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In my Sunday paper, an article from the New York Times appeared entitled “China fences in its nomads, and an ancient life withers.”  The article described the efforts by the Chinese government to relocate nomadic herders in China’s western provinces, based (in part) on the official position that “grazing harms grasslands.”  Does this sound familiar?  Later in the day on Sunday, I went fishing in the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed with my friend and sheep shearer Derrick Adamache.  The stretch of the Yuba that we fished, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, was once part of a grazing allotment.  Based on the decadent grasses and overgrown brush, I’d say that this part of my own backyard has been subjected to the same official (and popular) viewpoint.

Grazing livestock is an ancient art, as the Times article suggests, and admittedly one that can cause problems if improperly managed.  Unfortunately, native wisdom about this “art” is often discounted.  Nomadic herders – and ranchers – are often seen as relics of the past, with little (if anything) to offer in the way of scientific understanding.  According to the Times article:

“ ‘The idea that herders destroy the grasslands is just an excuse to displace people that the Chinese government thinks have a backward way of life,” said Enghebatu Togochog, director of the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, based in New York. “They promise good jobs and nice houses, but only later do the herders discover these things are untrue.’ ”

I think in some ways, governments find the self-sufficiency of nomads (and ranchers) to be threatening.  The fact that people can exist – even thrive – with little or no government assistance or material wealth is threatening, especially to a totalitarian government like China’s.

Similarly, I think that people without direct experience managing rangelands and grazing animals must have difficulty grasping the idea that grazing is regenerative to grasslands.  In our disposable, consumption-based society, the idea that something is renewable (like grass) is a foreign concept.

Those of us in the ranching world sometimes fall prey to the same type of thinking.  We talk about the genetic and management improvements that allow us to produce more beef or lamb on less land.  To me, this misses the critical difference between rangeland and cultivated agriculture.  I don’t mean to diminish the importance of cultivated agriculture, but the beauty of rangeland agriculture is that I can produce meat, fiber and milk on land that, by definition, cannot be cultivated.  Most of the rangelands where I raise my sheep, for example, are too steep, too rocky or too dry to grow a crop.  Most of these lands cannot be irrigated.  Despite these limitations, these lands grow wonderful grass – which my sheep “harvest” and turn into wool and lamb chops.  While efficiency is important, I believe that we should embrace the fact that ours is a land-extensive enterprise.  We need large, unbroken blocks of rangeland – for grazing, for wildlife habitat, for carbon sequestration, for open space, for watershed function!  In other words, we shouldn’t apologize for the fact that our ranching livelihoods keep large tracts of rangelands intact and undeveloped.

As Derrick and I made our way back towards Truckee, we drove out to Independence Lake, which was recently acquired by the Nature Conservancy.  On our way to the lake, we passed through an aspen grove that featured arboglyphs (tree carvings) created by a Basque sheepherder.  The trees were on the edge of a sagebrush flat that to my shepherd’s eye would have been an ideal bedding ground for sheep.  But sheep are no longer present at Independence Lake – and neither are sheepherders.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of the man who carved the Basque flag and the lauburu (Basque cross) on the aspens we photographed.  I also wondered about the fate of the Chinese herders whose lives have been “improved” by the government.  As the Times article reported:

“Like hundreds of thousands of pastoralists across China who have been relocated into bleak townships over the past decade, he is jobless, deeply indebted and dependent on shrinking government subsidies to buy the milk, meat and wool he once obtained from his flocks.”

An essay like this should end with a call to action or a positive note.  This one doesn’t.  I find myself troubled and sad to think of my Chinese colleagues who have been forced to move to town.  I find myself discouraged that grazing (and the livelihood and land uses it supports) in my own state faces similar (if less dramatic) challenges.


  1. Nice post, Dan. I had never really thought about how rangelands are typically deemed undesirable for other industries, especially agriculture. I've recently been learning about ailaq, a practice in Afghanistan where sheep/goat and cattle herders are nomadic during the warm summer months, going up to higher elevations where livestock populations are thinner and natural fodder is more abundant. We'll have to discuss when I'm back in town in September.

  2. Sam:
    I look forward to learning from your experience! Thanks for the comment!


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