Influences of Society, Politics and Local Knowledge on Ranch Management

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $25,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Grant Recipient: University of Arizona
Region: Western
State: Arizona
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
George Ruyle
University of Arizona

Annual Reports


Not commodity specific


  • Sustainable Communities: public policy, social capital


    Interviews with ranchers and government agency personnel focused on human dimensions of ranchland management in Southeast Arizona. Most ranchers relied on informal, visual monitoring to assess and adapt to changing rangeland conditions on daily or monthly timescales. Many also valued formal, yearly, science-based rangeland monitoring, both to aid land management and as potential evidence in legal disputes.

    Environmental regulations profoundly limit ranchers’ capabilities to apply certain conservation techniques. Neighboring ranchers and government land owners were effectively forced to collaborate when planning prescribed burns, spurring wider communication. Formerly antagonistic groups with differing interests forged more cooperative relationships centered on practical conservation.


    Ecological and social systems interact significantly, and understanding the linkages between them is critical to sustainable management of the natural environment (Holling 2001, Escobar 2006, Reynolds et al. 2007). Land tenure systems and the wider economic environment can sometimes help explain local actions which profoundly affect the natural environment and which otherwise may appear irrational (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, Hansen and Libecap 2004). Dominant ideas about the environment influence government policies, law and land use (Fairhead and Scoones 2005, Gosnell et al. 2007), and environmental groups often try to change land management practices by influencing public opinion on the environment (Luke 1995). In Arizona, ranching has been affected by the wider economic situation and by changes in public attitudes to the desert environment (Sheridan 1995, 2001, 2007a). The ongoing migration from urban centers to the rural West often brings with it public attitudes to land use oriented towards preservation or recreation, and unfavorable toward ranching (Brunson and Steel 1996, Gosnell et al. 2006). Ranching in Arizona is particularly vulnerable to such changes in public opinion, due to the small amount of private land and consequent reliance on grazing on public and state lands (Schlenker-Goodrich 2001).

    Local or traditional knowledge of the environment is acquired through long-term experience of land management and is typically passed on informally. It can play an important role in natural resource management (Lazenby 2005), even in developed countries where scientific ideas are dominant (Millar and Curtis 1999, Fulton et al. 2003, Quinn and Dubois 2005, Schulman 2007, Ballard et al. 2008, Knapp and Fernandez-Gimenez 2008). Extension services and collaboration between government agencies and ranchers are likely to be improved by acknowledging the importance of local knowledge and by understanding social and political constraints to decision making (Sayre 2004, Tanaka et al. 2005).

    There are several related projects funded by SARE. Project FNC04-496 aims to incorporate pre-European-settlement practices into contemporary ranching. LNC98-142 encourages farmers to jointly develop new ways of thinking and approaches to farming. These projects implicitly acknowledge the value of local or traditional knowledge in conservation. ES99-045, LNC01-185 and LS05-214 recognize the importance of finances and economics but do not address wider social or political constraints on land managers. LNC98-144 recognizes the importance of environmental, economic and political issues and of legal challenges to ranch management. In addition, Huntsinger et al. (2010) address both social and ecological issues to conservation ranching. However, with these exceptions, few projects address the importance of local knowledge and wider social and political issues to ranching.

    A preliminary study was conducted prior to this project, consisting of three rancher focus groups. This pilot project found that ranch plans are often informal and subject to change according to environmental conditions, and that rancher knowledge is not always valued by government agency staff or by the public. Devaluing the local environmental knowledge of one section of society can reduce its influence on policy (Robbins 2006), while openly integrating multiple perspectives on the environment is likely to lead to more ecologically and socially sustainable land use (Tanaka et al. 2005, Brunson and Huntsinger 2008).

    Project objectives:

    The principal goals of this project were:

    • To compare understandings of the local natural environment between experienced ranchers, agency staff and extension personnel. This includes how they understand the effects of land management over long periods, incorporating experiences of success and failure and interactions with factors outside their control such as climate. Key areas of management to address are grazing management and brush control. Acquisition of local, experience-based knowledge would lead to ranchers having a different understanding of the environment. The intention was not to determine exactly how any aspect of knowledge was acquired, but to document environmental understanding and determine how it may differ between the three groups.

      To compare ranchers’ environmental knowledge and management practices with the range science literature and evaluate each with respect to the other. This was intended clarify any differences between ranchers’ and science-based understandings of the natural environment.

      To compare perceptions of the influence of the social and political environment between experienced ranchers, government land agency staff and university extension personnel.

      To examine influences of public opinion and pressure on ranch management. For instance, pressure from environmental groups and the general public, exerted through the media and community groups; how (threats of) legal actions may constrain ranch management; and modifications made to environmental management and monitoring plans in order to influence public opinion or forestall unfavorable legal actions.

    To meet these goals, initial performance targets were to conduct focus groups and individual interviews with ranchers and government agency personnel with influence over ranchland conservation in a study area and to conduct an in-depth case study of one ranch in that area. However, to facilitate comparisons and achieve greater depth and detail in analyses of data from all participants, the study was re-formulated as a multiple case study. The performance targets were amended accordingly to rely on primarily individual interviews, with repeat interviews and consideration of larger scale social contexts (Small 2009).

    The key objective was therefore to conduct interviews with participants from three groups:

    a) experienced ranchers (15+ years ranching),
    b) extension/conservation agency personnel,
    c) personnel from government land-leasing.

    The a priori performance target was to interview a minimum of:

    (a) 16 ranchers,
    (b) 6 extension/conservation agency personnel,
    (c) 6 personnel from government land-leasing agencies; for a minimum total of 28 participants.

    These figures were expected to be sufficient for data saturation regarding our study (Guest et al. 2006) but were to be increased should circumstances permit.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.