Spring is in the air in Colorado. With longer, warmer days ahead, I’ve got outdoor cookouts on my mind.

Gillian Watson

To me, there is nothing better than the smell of a charcoal grill wafting through the backyard on a sunny day, a cold drink in hand, and the sounds of joy and laughter from loved ones echoing around me. What’s on the grill? A bounty from the local Fort Collins Farmers’ market: fresh squash, buttery ears of corn…and of course, a nice, juicy steak .  

Before moving to Colorado, I assumed that buying beef was in direct opposition of environmental conservation goals. I mean, livestock produces about 15% of the world’s carbon emissions. Shouldn’t we be avoiding this practice?  

Maybe not.

Something that conservationists in Colorado know that I did not is that ranchers are some of our strongest allies in the fight against overdevelopment and environmental harm in areas where populations are booming.


It is important to note that I am not talking about large-scale meat-production facilities that crowd thousands of cattle into cramped, inhumane stocks. Rather, I am talking about open-range ranching practices that allow livestock to roam over large areas.  

How is it possible that beef production could be an asset to conservation? One way is through legal agreements known as conservation easements. These agreements essentially allow landowners (in this case, ranchers) to sell development rights to their property and receive tax incentives in return.

Ranchers often sell these rights to land trusts, which are nonprofit agencies that buy private lands to conserve them. Agreements are set in place “in perpetuity,” so that even if the land is sold again, it will remain undeveloped. With more than 2 million acres of land under conservation easements in Colorado, we cannot ignore the incredible asset they are to land protection. 

Ranchers have been caring for the environment long before the rise of conservation easements. Their livelihoods require an intimate knowledge of the land, with practices that involve moving livestock to new areas to prevent over-grazing of the property.

Research has shown that grazing practices can support even greater biodiversity than is found in nature preserves. Greater biodiversity means healthier ecosystems that can provide clean air and water, better soil for crops, and habitat for wildlife. Furthermore, protecting these lands means preserving the beautiful outdoor spaces that Coloradoans cherish. 

With more and more people calling Colorado home, we must use every available tool to prevent overdevelopment of open spaces, which hold critical habitat for wildlife and scenic natural beauty. And we must support our local agricultural community by making sustainable food choices. Buying local beef can help accomplish both goals.  

In a modern world, where “untouched” wilderness is a rarity, our allies must be those who seek to curb the effects of overdevelopment. In Colorado, those allies include ranchers. Coloradans should support the livelihoods of ranching communities so that these important partners are not economically forced out of their ranching practices. With the high prices land development can command, we risk losing environmentally sustainable ranches to luxury resorts and residential housing developments.  

So, as you’re writing your shopping list for that summer cookout, think about where your burgers, steaks, and ribs are coming from. Farmers’ markets offer not only sustainable food choices, but also an opportunity to connect with and support your local community.

I fondly remember purchasing my first-ever local steak from a ranch at the Fort Collins farmers’ market, nervously perusing different cuts until the woman at the booth took me gently by the hand and gave me a personal tour of the meat cooler. She even recommended a specific grilling method that I had never heard of.

Let me tell you, not only was this steak cheaper than the grocery store, it was more delicious as well! 

Gillian Watson, of Fort Collins, is a graduate student in the Conservation Leadership Masters program at Colorado State University.

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