Friday, May 27, 2011

Shining Horizons: Ranching for Resilience on Rocky Mountain Rangelands

A photography exhibit at Off the Beaten Path, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
May 2011

Photo by Matt Barnes
As a rangeland conservationist and ranch manager in western Colorado, I have the opportunity to live and work in a land of great beauty.  Indeed, the western landscape is what drew me to the rangeland profession in the first place.  Over the years, I’ve tried to capture a little bit of that beauty with my digital camera.  In the last year or so I’ve been doing a lot of ranch work, and since the ranching world tends to require long hours, I’ve often found myself working in photogenic places during the low-angle amber light of dawn and dusk, and many times I’ve realized that I was standing in a photograph, I just had to pull out my pocket digital, compose the shot, press the shutter button, and a great image was transferred from reality to pixels.

My photography has progressed from a pursuit of perfect, pristine landscapes to a documentation of living and working on the land.  What really excites me, as a land steward, as a writer and artist, and as a citizen, is harmony of humans with the rest of nature—not standing apart, either as directors or as leading actors in front of a static backdrop, but as an integral part of the greater whole:  a complex, self-organizing, adaptive system.
Photo by Matt Barnes
The American West is primarily a rangeland landscape, along with forested mountains and, in those few places that can be irrigated, grass meadows or small tracts of farmland.  But most of it is still rangeland, because it doesn’t make sense as farmland, ecologically or economically.  So, living on the land in most of the West means hunting and gathering, or the natural extensions of those life-ways: herding and gardening.  These activities, in and of themselves, are neither beneficial nor detrimental; their impact on the greater whole depends on how they are managed.  While in some places we are living with the legacy of poorly managed livestock grazing, there are many examples of livestock grazing where the health of the land is stable or improving. 

These examples of land stewardship for resilience are the heart of the next West, the agrarian West, and a few of them are featured in an exhibit of my best photographs, on display this month at Off the Beaten Path in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Photo by Matt Barnes
The exhibit is subtitled “ranching for resilience” because the best stewards recognize that they are part of a greater whole, and they manage for its resilience: the capacity of the system to withstand disturbance and retain or resume its essential structure and function.  Resilience goes beyond equilibrium concepts of sustainable yield of any product or even optimization of competing land uses, to embrace a non-equilibrium world.  In the long run, nothing can be sustained in perpetuity because the system is always evolving; the ultimate unforeseen consequence of our success is that we create a new reality to which we must then adapt, or be replaced.  To surpass sustainability, the goal of land management should be to maintain or enhance the resilience of systems in desirable states, and to find and capitalize on opportunities to improve the functioning of systems in undesirable states. In so doing, stewards strive to create harmony in landscapes of great beauty.
My photographs are an attempt to capture a little bit of this dynamic world of rangeland stewardship.  This exhibit is an opportunity to share a glimpse of this land of beauty with others, especially those who do not have the opportunity to live it every day.  If you are in Steamboat Springs this month, I hope you will stop by Off the Beaten Path and have a look.
Photo by Matt Barnes
Editor’s note:  Matt Barnes, CPRM, is Director (2010-2011) of the Colorado Section SRM, and serves the SRM on the Rangelands Editorial Board and the Applied Science Task Force.  He is owner of Shining Horizons Land Management, and manages the Howell Ranch near Cimarron, Colorado, from May-October.  You can follow his blog and see more of his photographs at


Ken said...

Good post. Addresses the issues we need to understand to move forward with the rural life as we love it. I particularly like that photo of the cows and calves walking into a cloudy day. Hints at the troubles to come for all of us, and also to the solutions.

Ken Rodgers

Matt Barnes said...

Thanks, Ken. The cattle in that photo are part of a vegetation treatment on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and when they're finished there, they will be direct-marketed as organic grassfed beef. By the way, I enjoyed looking at your blog (

JAS said...

I really appreciate your views on resilience--how it is arguably a more appropriate goal than sustainability. Well spoken! And, I also am glad to hear someone articulate the importance of beauty within the science of land management. Here here!

Matt Barnes said...

Beauty inspires curiosity, which inspires science, which leads to understanding, which improves management, which creates beauty.