Holistic Resource Management

HRM is "the best left-brain model" for managing resources sustainably that this Montana observer has ever seen

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 48
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Many good strategies have been developed for taking care of our resources, but Montana journalist and poet Wilbur Wood is partial to Holistic Resource Management (HRM), which he explains below. For more information about HRM, contact the Center for Holistic Resource Management, 800 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Suite 12, Albuquerque, NM 87104.

These hills I walk poke out of the western edge of the central Montana prairie. I usually walk the edgeland between grass meadow and pine forest, where the ridges begin to break down into steep, mostly dry stream gulches and canyons. This edgeland is eroding, and I wonder if it erodes faster now than during the time – scarcely more than a century ago – of buffalo and the hunters of buffalo.

You must understand that in my perspective, our current fossil-fuel-based, produce-and-consume, forget-to-conserve civilization is a giant wreck, and that this wreck threatens to gobble and poison the biosphere, perhaps for a long time. So the only thing worth doing – the "real work" as Gary Snyder might put it – is figuring out how to renew ourselves, our local cultures, how to help restore health to Nature’s cycles and flows. Recycle the wreckage, renew the Earth, region by region.

We’re maybe twenty years too late, of course. If we’d really wised up about 1969, the wreckage wouldn’t be so deep. So I’m looking for quick action.

But not a quick fix. If we don’t work into the heart of things, to the cause of our separation, we’ll just keep treating symptoms.

So, for example, when I hear "Cattle Free by ’93" (a campaign to remove domestic grazing animals from public lands) I hear good intentions: stop overgrazing, allow public rangelands to heal. But I also see the misapplication of a management tool – namely, rest – due to the misunderstanding of the role of grazers (wild or domestic) and their predators (wild or domestic) in semi-arid grasslands.

If resting this range were a cure, then the places I walk – these edgelands – should be aburst with new life and dense growth. The water cycle, such as it is in this 10- to 14-inch annual rain-or-snow country, should be stabilizing; the mineral cycle should be cooking, breaking down organic matter, building new soil; and succession – its level, direction, and rate – should be high and improving fast, with a variety of lifeforms effectively harvesting the flow of energy.

Is this happening? Not where I walk today, in a large enclosure of about 600 acres of meadows and trees, seamed ridges and a steep canyon. I share these acres with only three other domestic animals – horses. This land is seriously destocked. Yet still it slowly deteriorates, like much of the rangeland in the western U.S., public and private.

But this grassland stayed healthy for tens of thousands of years, under a variety of grazing regimes, generally characterized by large herds – mammoths, mastodons, bison, elk – sweeping through and hammering an area. A burst of severe grazing, churning up soil, trampling in seeds, salivating, fertilizing. Then, due to pressure from big cats or wolves or bears or human hunters, or because the herds had fouled the area sufficiently with their own dung and urine, they moved on and the land was left to rest until the next wave passed through. (Sometimes waves of browsers follow immediately after waves of grazers – antelope following the buffalo, for example – and different plants get hit on, but the browsers move on, too.) During this rest the grasses can recover the way a well pruned fruit bush recovers. If the grazers do not return too soon, each plant, and the range as a whole, tends to prosper.

But the grazers do need to return. Otherwise, the grasses become decadent, choked with dry gray litter that should be on the ground as mulch, compost, seedbed. Instead, ungrazed bunch grasses stand tall – perhaps they trap some snow in winter, but by spring the dead growth oxidizes uselessly in the air, while it shuts out light from reaching new green. Bare, capped ground expands between the grass plants. This is not caused by overgrazing. This is caused by overrest.


Semi-arid grasslands like these are "brittle" environments, in Holistic Resource Management (HRM) terms. Grazers are not the enemy of the grass just as wolves are not the enemy of caribou. No predator seeks to eliminate its source of food. The hunters, human and non-human, that kept the buffalo stirred up, circled up, moving – not scattering themselves thinly over the land – contributed to the health of the buffalo and to the health of the land.

One of the ways HRM has been applied most successfully, and publicly, and controversially, is by ranchers in more or less brittle country, who are attempting with livestock to simulate the grazing patters of native herding ungulates, to the benefit of the land. Time and timing of grazing is the key, not numbers of grazers – so many ranchers find they need to increase their herd numbers, not decrease them, to achieve beneficial animal impact.

But HRM is not a grazing system. It is not a plot to increase the number of cattle and sheep on public lands. And it is not a scheme by Allan Savory, its originator, to become rich and famous.

Savory’s obsession – perhaps his "real work" – is to stop desertification all over the planet. He thinks the American West is desertifying as badly as any place on Earth. So, exiled from his native Zimbabwe (though now welcome again in that country), Savory and a group of supporters set up the non-profit Center for Holistic Resource Management (in Albuquerque, NM) in 1984.

When I first met him in 1983, Savory was still speaking about SGM – "Savory Grazing Method" – and HRM in the same breath. But SGM soon disappeared from the flip charts he uses to illustrate his lectures. I tell you this to indicate that HRM has its own life, separate from Allan Savory’s personality, which puts some people off.

I don’t care one way or another about Savory’s personality. I care about his insights, which are in the "public domain" – where all ideas live – and we can use them, test them, expand upon and refine them, and apply them within whatever "whole" we are dealing with: watershed, parkland, wildlife refuge, ranch, farm, my backyard garden, the county "weed control" program, the economic and environmental consequences of the 1985 farm bill, the latest clearcut, a stripmine reclamation site, an abandoned dump, or intact so-called wilderness.

HRM assumes that we manage. For example, resting overgrazed (and overrested) rangeland is not "letting nature do it" but is making an active choice of a management tool that has known consequences – known, that is, if we become conscious of them.

HRM, as I said, is not a grazing system. In fact, it’s not any kind of system. It’s an ongoing process. When I first encountered HRM, the three-part goal you see in the model (see chart below) had only two parts: "Production" and "Landscape Description" were there, but "Quality of life" had not appeared. Big omission – that’s like talking about price and cost but not mentioning value. But value is in there now, solid. It’s the first thing the HRM model now would have you consider.





The four ecosystem foundation blocks – alluded to earlier in my description of the edgeland – echo the ancient Four Elements: energy flow is fire, water cycle is water, mineral cycle is earth, and I would argue that succession on this planet occurs in relation to (in the presence or absence of) air. Can’t do much to amend these four; they just are.

A friend of mine once wondered, where is "carrying capacity" in this model? But if you analyze how well the "whole" is capturing and processing energy, as reflected in sound water cycle, lively mineral cycle, profuse and abundant soil and plant and animal life – and when you locate this "whole" somewhere on the continuum from non-brittle to brittle – then you can get a pretty good idea about carrying capacity.

We’ve already named rest and grazing and animal impact. To these tools, add the interactions of all living organisms, from soil mico-organisms to the largest lifeforms. Add fire. And add technology – all technology, from ax and hoe to chemicals and genetic engineering. (I also add "shelter" in my personal model of HRM.) These six (or seven) tools are all we have to work with, and they are applied by human beings using their own human tools. These used to be just money and labor; "human creativity" came into the model about the same time as "quality of life" became a goal.

The guidelines have undergone the most evolution in this ever-evolving model. Guidelines are what we pay attention to before, during and after applying various tools to influence our ecosystem with our goals ever in mind. In 1984 there were eleven, but now there are fifteen – and somewhere along the line these fifteen got divided into six "testing" and nine "management" guidelines. (I might add a seventh testing guideline, called "risk and protection.")

An example of applying a "testing" guideline: identify your weakest link (often, in this country, it is lack of water); attend to it before you spend money or labor on anything else. Try to get the biggest bang for your buck (this is what "marginal reaction" means). Try to estimate the results of your actions ("cause and effect") within the "whole ecosystem" and also "society and culture" (a guideline added since 1984). And so on. Everything is connected. There is always a weakest link.

An example of some "management" guidelines: you "plan" (for example, you plan your grazing moves for the year, thinking of the likely fast-growth periods for different plants, thinking of nesting periods for upland birds, noting when hunters will be on the land looking for deer, and so on); as you go along you "monitor" the results of your planning, and you "control" (I prefer the phrase "adjust to reality"). Maybe there was no rain and fast-growth turned to no-growth. Maybe hungry cattle ate down nesting bird habitat. Maybe hunters left a gate open and your sheep went for an unauthorized walk. So you exercise the "flexibility" guideline a lot. You learn from your mistakes (great potential for "personal growth" here) and you "re-plan." A constant process.

"It’s the best left-brain model I’ve ever seen," says my friend Steve Charter, the rancher who first introduced me to HRM. I think so too. It also resonates with ancient wisdom – in application, it’s not unlike the I Ching – and I find I use it almost daily as a lens to focus on the world. I think this lens needs more people focusing it, stretching its limits, extending its application into areas like farming and forestry, householding and sustainable local development. HRM is the most comprehensive human and natural resource management approach devised by the rational, analytical mind that I’ve seen yet.

Which brings up the question of what’s missing. I say "prayer" is missing. "Luck" is what Steve Charter calls it. All the right brain stuff is missing – the stuff that is beyond the rational; the unknown as opposed to the known, or the intuitively as opposed to the intellectually known. All of this is necessarily outside the model. But it may surround and suffuse the model, the way wind surrounds and suffuses a tree.

We cannot exactly say what is missing from the HRM model. We cannot say that it is in the guidelines, or the tools, or the ecosystem blocks, or in the setting of goals.

But I trust this model because it provides points of access for what is outside it. I think the guideline "whole ecosystem" is one point of access, since an ecosystem in its totality remains forever outside the known. And at the level of tools there is "human creativity" – the most explicit recognition of right-brain function in the model. Of course, the ecosystem block called "energy flow" is where energy from a greater whole (the solar system) flows into a small whole (the bio-system). And the access point at the level of goals for right-brain awareness comes when we consider quality of life – which we intuitively know is beyond left-brain measuring.

We need both brains here. We need the tree, and we need the wind rustling in the tree.

Agriculture In The 21st Century

by Richard Thieltges

When we look around, we see the earth and its machinery that five billion of us have created in order to feed, clothe, and shelter ourselves, and we feel despair. It doesn’t have to be this way. For the first time, a new reality is coming into focus. It is only a point of light in a world fast disintegrating, but it is growing stronger.

This point of light is the ability to create whatever we can imagine. Can we imagine going to the moon? We have done it. Can we imagine world peace? We are doing it.

But can we imagine the garden again, the world serving us? Plants growing by themselves everywhere, yielding their fruits naturally without the necessity of planting and plowing? Plants spreading everywhere over the earth, into every niche, creating their own fertility? Plants even growing and forming themselves into our very shelters, living tree houses responsive to our touch – all this without the massive machinery of industrial technology standing behind us, choking and ruining the very life it tries to uphold?

This can, and will, happen. Whatever life forms we can imagine, we can create. Picture the Great Plains again a waving sea of perennial plants stretching from the Gulf to Canada, self-spreading. We farmers will become hunter-gatherers again, nomads on the sea of wheat, following the harvest with our intelligent machines – a few elegant pieces of technology, the rest fallen into disuse, allowing our earth to heal itself. Picture this as accomplished. Because it is coming.

The thorny question becomes, what will we do? Ultimately we will create a life in which we can experience the sacred in the midst of the ordinary. In primitive sacred societies, everything could be sacred because everything was natural – that is, it existed without the necessity of conscious mental strain. Agricultural and hunting technologies were stable and required little attention, most of which could be focused on the sacred, worship, art, ceremony, or relationship.

But we live in a world where it takes all our conscious efforts to make things work. We will never live in a sacred society unless we live in a world where everything works by itself, the natural condition from which we evolved. The way forward is not the way back. To get to this state requires that we go forward to ever more complex technology, till we reach a state that allows our life to be simple and our technology to be complex enough to be sustaining and self-nurturing.

This vision of the future as being more technologically sophisticated rather than less is not popular these days, especially in our vision of biotechnology. But we are still farming with paleolithic methods – ripping up (or poisoning) the earth and its competitive range plants in order to establish our food plants, mainly annual cereals. But we now have the ability to breed perennials, and create the first fundamentally new agriculture the earth has seen since primitive peoples selected our crop plants from the wild.

Co-creating new life forms is not a destructive hubris, but a following and a flowering of the evolutionary thrust we humans are embodying, and a fulfillment of what the universe wants to happen. We cannot know the future, but we do know that turning our backs on our history and evolutionary potential is the way to extinction. The time to take the next step is now.


Richard Thieltges is a third-generation Montana grain farmer and vice-chair of AERO, a regional sustainable agriculture and energy organization. He is also chairman of the Montana Agriculture Experiment Station Advisory Committee.

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