As both urban and rural westerners celebrated National Public Land’s Day this weekend, we must remember the important role privately owned working ranches and farms play in sustaining the wildlife and other resource values in these large landscapes.
The 420,000 square miles of the American West is almost evenly divided between public and private ownership. Whether it is a park, forest, refuge, ranch, farm, Native American reservation, or military base, economically and ecologically public and private lands are dependent on one another. For example, we need the tourism and recreational opportunities that nearly one billion user-days in our parks and forests generate annually, but we also need the ecological buffers and good stewardship that working lands provide.
In the past, public and private lands have been largely treated as separate and sometimes conflicting entities. In recent years, however, innovative models of farm and ranch management, regenerative agriculture, collaborative conservation partnerships and deeper levels of ecological understanding have brought the two halves of the West together.
For wildlife, the integration of public and private property stewardship goals is critical. Over sixty percent of American land (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) is in agriculture, while only five percent is federally protected as parks or wilderness areas. Additionally, the majority of threatened and endangered species are found on private land. As a result, conservation efforts on behalf of wildlife need to proactively engage the agricultural community in order to succeed. The reverse is true too – increasingly, farmers and ranchers need the support of city-based conservationists as allies and customers.
One important area of common ground between public and private land is the conservation of wildlife movement corridors across landscapes. Corridors are stretches of land and water which allow wildlife room to roam in order to find water, forage, and mates (for genetic diversity). A creek is a good example of a corridor. When free from dams, poorly designed fences or other human obstacles, a creek can serve as a natural pathway for migrating fish and mammals through a watershed containing multiple owners. After all, creeks and the wildlife that call them home, don’t know the boundaries between public and private lands.
While public support for efforts to protect native species in native habitats, including working lands, appears to be growing, it is important for the public and policymakers alike to understand that private landowners bear significant financial costs associated with wildlife conservation. Their losses from predation, forage competition and disease transmission shouldn’t be ignored. We need to bridge this gap in understanding in order to create new public/private partnerships and encourage changes to federal policies, including a shift from the protection of a single species to multi-species/multi-use habitat plans that emphasize the overall health of a landscape.
Take for example the two million acres within Yellowstone National Park that was recognized by its sponsors as too small to adequately protect wide-ranging wildlife. Over the ensuing decades, the concept of a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) was developed to give these animals the space they need. Today, the GYE encompasses twenty-two million acres, thirty percent of which is privately owned. Cooperation among agencies, ranchers and other landowners is essential if the beating heart of the region – Yellowstone – is to remain strong.
While we rightly celebrate and utilize our public lands, we must also honor the interdependent web of public and private ownership and in which our lands are embedded. As conservationist John Muir once observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In essence, nothing exists in isolation in nature. It’s all one West.
Lesli Allison is executive director for Western Landowners Alliance, a West-wide organization established by landowners to improve the ecological health and economic prosperity of working lands in the American West. Our mission is to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. At WLA, we envision a future where our land and water, private and leased, delivers increased agricultural production and profitability, thriving wildlife populations, vital water supplies and other important natural resources. Prior to joining the Western Landowners Alliance, Lesli managed a ranch in southern Colorado, implementing programs in restoration forestry, prescribed fire, grazing, stream restoration, native trout recovery, hunting and wildlife management, and scientific research and monitoring. Learn more at westernlandownersalliance.org.

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