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A New Resource on the Range

Utah Ranch Becomes a Living Laboratory

The Colorado Plateau stands at a crossroads. Climate changes coupled with increasing human demands are threatening the region’s natural resources and communities. Yet scientists and land users lack adequate information to prepare and adapt. In a search for answers, the Conservancy is working with long-time rancher Heidi Redd and other partners to establish the Canyonlands Research Center at the iconic Dugout Ranch.  Nature.org recently sat down with Heidi to learn what she thinks the Center may mean for the ranchers and their way of life in arid lands.

nature.org:

Why have you chosen to partner with The Nature Conservancy in this new research endeavor at the Dugout Ranch?

Heidi Redd:

Our original partnership was inspired by our mutual desire to protect a beautiful landscape from development. The current idea to expand the partnership for research purposes is an exciting extension of our protection goal. I know that changing climate and land conditions could still impact how the Dugout Ranch may be used in the future. Will it continue as one of Utah’s oldest traditional cattle operations? Will the land change so much that it cannot support the livestock, beauty, and recreation uses common in the area today? I want to work with scientists to help answer these questions, and ensure the future of the Dugout Ranch and other places like it on the Colorado Plateau.

nature.org:

You've been ranching for a long time, what types of changes have you seen in the landscape?

Heidi Redd:

The biggest changes I’ve observed in the 40 years I’ve spent at the Dugout are the increase in visitors and the shifting of weather patterns. There are more cars on the roads, a lot more camping areas and trails, and a greater variety of recreation uses now. The increase in visitation has been accompanied by the spread of invasive plants, dropped from boots, tires, and mud under car fenders. Goatheads are the most noticeable of these invaders. When compared with 40 years ago, my cattle herd is only about half the size it used to be. I attribute that directly to shifts in the climate. There is less moisture, hence fewer forage plants and the water holes dry up earlier in the season. I’ve had to reduce the number of cattle I run because there isn’t sufficient food or water to support the herd sizes of 40 years ago.

nature.org:

What types of questions do you hope scientists will answer through the new research initiative?

Heidi Redd:

I think ranchers desperately need information on how to keep invasive plants from spreading, and how to eliminate them where they are already established. I hope the scientists can answer specific questions like: when forage plants are stressed due to drought, when is the best time to graze them and for how long at a time?

nature.org:

How do you think the research at Dugout will benefit other ranchers?

Heidi Redd:

Every operation is unique, and ranches are adapted to local plants, elevation, and water sources, as well as the grazing philosophies of the agencies that manage the public range. Sometimes the breed of cattle makes a difference. But at the end of the day, all ranchers need two basic things: cattle forage and water. My hope is that researchers will find new information on these critical issues that will benefit most cattle operations.

nature.org:

If you had to give one piece of advice about land stewardship to a rancher just starting out, what would it be?

Heidi Redd:

My advice is to avoid going into debt. The pressure of having to pay down the debt can lead some ranchers to make decisions based more on potential income than land stewardship. At the end of that kind of situation, all of us lose.

nature.org:

Why is it important for ranchers to work with scientists to address the challenges of adapting to climate changes?

Heidi Redd:

None of us have all the answers because climate change is not a simple situation. I think it is valuable to bring together different perspectives. At the same time, having researchers work together with ranchers helps to keep a pragmatic focus on problem-solving and improves the support for trying new strategies. The situation is serious enough that everyone who relies on these lands and waters needs to become involved.


About the Interviewee

Rancher Heidi Redd knows a thing or two about tackling obstacles. For more than 40 years, she’s run a major cattle company at the Dugout Ranch in southern Utah.

But Heidi acknowledges that ranchers, and the lands they love, now face unprecedented challenges: record drought, invasives, and mounting impacts from competing land users.

As droughts lengthen, vegetation patterns shift, and human demands increase, what is the breaking point, both for ranchers and for the natural resources of the Colorado Plateau?

In a quest for new answers, Heidi and the Conservancy are launching the Canyonlands Research Center with Dugout Ranch at its core. Scientists will use the ranch, adjacent public acreage, and the cattle herd as a living laboratory to study grazing practices, climate and the sustainability of the land.

Heidi hopes the research—and real-world solutions—generated at the Center may help change the fate of other ranchers struggling to maintain a livelihood and a way of life in arid lands.

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