SFR: I noticed in your author bio that you live with your family and ‘a backyard full of chickens.’ How many chickens do you have back there?
CW: It sounds impressive, but we have eight—eight chickens and six eggs a day. We’re trying to be local food providers so we grow our own eggs. It’s also a kids’ project for our 9-year-old kids. We also raise our own beef. It still surprises me that I, a Sierra Club activist, am also a dues-paying member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association.
How did you get involved in environmental work?
I became alarmed in 1994 at the so-called Republican Revolution that took over the House of Representatives and their promise to roll back 25 years of environmental legislation. Literally the next day, I called up our local Sierra Club office and volunteered my services. I got drafted into a local leadership position where I did a lot of the classic environmental activism—I organized events and worked with mining reform, things like that. Through the process I met a rancher, Jim Winder, who was on the statewide Sierra Club board of directors and I still remember walking into a meeting and seeing a cowboy hat on the table and I thought, ‘What is a rancher doing here?’ This is right in the middle of the grazing wars when ranchers and environmentalists were at each other’s throats. So the last thing I expected to see was a rancher there. He was actually on the board. Jim said to me, ‘Don’t judge me, come see what I do.’ It was on that tour that I got inspired to do this.
Why was there so much bad blood between the two sides? Aren’t both groups after the same thing?
You’d think so, but it was complicated, it’s still complicated. There are still a number of environmentalists that think ranching—and by that I mean livestock, cattle production—is a bad thing. In some cases it is. There is still overgrazing. In theory ranchers and environmentalists should have more in common than in difference—love of open space, wildlife, liberty—all kinds of things we say we have in common. In reality, there was a political and historical struggle, more so than an ecological one. The lessons we learned in all of that apply anywhere there is conflict.
What do you see people taking away from your new book, Revolution on the Range?
The peacemaking angle, definitely. I think there are a lot of lessons there for other types of conflicts as well. By having ranchers and environmentalists work it out, I think there is hope for others to do the same. It also tries to paint a positive vision for a way out of this planetary conundrum we’re in. I don’t take on climate change, but I do look at the big picture: How does local food, environmental restoration, progressive cattle management, all those things, work together to create true sustainability? There’s a lot to be learned from the rise of the new agrarianism. I think we need to find a new way to fight back against the industrial food model. I think the future lies at the nexus of ecology and agriculture.
You’re trained as an archeologist and I imagine that helps, having seen how agriculture has changed over the last several thousand years.
Absolutely. This is nothing new. Cultures have been dealing with change and challenges and struggling to be resilient forever. We think climate change is something new but the truth is cultures and civilizations have always dealt with it. Not on the scale we’re working with now, but people have always bounced back from things like droughts.
Is there any particular society that you look to as a model?
The Masai from Kenya have been herding cattle sustainably and co-existing with wildlife, including predators, for a long, long time. They live with lions and cheetahs and elephants, yet the No. 1 issue facing the Masai is subdivision and sprawl. Nairobi is sprawling out of control exactly the same way as the Southwest.
How can people who live in cities get involved in this?
The quick answer is food. Food is at the bottom of a lot of these things, and if you know where your food comes from you start to understand the ecological implications of agriculture. If you don’t pay attention or you don’t care, then you’re complicit with industrial agriculture. If someone goes to the city and wants to help they can try to eat sustainably—that can mean growing their own food or making sure they buy food from local providers. Ultimately we’re going to have to figure out where our local energy comes from. Is our energy secure and sustainable? Right now it’s not. As we know from rising fuel prices, we’re all connected to this global fuel system that kind of has us at its mercy.
It seems like every day there’s a growing awareness of sustainable living. Does that give you hope?
What worked in the 20th century is probably not going to work in the 21st century, but as the nature of conservation is changing, there’s a little sense of despair about ‘What can I do about it?’ But people are doing it and it’s spreading.