California Rangeland Trust: A Booming Business, Where’s the Cash?

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:09/15/2010

CRT and the Rangeland Coalition have broken the decades-long impasse between ranchers, conservationists, and “big government.” Now they just need cash.

The California Rangeland Trust, or CRT, exemplifies what ranchers can achieve when they band together to create and guide the protection of their property.  Nita Vail, Chief Executive Officer of CRT and a founding board member since their inception in 1998, told me recently she recalls with appreciation that National Fish and Wildlife Foundation gave CRT their first capacity grant in 1999.  They really caught the attention of the cattle industry, and no one originally anticipated the interest and success that they would ultimately generate in conserving range land in California.

Now with over 200,000 acres in their permanent conservation portfolio, Nita says one of their greatest achievements and yet continuing challenges is funding for their long easement waiting list.  Formal applications on file at CRT show a backlog of over 100 rancher requests representing more than one-half million acres!  The economic downturn has given CRT additional opportunities, but “California has had its share of problems, with frozen conservation bonds and a deficit budget.”  

The Secret to Success

Nita says the secret to their success has been that they build strong relationships and trust with the state’s landowner community and their conservation partners. Their Board is made up entirely of ranchers who know and understand the issues facing ranchers today.

In the last decade, communication of ranching’s environmental benefits to imperiled species and habitat has finally caught on.   

“The Rangeland Coalition is an example of this,” she says.  Very large gaps between conservationists, government and ranchers are being bridged.  She credits Steve Thompson, former Fish and Wildlife Service regional director, as a big factor in this detente.  “He kept hearing complaints from both sides - the biologists and the ranchers - and finally said to us, ‘you guys are saying the same thing.’ So we all got together at a big barbecue.”  That is when the real talking and listening began.  

After the barbecue, over 100 organizations - including the California Cattlemen’s Association, Defenders of Wildlife, and The Nature Conservancy - signed an agreement creating the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, with the goal of protecting and raising funds for rangeland habitat.  “We certainly feel like we enjoy some good working relationships,” says Nita.  “The public is now beginning to understand why rangeland conservation is so important to sustaining the California we all love, and that will help us achieve our goal of protecting the nearly 500,000 acres on our project list.

“We live by Steve Thompson’s mantra:  find the 80% you can agree on and don’t waste time arguing about the 20% you disagree on!”  It’s partially this recognition of the importance of human relationships in the conservation equation that inspired my founding of Resources First Foundation.  Our tagline is “Connecting People to Conservation.”  A lot of the time, what’s most required is to build trust.