Meet Our Speakers: Billy Pat McKinney


Billy Pat McKinney grew up in both the United States and Mexico, flitting across a border marked only by the Rio Grande. McKinney told us that—as a boy—nature lovers were the butt of his jokes. Clearly people change because in 1969, hoping “to make a quick buck” he found a job as a field biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Reminiscing, he told the westies it’s the things you stumble upon that make you happiest. McKinney made live captures to study animals and quickly mastered his job. He’s a “do it yourself” guy, living to defy the maxim, “conservation without money is just conversation.” He currently works for CEMEX, a global cement company operating in over 50 countries. The company owns the Adams Ranch, a large parcel of land in the Big Bend area and dedicates it to conservation with the goal of corporate responsibility. Cemex employs a team, under the direction of McKinney, to oversee the conservation area. Among their responsibilities are re-wilding and reviving wildlife populations. They strategically place supplemental feed for quail and water guzzlers (which harvest and store rainwater) for mule deer, big horn sheep, and birds. To further aid wildlife, McKinney suggests giving certain animals game status. Though it sounds counterintuitive, this gives species protection until their population bolsters to a viable size. He enjoys his vocation: protecting wildlife. “I fell in love with this work, and the romance continues.”

By Griffin Cronk


Meet Our Speakers: Courtney White

Courtney White, an author and founder of the Quivira Coalition, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an area surrounded by jagged peaks and the open range of public lands. He is well aware of how livestock graze these lands; Quivira’s mission is collaborative conservation, specifically cooperation between ranchers and environmentalists. White himself is an exemplar of the confluence of environmentalism and agrarian land use. He started as a Sierra Club activist before, as he puts it, getting “frustrated listening to some of the environmental rhetoric…about how you deal with rural people.” Thus began the journey towards the creation of the Quivira Coalition in 1997. Quivira was inspired by ranchers, who, at the time of White’s frustration, were utilizing environmentally conscious grazing practices, including high-intensity low-duration grazing, which purportedly engenders the regeneration of native grasses. One such rancher is Bill McDonald of southern Arizona, who coined the term ‘radical center.’ The radical center is the space between preservationist environmentalism and disregard for the land’s health. As Courtney explains, “the idea is that we look at these landscapes collaboratively, ranchers and conservationists, and try to find different ways of co-managing [them].” White acknowledges that traditional grazing practices heavily degrade the land; however, when asked if cattle should be grazed on public land, he replies quickly: “of course.” The collaborative median that White and the Quivira Coalition foster offers a long-needed compromise in the context of controversial Western land management and conservation. 

By: Fields Ford

Meet Our Speakers: Travis Bruner

As the executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, it was Travis Bruner’s job to close grazing allotments through litigation in federal court. From an ecological standpoint, western states should not be grazed, however the delay in seeing the change he fought for on the ground left him unsatisfied with his work. Leaving his job to become the Arizona Forest Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust forced him to alter his political mission while maintaining his own ecological goals. Bruner is now tasked with fostering consensus in collaborations with the Forest Service. Consensus collaborations, which require unanimous agreement, arise from issues including fire, uranium, and grazing. As Bruner sees it, grazing on public land is driven at an enormous loss to tax payers and the environment. His goal of changing the grazing culture is now realized not through federal courts but through collaborations that generate changing mindsets in diverse stakeholders.

By: Griffin Cronk

Better Know an Educator: Mary O'Brien

We met Mary O’Brien at a small park on a bright Sunday afternoon in Richfield, Utah. A renowned ecologist working for the Grand Canyon Trust, Mary has degrees in sociology, elementary education, and a Ph.D. in botany. Mary and her husband have lived and worked in a number of places from Southern California to Eugene, Oregon, finally settling in Castle Valley, Utah. Mary has a storied career in toxics policy, social work, and was even considered for the directorship of Greenpeace. Small rocks, fossils, and bones cover the space not taken by stacks of papers, maps, and botany books in her charming mud-covered hay-bale construction home fronted by large windows facing south. Whether on the aspen-covered slopes of Monroe Mountain or the Gambel Oak foothills of the La Sal range, Mary’s enduring passion for science-based conservation and advocacy comes to the forefront in conversations about public lands grazing and the importance of protecting springs on national forests. Mary’s unstoppable drive comes from her perspective that it is “harder to watch things fall apart than trying to do something about it.” For over thirteen years with the Trust, Mary has been effecting conservation through tireless field work and persistence with federal land management agencies. Through two weeks of performing aspen transects and forest service spring assessments, Mary’s ecological knowledge impressed and inspired. As for being a career scientist, for Mary, “it doesn’t get better than being paid to tell the truth.”

By: Gardner Dee

Better Know an Educator: Todd Wilkinson

“If your mother says she loves you, you had better check it out.” This is author and journalist Todd Wilkinson’s mindset when he reports on stories across the American West. From the history of Lewis and Clark on the Missouri River to the politics of life on the Pine Ridge reservation, and the “New West” paradise that is becoming Jackson Hole, WY, Todd is well-versed in the environmental and social issues of the West. He has been published in Christian Science Monitor and National Geographic, and he previously wrote a column called “The New West” for the Jackson Hole News & Guide. After nearly twenty years in Jackson, he has moved on to other journalistic endeavors in Bozeman, MT. Todd began his career as a violent crime reporter in Chicago and has developed an impressive resume since, writing “Last Stand,” a critically-acclaimed biography of Ted Turner and authoring a collaborative work with photographer Thomas Mangelson called “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek.” His work is so diverse in fact, that some have mistaken him for two different people sharing the same alias. In his writing, Todd seeks out the complexity inherent in western environmentalism, showing that there are usually more than two clearly-defined sides to any issue. It is clear however, from reading and talking with Todd that he cares deeply for the lands of our Western United States, and seeks to share the full story of them with his readers and those lucky enough to get to listen.

By: Maggie Baker

Meet Our Speakers: Danny Johnson

Danny Johnson went from “shoveling shit to dishing it out,” as media mogul-billionaire Ted Turner likes to say. Johnson works as the Ranch Manager for Turner’s Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. He stands tall in brown cowboy boots, a Patagonia brand pullover and a large, clean, white-brimmed hat. He carries momentum in his voice. Danny has worked for Mr. Turner since 1993 in various positions from fishing guide to stable hand to the manager he is today, and he likes to talk about how he has evolved with his work.

            Flying D is a 113,000 acre piece of land purchased just four years before Johnson first was hired by Turner, who has restored the place once trammeled by cattle grazing to a well-endowed conservation effort. The ranch has since been stocked with native species including fish, plants, and bison. Danny works to maintain this carefully balanced ecosystem.

            Part of the job description calls on innovation to efficiently turn roaming bison into burgers. When Johnson first started work under Mr. Turner, the bison meat industry was just getting its start. As demand increases, Danny faces the challenge of balancing distinct aims of the ranch: economic sustainability and ecological health. Bison play into both as a profitable industry and as a native animal with far less impact on the land than cows. Ultimately, Johnson works for the best interest of the land, wildlife, and his boss.

By: Signe Lindquist


Meet Our Speakers: Dale Johnson

Standing on a sweeping ridge overlooking Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, Dale Johnson cuts the figure of the classic rancher. Wearing work boots and faded jeans under a striped button-up and ball cap, the robust octogenarian seems thirty years younger as he takes in the vista spread a thousand feet below us—verdant valley rising to majestic mountains, with a canyon’s crest yawning out on the right. The Johnson family has resided here since 1888, when Dale’s great-grandfather claimed a 160-acre plot that, through three centuries and four generations, grew into a sizable ranch situated at the canyon’s terminus. Dale has managed that homestead since 1979, and he now leads us via narrow dirt roads to a mountain tree farm bearing the legacy of his predecessor, uncle Howard Johnson, who planted, treated, and harvested these 4,000 acres of timber by himself from passing on the ranch until his death in 2006.

            The family holds deep roots in the Wallowa Valley, and Dale professes hope that future generations will continue their forebears’ stewardship of the land. Despite urbanization looming on the horizon that vision remains plausible. Howard’s daughter Joanna owns and manages the tree farm, and Dale’s four children will share ownership of the ranch when he dies. The venerable patriarch seems unconcerned about the future, perhaps because of the past. Surrounded by thriving ponderosa pines, he observes, “the land’s been in the family since the 1880’s, and I’d say we’ve taken pretty good care of it.” Looking around, I’d have to agree.

            By: Hunter Dunn

Meet Our Speakers: Vic and Carrie Stokes

Vic and Carrie Stokes arrived for dinner in a plume of dust on the dry road leading up to camp. Carrie is an administrator for the Okanogan School District, and her husband Vic is a fourth-generation rancher in the Methow Valley. After joking and storytelling over dinner, they discussed the of ranching in the Methow. Vic encouraged us to be wary of the nostalgia that surrounds ranching, a complex and demanding line of work. Cattle grazing on public lands is an especially fraught topic due to the environmental impact grazing has on water and ecosystem health. Vic and Carrie believe that collaboration is the most useful mindset a rancher can adopt. Recognizing the competing interests of the public, of land owners and of the government agencies involved, Vic is invested in continuing a civil dialogue with anyone who cares to have it. No matter who he’s talking with, Vic holds to the principle, “it’s not how we agree on issues, it’s how we disagree that matters.” 

By: Grace Butler

Meet Our Speakers: Alexa Whipple

On an early Thursday evening, Alexa Whipple rolled into the Semester in the West Camp in an old, white Toyota pickup. As she got out of the truck carrying a box of organic pears, she greeted everyone with smiling eyes. The pears came from 12 Moons Farm, a 6-acre plot of land that Alexa runs in the Methow Valley, Washington. Whipple started her farm after graduating with a degree in wildlife biology from Virginia Tech and bouncing around the West until she found her place in the Methow, and she visited the group to educate us about sustainable agriculture and its environmental benefits. She addressed the concept of regenerative grazing, in which public lands are selectively grazed in order to promote the growth of native bunchgrass. Whipple also explained the use of human range-riders to ensure proper grazing practices and livestock-predator relations on the range. Alexa also emphasized the importance of soil health in agriculture. Her farm uses organic, pesticide/herbicide-free practices to maintain the health of the bacteria within the top layers of soil. She tills as little as possible so as not to damage the fragile soil structures, and is currently researching organic, no-till farming methods in order to make her operation even more sustainable than it already is. Alexa’s clear and concise explanations of these practices showed us that sustainable agricultural practices do exist and that it’s possible to produce food in a manner that is better for and gives back to the environment as a whole.

By Fields Ford

Meet Our Speakers: Jay Kehne

Jay Kehne is an advocate for wolf recovery and adaptive grazing management for Conservation Northwest. His work draws from over 30 years of experience working for the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and networking with the community and local ranchers. As wolves—an endangered species in many regions—repopulate, they are venturing into Washington from Idaho and British Columbia for the first time in 100 years. Wolves are another danger for livestock beyond the persisting threats of bears, cougars, and coyotes. Despite general distrust of environmental interests and conflicting foundational values, Jay strives to engage ranchers to support livestock management techniques that simultaneously ensure ranchers’ economic security and wolf survival. After Jay was selected to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the community was concerned Jay’s contributions did not represent the interests and people of eastern Washington. Despite these challenges, Jay works tirelessly to find strategies for wolf management that support ranching, ecological, and environmental interests. For example, once wolves recover and are no longer listed as endangered, future policy could enable removal of wolf packs if they cause excessive cattle loss past a threshold. Fundamentally, Jay believes wolf recovery will happen in Washington and looks forward to working on the challenges associated with a stronger ecosystem containing wolves.

By Elizabeth Greenfield