A Reflection on the Challenge of 21st-Century Range Management – Orlando SRM 2014

“Range management of the twenty-first century is no longer about cows and grass: it is a profession which manages systems and change.”

I’m a long-time fan of Thad Box, Utah State University professor emeritus and author of the column “Out of the Box” which is run in several of the farming and ranching magazines I grew up reading. So imagine my surprise and elation when I found that Dr. Box was to speak at the plenary session at a recent conference I attended, for the Society for Range Management (SRM) in Orlando, Florida, which I attended with my lab. And I know I wasn’t the only one to find myself moved and inspired by his talk. This self-described farm boy-turned-academic is an incredible speaker who challenged each of us to think of our profession in a new light and to present it to the world in a positive light.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when later that day, a couple in the elevator at the hotel where we were staying  asked what conference I was attending and, when I responded with the name of the Society, asked what that meant.

In my undergraduate days, I admit, I frequently responded to such questions with the stereotypical “cows and grass.” But range management is so much more than that! It encompasses livestock and vegetation, sure, but also wildlife, recreation, energy development, fire, and my current specialization, weed science, to name a few. It requires an understanding of a wide array of diverse processes that requires a lifetime to fully comprehend. To             quote one of my professors at the University of Wyoming, range management isn’t rocket science: it’s a lot harder. It is changeable and complex and has far-reaching consequences.

So when I was challenged by that elevator question, I replied proudly, “It’s about land management in areas where grazing and fire are important.” And then, because they had asked their question on the floor just below my exit, and because Orlando resorts have speedy elevators, that was the conversation. No interaction, no rebuttal, just that. I hope it was enough to leave them with a favorable impression of what I do. There are so many things I could have added to that statement, but I didn’t. That was all.

I’m starting to think that an “elevator speech” on range management is one of those things I should be ready to give whenever interact with people. Whether you’re managing cattle or tracking wildlife or controlling invasive species, in Wyoming or Florida or Alaska, the public perception of what you do plays a big role in how you do your job. Dr. Box is right: our world is changing and we need to change with it—and to remain relevant to the public while we do so.

[In other news, visiting Orlando in the middle of a Laramie winter was fantastic. But more on that at a later date!]