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Our view: Rewarding Colorado ranchers who do it right

Aldo Leopold was a fascinating cat. He took the time to look at things and reflect.

A descendant of German immigrants, Leopold grew up roaming in Iowa woods and in time was graduated from the then-new Yale School of Forestry, which had been established with a donation from Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who was appointed by a fellow conservationist, President Theodore Roosevelt. They were of the first generation of American conservationists.

When Leopold graduated, he quite naturally went into the Forest Service. After field service, then teaching, he put his ideas to work on 80 barren acres in the sand country near Baraboo, Wisconsin, helping the land heal from logging and overgrazing. In 1949, Leopold published his great work, the slender collection “A Sand County Almanac.”

“Sand County” is a quiet call to arms, to defend the land and nature from unthinking man. It posits moral and ethical imperatives, but they arise almost invisibly from a naturalist’s eye, such as Leopold’s observations on the life unseen by humans beneath the snow.

The less well defined concept of “environmentalism” came after, partly inspired by Leopold. What he was most firmly was a conservationist, as Roosevelt was (sometimes reluctantly) and as his cousin FDR (who liked to describe himself as a tree farmer) most definitely was. The idea is not dead yet, even if it may seem moot when so many environmentalists exclaim as one that life on Earth is ending as we speak.

On Tuesday, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Tom Udall, the Democrat from New Mexico, introduced the “Thirty by Thirty” resolution, “Expressing the sense of the Senate that the federal government should establish a national goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the land and ocean of the United States by 2030.” It is a reminder that conservation is a cornerstone of environmentalism. “We can’t address climate change without focusing on conservation,” Bennet said in a prepared statement.

Environmentalism sometimes pits activists against farmers and ranchers. Conservation recognizes they can be allies. That was the idea behind the Sand County Foundation, established in Wisconsin in 1965 to work with private partners in order to save Leopold’s farm.

“This pioneering cooperative venture led landowners to commit to voluntary conservation while raising awareness of Leopold’s land ethic, which inspires thousands of other owners of working land,” the foundation explains. “Leopold advanced individual responsibility for private land management, and recognized that a landowner’s profitability and economic growth are tied to conservation success.”

The foundation annually gives the Leopold Conservation Award to landowners in 15 states, including Colorado. Last year, the Colorado award went to the Livingston Ranch in Stratton, on the eastern plains, where the Livingston family runs beef cattle and grows wheat, milo, corn and hay while conserving water and letting grasses recover. In 2018, it went to the Beatty Canyon Ranch, in Kim, east of Trinidad, where the Wooten family grazes a herd of Red Angus cattle and makes agriculture compatible with preserving the short grass prairie.

Nominations are now being accepted for the 2020 Colorado award, for landowners “who demonstrate outstanding stewardship and management of natural resources.” It is presented in partnership with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and the U.S. agriculture department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Nominations can be submitted by a landowner or on a landowner’s behalf. There’s more information at sandcountyfoundation.org.

Conservation, Leopold once said, “will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

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