Lessons from the Mongolian Sustainable Rangeland Collaborative: Reflections from a CCC Undergraduate Fellow
By Oliver D’Orazio
Upon learning about the Center for Collaborative Conservation (CCC) at CSU, I immediately wanted to become involved. My volunteer experience with conservation groups and the National Park Service had shown me the exigent need for compromise and communication in order to achieve environmental and humanitarian goals. I started my college career at CU studying engineering physics. By my second year I was spending more time in Boulder Canyon and at the Flat Iron Mountains than I was on campus. I saw myself as a failure. I thought hating what I did for work was something I needed to accept. I was depressed, had tunnel-vision and felt distanced from my true self. I finally found the courage to question this as my inevitable existence. So, I left CU and moved to Vail, Colorado. This decision started a five-year journey of self-discovery and a new awareness of the natural world and my place in it. I became more and more interested in conservation. My heart ached at the inability of people to work together and create productive positive environments where real change could happen. I share this because this is what prompted me to wander the gloomy hallways of the Student Services building at CSU at 8:30 in the morning, awkwardly sticking my head through doorways, nervously looking for Robin Reid and Kim Skyelander.
Kim welcomed me with open arms and started me on this life changing journey. Five months later I met two of our CCC Fellows Program team members, Dr. Cynthia Brown (Cini) and Dr. Khishig Jamiyansharav, who became invaluable mentors and friends. I must have packed and repacked 20 times the night before leaving for Mongolia to work on our fellows’ project. My google searches had produced an eclectic range of pictures, from snow covered mountains to the Gobi Desert, and of course miles of beautiful reaching steppe. Do I need snow gear? A water filter? How remote will we be? Sain uu (hello), bayarlalaa (Thank you), and namaig Oliver gedeg (I am Oliver) repeated over and over in my head.
I knew almost nothing about Mongolia upon accepting Cini’s offer to be on their CCC fellows’ team. Honestly, my initial motivation for wanting to be on their team was relatively selfish. “How cool would it be to go to a remote country like Mongolia.” “This will be the authentic cultural experience I have attempted to find in my personal travels.” “What a great field experience and resume builder.” I am glad these thoughts led me to my decision, because my self-centered attitude quickly transformed to compassion, love and appreciation for the wonderful people we met in Mongolia and the powerful relationship they had with their land. Their fear and despondency towards losing their land and livelihoods became my own.
Over the last 30 years, the Mongolian rangeland has seen negative impacts from the evolution of their political and social environment, climate change, overstocking and overgrazing, an inability to regulate and certify livestock products, urbanization and globalization. The complexities surrounding rangeland degradation call for a comprehensive collaborative approach. Our Mongolian Fellow, Dr. Bulgamaa Densambu, has devoted her career to mitigating these issues and ensuring a future for Mongolian herders. The first part of our project was a rangeland resiliency management and monitoring training held in Ikh Tamir Soum (Province). This two-day training, half in the classroom and half in the field, was the first of its kind and was essential for gathering feedback from the 35 attendees consisting of local natural resource managers, government officials, policy makers and herders from all over Mongolia. In addition to detailed instruction on how to scientifically assess rangeland health and make informed decisions on whether to graze a certain pasture or let it recover, the training encouraged open dialogue between all parties. We also had help facilitating the training from three undergraduate and two graduate students from the National University of Mongolia (NUM), accompanied by their beloved Professor, Dr. Ariuntsetseg Lkhagva, and the CCC’s wonderful Associate Director, Dr. Kim Skyelander.
Participants and facilitators of the Sustainable Rangeland Management and Monitoring Training
Everyone brought a unique perspective and set of expertise to the table. Herders with extensive traditional knowledge and experience relayed ideas with ecologists who study grasslands thousands of miles away. Policy makers listened inquisitively to land managers’ stories. The students that spend most of their time in the city were empowered by the connection they felt to the land of their families and ancestors. I had the privilege of videotaping these amazing interactions and could feel the positive productive energy in the room. We had prepared for this training for four months, but it was ambitious, and I had no idea how it would go, especially after hearing how difficult collaborative projects could be from past fellows who shared their stories at the CCC fellows retreat training. But everyone’s hard work paid off and I think attendees and facilitators alike left having gained something valuable.
The MSRC team setting up NutNet plots in Hustai National Park
The second part of our time in Mongolia was spent setting up two Nutrient Network (NutNet) study sites, one in Ovar Zaisan protected area and another in Hustai National Park. These sites consist of 42 plots each where long running standardized nutrient addition and global change experiments are performed. Samples and data join the huge NutNet database at the University of Minnesota with 11 years of information obtained from over 90 sites representing grasslands around the world. This Mongolian study has the potential to be pivotal in the way grasslands are understood and managed in the near and distant future. Besides being a globally collaborative study, setting up and managing these sites required cooperation between students and faculty at CSU and NUM, the Mongolian National Park Service and the management of Ovar Zaisan protected area. Setting up these sights was successful and there are numerous graduate students at NUM using the sites for projects.
National University of Mongolia students measuring out the first few plots of the Hustai NutNet site
Our time in Mongolia was not all work. We spent time at beautiful natural areas, hiked a volcano, went to concerts, ate amazing food, and celebrated Naadam, the Mongolian Independence Day, with dancing, wrestling and horse racing. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The connections we made, the perspectives we gained, and the projects we started that continue to evolve have incredible potential to restore herding as a viable way of life while protecting the Mongolian steppe and informing global grassland management. Now, while our projects went well on the ground the year that followed confirmed the difficult nature of large collaborations.
Naadam festival in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar
Soil samples that were destroyed while on their way to Minneapolis
I learned so much in Mongolia, but my most valuable lessons were learned from the parts that didn’t go so well. Face to face collaboration is one thing. Collaborating across oceans with seven different organizations and 30+ people is very, very difficult. Project deadlines were missed, miscommunications resulted in hundreds of hours spent on unusable products, a harsh Mongolian winter led to one of the NutNet sites being mowed for emergency hay preparation. The irony was not missed. The study site was supposed to be used to provide information to help avoid this type of action. Our collaborator at Ovar Zaisan was fired and replaced with someone who wanted nothing to do with the study. The NutNet soil samples were destroyed in the mail on their long journey to Minnesota. I could go on for a while, but you get the point. However, our team leaders’ ability to adapt and refocus priorities and roles continued to turn seemingly negative situations to positive outcomes. The lost samples prompted a discussion at the NutNet conference that led to a new collaboration with a team setting up NutNet sites in Northern China. The changes Bulgamaa made to future trainings made our training video obsolete, but it is being used as a useful educational tool for NUM students and land managers. The lack of a study site in Ovar Zaisan freed up resources for a potential nutrient distribution study to occur. My most valuable lesson: A positive, judgeless mind allows for more creative, inclusive thinking that is open to all perspectives, not discouraged by failure but invigorated by a new challenge, and intrigued by peculiar solutions that are so often exactly what is needed.