Given the growing need to curb invasive species, improve methods to reduce the loss of animal and plants due to fire and drought and to sustain certain species, a new era of rangeland management has arrived.
Yet, public and private land managers, rangeland specialists and ranchers often have little or no timely access to analytical tools or science-based published research related to the extensive grasslands, woodlands, riparian and wetland areas and other type of ecoregions that mark rangelands.
Staff members at the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, or CALS, and the University Libraries are at the forefront of the Rangelands Partnership – a multi-institution organization, 10 years in the making – that has just launched a suite of Web-based portals with a database of more than 13,000 resources related to rangelands.
"We chose rangelands for several reasons: They're not just cattle and grassy areas. This gets into water rights, laws concerning land management and other issues," said Doug Jones, the research services team leader for the University Libraries and a founding member of the Rangelands Partnership.
Developing these Web-based resources has involved 18 other land-grant universities in western U.S. states including Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Texas as well as rangeland organizations in Australia and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or FAO – all members of the Rangelands Partnership.
Those involved include rangeland resource specialists who often work directly in community-based settings with ranchers and farmers through land-grant university cooperative extension programs, and also librarians and information technology staff, such as those at the University Libraries and in the CALS communications and technologies unit.
"We're trying to take advantage of all the information that is available and bring two cultures together," Jones said, adding that one of the major challenges has been to develop an organizational structure that is both effective and efficient.
"The end result is something that neither group could have done independently," he said.
Jeanne Pfander, a UA associate librarian and the current Rangelands Partnership chairwoman, said the increased availability of full-text online information served as another motivating force for the Rangelands Partnership to provide rangelands-specific materials, which are being made publically accessible in new ways.
Pfander emphasized that the project would not have been possible without the tremendous support of technical specialists in CALS. The three sites, now live, are:
Global Rangelands is the home site, offering a database of full-text articles, reports, videos, learning tools and links to other important websites with related information. It also contains a clearinghouse for educational materials that may be used in formal and informal learning settings.
Rangelands West includes access to the main database along with information specific to U.S. rangelands, including policy issues and career and educational resources being developed by the Range Science Education Council.
Arizona Rangelands includes information and videos on vegetation monitoring and other content specific to the state.
State-specific rangelands sites, such as Arizona Rangelands, include content specific to individual U.S. states in the partnership.
Rangelands comprise an estimated 70 percent of the Earth's landmass. Rangelands-related issues vary greatly including soils, water, drought, fire, grazing, recreation, wildlife and endangered species, plants, domestic animals, planning, rural communities and economic issues.
Likewise, rangelands are important not only for livestock production and wildlife animal habitat, but also for recreational use and, in rural communities, economic development.
Thus, through this large-scale, coordinated effort, the portals are intended to support research, sustainable management and education about the world’s rangelands, Pfander said.
"We're trying to inform the public debate about rangelands," Pfander said.
For that reason, providing such a broad range of information about rangelands was hugely important, said Barbara Hutchinson, director of both the Global Rangelands West Program and communications and technologies for CALS.
"We are taking scientific information to the communities so that they can be more economically viable while retaining open spaces for the enjoyment of current and future generations. We have to be productive and sustainable," Hutchinson said.
"These lands are the basis for ranching in Arizona and for healthy, working rural communities," she added. "And the fact that this collaboration has lasted more than 10 years shows how relevant and important this is."
The Rangelands Partnership has received numerous funds dating back to the mid-1990s from organizations and agencies that include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. General Services Administration and the Society for Range Management. The partnership also has received cooperative extension grants and funding from the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Stations.
In particular, because issues and concerns around rangelands "don't stop at political boundaries," it was evermore important to consolidate information and resources for the public throughout the Western U.S. and the rest of the world, Hutchinson said.
Above all, the hope is that by providing such resources, people will be able to make informed decisions about rangelands while also learning how to engage in research and educational opportunities, she added.
"It might be researchers, students or members of the community, but we want to help people to manage the land more effectively to, for example, better control invasive species and adapt to climate variability," Hutchinson said.
"It's a vision and a mission we are passionate about," she also said. "Providing information and tools to help rangeland managers meet current economic and environmental challenges."