure how widespread this is, because it’s different no matter where you go. For example, in the western United States, you have a problem with trembling aspen; as a vegetation community, it is decline because of a small footprint, lack of regenerating fires, and large ungulate populations. In Canada, we don’t have a problem with aspen. We have millions and millions of square miles of aspen. But when you put aspen regeneration and cattle on the same land base, you have the opportunity for conflict. In Canada, you’re legally obligated to reestablish aspen back on the site. If cattle grazing isn’t manipulated correctly, you can have a real potential for damage to a regenerating aspen stand. The main difficulty between forestry and livestock is probably the regenerating forest stage. Mature forests are almost immune to damage, but at the regeneration stage, forest cut blocks are very susceptible to damage by livestock.

In that respect, what should range managers and foresters be aware of?
It’s a combination of research, collaboration, and cooperation. The old analogy is of the orange. Everybody wants the orange, but some only want to eat the orange core and others only want the orange peel for marmalade. We can each claim the orange for ourselves, but together we can each have a piece of the orange, if we cooperate. That is possible for forestry and grazing or range management, but it takes communication and collaboration to make it work.

And all too often people aren’t good at communicating or collaborating.

Is that one of the opportunities with this agreement, to start building that collaboration at the local level?
Yes. It’s human nature that it’s much more difficult to dislike your neighbor when you know that they’re your neighbor and they help you out on something else; we can help each other out at the professional level just like neighbors do. I think the more you can have people meet each other and mingle, the more they realize what similar interests they have instead of meeting for the first time across the boardroom table, where they have to come up with management practices they have to implement.

At SAF, we’re focusing on attracting the next generation into the profession and organization. How is SRM attracting younger folks to consider range management as a career?
We have tremendous undergraduate student programs at our annual meetings. SRM hosts a continuum of activities for students that ranges from our traditional academic contests to employment training workshops. We have 2,000 members, and we’ll draw 1,500 people to our annual meeting, and a quarter of those will be students.

We don’t have a problem getting young people into our organization; we have a problem keeping them, for a variety of reasons we don’t fully understand. To address this, we’ve encouraged the development of transition groups. Members who are between college and seasoned professionals [who] are very active and doing a great job at generating some of the social interactions and technical skills that keep people coming back to our Society. We need to do more, but our current transition group, Young Professional Conclave, is working well and gaining momentum.

Are you also addressing diversity issues, such as making efforts to recruit students from diverse backgrounds to consider range management?
We established a Diversity Task Force two years ago in response to some criticism we had received about the lack of diverse thinking that we had in our society, and we just approved a new diversity and inclusion statement. We’ve always had one, but, to be honest, we hadn’t done a very good job of advertising or promoting it, and it was in need of updating. Our Diversity Task Force is now moving on to work on inclusion guidelines for our meetings and the general operation of our Society. On a smaller scale, we set aside scarce budget resources to help students from underrepresented schools come to our annual meeting and start to get involved. The biggest example of that in Canada is our Aboriginal population who, because of limited economic opportunities, are financially challenged to attend our international meeting. We can always do more, but in a limited world we can only do so much. Some of the events held at the Society level are because individual members have really taken this on and have advocated and worked for programming that is affordable, available, and promotes attendance from diverse groups.

I think for some issues we have passed a threshold, and gender is one of them. In our student competitions and in my home school, the University of Alberta, we’re probably 70 to 80 percent female graduates now. But we’re not at that level everywhere, and it takes time to work through it. Our leadership is not representative of our current membership in terms of gender. We’ll get there, because the wave of gender diversity is starting to come through the ranks now. We need to start and maintain other diversity waves, now and in the future.

Because you are having a lot of undergrads going into range-related disciplines, are you encouraged to see future professionals in the pipeline to manage these lands in the future?
Yes, I am. You know there is always talk about how the next generation can’t do what we did. I disagree with that statement. This next generation is more knowledgeable than the last generation was, and the future generation will be more knowledgeable than today’s. I think our future is in pretty good hands; we of the older generation just have to get out of the way a little bit to let it happen, and let them get after it.

Anything last thoughts about range management or opportunities for collaboration?
I’m hopeful this SAF-SRM agreement is going to be the trial balloon for both of our Societies, and I hope we can quickly move on to bringing other sibling Societies into co-member benefit agreements After all, despite our differences, which are small, we’re all in the same game. We’re all generally struggling with the same things and maybe we should struggle together.

See the full edition of the newsletter in which this article originally appeared here: Forestry Source April 2018

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