Women and the Land
Land in the West is defined by a delicate balance.
To many, Western Colorado means outdoor recreation — hunting and fishing the high country, riding the singletrack trails, floating the rivers. Others are drawn to the economic opportunities of energy development. Still others have long histories on family farms, orchards, and ranches.
The balance of these interests is challenging, and there is often tension. Still, the land is what ties many of us to this place. For Janice Shepherd, the 2016 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Colorado Volunteer of the Year, finding that balance is both essential and possible.
“There’s enough land out there for us each to enjoy, as well as some places left just for wild animals,” she says.
Women often find their personal balance in the natural world as well, and as a result have a strong commitment to protecting it. Topophilia, the bond between people and place, motivates much of the conservation and protection work being done by Western Slope women. Their efforts are helping to shape the future of our part of the West.
Conservation to Protect our Present
Ilana Moir is the conservation director at the Colorado West Land Trust (CWLT), a consolidation of Mesa Land Trust and Black Canyon Regional Land Trust that conserves agricultural, scenic, and wildlife habitat land across six Western
Although Moir attended high school in Montrose, growing up she spent her summers on a raspberry farm in Quebec. She recalls a pivotal childhood moment when a change to the forest behind the farm solidified her path in life.
“It was forested on one side, clearcut on the other. I was so sad about it. I took my little Kodak out there and took pictures of it,” she remembers.
After earning a master’s degree in environmental management from Duke University, Moir found her calling helping landowners in Western Colorado achieve balance between what they wish for their land and the financial and other pressures that lead some to give it up.
“People may differ politically, but when it comes down to it they want the same things for their property, and for their kids on their property,” she says. They want their land to be productive, hospitable for wildlife, and a place their children can afford to maintain.
Moir notes that women in particular are often tied to their land in a way that is as much about family as anything else. “Women have a different emotional connection, especially if they have raised children on their property,” she explains.
She cites women like Maxine Aubert, who moved to her husband’s Glade Park sheep ranch as a young bride and brought up four children there. Her extended family now raises cattle on the ranch, of which 3,500 acres are protected through conservation agreements. “There is a true love between that family and the land,” Moir says.
Conservation agreements facilitated by organizations like CWLT allow a landowner to donate or sell the rights to develop their property while continuing to own and manage the land in its current use. As Western Colorado experiences and plans for the significant changes that are projected in the next 25 years, Moir points to land conservation as a way to minimize the population growth impacts that have challenged Front Range communities.
“We live here because we love it. We don’t have the ability to close the door behind us, but we do have the ability to envision what we want for our community,” she says, noting that Colorado’s Grand Valley is in a prime position to be proactive but can’t wait too long.
“We as community members need to advocate for what’s important to us, form a vision for what we want our community to look like. What do we love about Western Colorado right now and what do we want to make sure stays? It’s easy to complain, but what do we love and what do we want to fight for?”
It’s Not Just About the Humans
Stephanie Durno, a biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and a CWLT board member, agrees. She calls conserved lands “the supporting cast to public lands.”
“Conserved land can do what we can’t do with public land,” Durno says. She believes public lands, which make up approximately 75 percent of Mesa County, should be a public trust and accessible to everyone.
Private landownership, on the other hand, is “critical to our way of life,” in part because of the food that is produced on farmland, but also for the wildlife haven provided by conservation.
“Wildlife needs undisturbed land year-round. Conserved land provides habitat even if people can’t get there,” she explains. As a hunter with a biology background, she frequently finds herself in a position to educate others on how intact ecosystems that aren’t publicly accessible enhance, rather than diminish, the experience of hunting.
Janice Shepherd, through her work with the BLM and with the wild-lands advocacy group Great Old Broads for Wilderness, has recognized these middle grounds as well. Stockponds and rainwater catchments designed for livestock, for example, also provide water for wildlife.
Shepherd would even go one step further in balancing the different interests. Land that is designated as wilderness “can still have grazing and trails. We almost need a next level up, where there are no trails and relatively few visits by humans,” she explains. “Wildlife needs a space of its own. We’re intrusive.”
Connecting for the Next Generation
Amy Carmichael recently completed the BLM’s year-long Emerging Leaders program, along with 30 others chosen from across the country. She sees connection as key to protecting the lands of Western Colorado.
Carmichael, who is almost 50, feels that growing up, many people her age were taught not to notice difference. They were expected to be “color blind” nd to ignore rather than embrace gender differences.
“That goes against human nature. People are different, and you can notice the differences,” the Northwest Colorado District budget analyst says emphatically. “We’re in it together, and our power is valuing everyone for what they bring to the table.”
Finding the balance, she says, comes from authentic conversations and asking the right questions. She points to the ongoing divisions between recreational public lands users like mountain bikers, horseback riders, ATVers, and Jeep enthusiasts as an example of an opportunity to advocate together for greater impact. Our common goals — spending time with family and friends while enjoying the outdoors — are greater than our differences.
We can each have our individual passions, but “we need to stop the conversation of either/or and start having a both/and conversation,” she states. “It takes a lot more listening.”
Mandy Harter, a Grand Junction Realtor and a committed volunteer with both CWLT and the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, wants to make sure the land she enjoys now as a mountain biker and runner are there for her young daughter.
“Even though I’m in real estate, I think there are areas that shouldn’t be developed,” Harter contends. “If we don’t support [conservation of private lands] they’re going to go away. They’re not government lands.”
She also wants others to be able to have access to the positive personal benefits she experiences every day. “Getting outside is something I can do for myself. It makes me a better mom. I’m more patient with my daughter and with people in general,” she adds. “It’s therapy.”
Shepherd, who remembers long summer days outside and frequent family hikes as a child, worries that too many children are now growing up without a connection to the land. She commends local organizations like the Colorado Archeological Society and Conservation Colorado for providing valuable outdoor education programs to area kids.
“By getting these kids involved in land stewardship they learn to protect their heritage and influence their peers to protect it too,” she says.
From Behind the Scenes to the Front and Center
Women have long had an impact on the lands of Western Colorado — women like Margaret Talbott, Vera Foss, and Dorothy Power, whose influence on agriculture in Palisade continues more than 50 years after they created Child and Migrant Services. They saw a need to improve the quality of life for migrant farm workers, and the program still helps attract, retain, and support the workers who keep the orchards productive.
“[The women] worked behind the scenes to make things happen,” explains Pricilla Walker of the Palisade Historical Society, who says women’s contributions to land use in the area were underrecognized in the past. “They were not necessarily the ranchers or the fruit growers, but they did the work to make it happen.”
Today, women in Western Colorado continue to influence the balance on the lands that define our part of the state, that connect us to this place. Their role, however, is not in the background anymore.