Interview: Author, Advocate Courtney White Unites Groups at Odds through Regenerative Agriculture

Finding Common Ground

“Courtney, the Berlin Wall fell down up here.” These were the words of a Forest Service District Ranger back in 1998. He was talking about the wall between ranchers and environmentalists in the region, and people passing out the hammers and helping with the teardown were, and still are, called the Quivira Coalition. Courtney White, the subject of this month’s interview, co-founded Quivira in 1997 because he was dismayed and disheartened by the nasty, unceasing legal and ideological dogfighting over the disposition of Western lands. He thought it might be a good idea, for example, if environmentalists heard from scientists about the importance of fire to restoring grass. Or if ranchers and farmers heard from a peer about the advantages of moving livestock around, and heard it while conservationists and environmentalists were in the room. As the ranger indicated, the simple idea of bringing people together to relax the grip around each other’s throats and learn a few things, turned out to be terrifically well-timed and apt. After 17 years as director of Quivira, White decided to concentrate full-time on writing books, of which the eminently useful Two Percent Solutions for the Planet is only the latest example. Reached at home in Santa Fe, he graciously agreed to reflect on the past two decades of building coalitions and opening eyes.

ACRES U.S.A. Could you think back to your time in the Sierra Club and some of the frustrations or ambitions that led you to found the Quivira Coalition?

COURTNEY WHITE. You bet. I’m glad we’re doing this because it feels a little bit like the exit interview that nobody did. I’m an urban boy; I grew up in Phoenix not involved in agriculture in any way. I was a classic environmentalist worried about wilderness and wildlife, things like that. I was active in college as what you would call a checkbook environmentalist, meaning I wrote my check to the Sierra Club, wrote letters to the editor, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until 1994 and the mid-term elections in Congress, when Newt Gingrich and his friends stormed the capital and threatened a whole bunch of environmental legislation, that I actually became active in the environmental movement. I became a foot soldier in the pushback against that effort to wipe out a whole bunch of important environmental legislation. I went to meetings; I joined the local executive committee of the Sierra Club and organized workshops on water, wilderness and so on. As I put in that volunteer time for the Sierra Club, two things happened. One, I grew a little discouraged about environmentalists’ attitudes toward rural people. It was pretty antagonistic, and there was an effort in the national Sierra Club at the time to end logging on public lands. It was called Zero-Cut. There was a national referendum, meaning every member could vote on whether to direct the leadership to take a policy position opposing all logging in National Forests. This was a big step, a reaction to some things going on nationally. A small group within the organization wanted to take this extreme position rather than work with local communities or work on anything like sustainable logging practices. It was an all-or-nothing position regarding logging in National Forests. It was understandable on one level. There was a lot of frustration in the environmental movement about lack of progress and corporate behavior toward natural resources and the way the federal government dragged its heels on reform. I sympathized, but their prescription was like dropping a 100-pound anchor directly on rural people. It ended jobs. It ended businesses. It ended incomes. Not surprisingly, when this policy passed and the club made a big deal about it, here in northern New Mexico where I live, the traditional 400-year-old Hispanic villages were outraged. There’s a long tradition of sustainable, family-scale wood gathering, wood-cutting, logging that would have been shut down by this policy if the Forest Service had actually adopted it. So the Hispanic community here was extremely upset at the Sierra Club, and I thought for good reason. This is not how we solve problems. A couple of environmentalists were hung in effigy at the capital in Santa Fe. I was very unhappy and discouraged by the fighting that went on. Everybody just pitted themselves against each other. It was a take-no-prisoners approach to both environmental issues and to the jobs issue. I began to wonder why environmental prescriptions always seem to come down hardest on rural people. There was never any looking for sustainable solutions, common ground, or problem-solving. It was just everybody rolled up their sleeves and went into the boxing ring to see who could win.