Bill Sproul, Sproul Ranch, Kansas
Bill Sproul grew up in Kansas surrounded by production agriculture, where commodity based conservation partnerships were basically focused on making more money. He was never taught about “land ethics” or “stewardship.”
“I didn’t understand conservation and stewardship. I was like a 14-year-old boy at a rodeo dance, who wants to dance but doesn’t know how: you don’t ask and you don’t do it.
“Even though I did love my land, early on I thought everything revolved around MY land. I didn’t understand about landscapes, watersheds, and wildlife. Then I read A Sand County Almanac [by Aldo Leopold]. The quote at the beginning of the book really caught me, that if you view land as a commodity, you own it and can do whatever you want with it; you can abuse it. But if you view land as a community, then you are a part of the community and the web of life—that’s when you start to love the land.”
Partnerscapes (PFC) started for Sproul in Seeley Lake, Montana at one of their earliest gatherings in 2008. “It’s through partnerships fostered by Partnerscapes that I have learned so much about conservation and stewardship.
“Here’s an answer to a question we get from a lot of young biologists working with private landowners. How do you approach a rancher to talk for the first time? If you didn’t grow up on a ranch you might be tempted to ask them about their cows or how many acres they have. Don’t ask that! Instead, ask a question about the weather – a nice neutral subject that everyone understands. Ask how much rainfall he’s had in the last five years or so, if he’s ever experienced a drought.
“Maybe a rancher might not know what bluestem is, so talk abut invasive species like sericia lespedeza—that people know! Talk about wildlife. Mention quail because everybody loves quail, and everyone can relate to them.”
Jim Faulstich, Daybreak Ranch, South Dakota
Jim Faulstich grew up with a conservation ethic taught to him by his dad. His first interaction with Partnerscapes (then Partners for Conservation) was at the Private Lands Partners Day in Colorado in 2009.
“At that time, I realized many issues we deal with, such as endangered species or wildfire, are national level issues. I thought, ‘how great would it be if we could take Partners for Conservation to the national level!’
“So I called Jim Stone (Partnerscapes-PFC chairman) after the meeting to talk, and that developed into a conference call, and here I am now a regional representative on the Partnerscapes Board Executive Committee! Well, now we survive on conference calls and zoom calls.
“We may not be 100% national yet, but we are still growing. We would really appreciate any of you from states that are not yet involved!”
Jim Stone, Rolling Stone Ranch, Montana
According to Jim Stone, Board chair of Partnerscapes (formerly Partners for Conservation or PFC) since 2010, the organization owes a lot to Greg Neudecker. Greg is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife (PFW) program in Montana who really emphasized the idea of “transferability” of knowledge and practice.
“We might actually not be ranching if not for the PFW program, we had so much to learn. Greg helped us to practice what we call ‘conservation around the kitchen table.’ Whether in Montana or DC, it’s all about relationships and trust.
“We’ve developed a way to describe elements essential to successful conservation partnerships:
“Here’s an example of how PFC early on built important relationships. There was an assistance program, and folks in DC tried to make a change so that landowners had to do a lot of paperwork. But we went to DC to stop the change, saying we can’t fix those problems from Trixi’s Bar & Grill! We contacted Pam Hayes, who wrote the rule. She’s a very nice lady, but she didn’t understand what we all did. We built that relationship to help her understand, and she was able to rewrite the rule!
“With the collective power we have working together, we can help solve so many problems. We’ve figured out a way to make government work with private landowners, and it’s powerful. We were running a little ragged until we hired Steve Jester as our Executive Director, and we’ve benefited from his great leadership.”
Words of wisdom for 2021
Top policy priorities for Partnerscapes in 2020-2021 are to seek full funding for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. They have legislation authorizing the program to $75M, but the USFWS Directorate only asks for $50M. We want to help USFWS leadership push on Interior to ask Congress to fully fund the program.
When times are tough, we as landowners have always shifted our operation. As landowners, we are best suited to deal with challenges. We are constantly adjusting as a matter of business, but there’s no formula. Landowners are best at dealing with these rapidly changing problems we are facing. People know they have to change, and put more priority on natural resources instead of production. Doing that has provided hunting income for some, but change is not easy.
Diversity is good. We grow grass…and watchable wildlife could become an income stream! Regenerative agriculture (focused on soil health) is hitting the mark for us, often allowing us to run more cattle on the same ground. The younger generation is making that move!
The opportunities now in production agriculture are in the food system, especially the animal protein side. There are real opportunities on the horizon that will all come back into producers’ laps. Increasingly, private industry and society are becoming more aware, and they appreciate the products rural lands produce and provide beyond food and fiber!