Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition Changing of the Guard

The dam that created Comins Lake, located eight miles south of Ely, Nevada, was built in 1953. – Photo: Terry Feuerborn, CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Betsy Macfarlan has had her eye on eastern Nevada landscapes for the past couple of decades. Not only has she been watching the landscapes, but she’s also been actively trying to restore them, working as the Executive Director of the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition (ENLC).

At the end of December, after nearly 20 years of service, she will retire and hand over the keys to Eric Horstman. To find out more about this organization and the people leading it, I sat down with them for an insightful conversation.

Betsy Macfarlan, retiring executive director, ENLC, photo Gretchen Baker/ the Ally

Macfarlan started with the ENLC as its first Executive Director in May 2001. Previously, she had been the Executive Director for Nevada Cattlemen’s Association. 

Gene Kolkman, the Ely District Manager for the Bureau of Land Management at that time, started the idea of the coalition and bounced the idea around with some professors from the University of Nevada Reno and Dave Torell from Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “They held sort of an organizational meeting in March 2001 in Reno.” 

Macfarlan attended the meeting, along with 300 others. She liked the idea of an organization that would do work on Eastern Nevada landscapes and expressed interest in it. Her husband was transferring from Battle Mountain to Ely. They offered her the position.

“It was the right time, right place, who you know, not necessarily what you know type of thing,” said Macfarlan. “They knew from my work with Nevada Cattlemen’s that I work across boundaries pretty easily.” She had been raised on the liberal-leaning front-range of Colorado. “They knew I could work with groups other people might have had a harder time working with.”

Macfarlan set up shop in Ely. “It was a unique position. It was pretty lonely in the office with me and my dog.”  

She wasn’t lonely for long, as the next year involved lots of organizational building, with frequent meetings, getting the word out about ENLC, getting non-profit status, and finalizing the far-reaching mission:

Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition is a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to restoring the dynamic, diverse, resilient landscapes of the arid and semi-arid West for present and future generations through education, research, advocacy, partnerships, and the implementation of on-the-ground projects.

Early support from Kolkman and Senator Henry Reid provided a variety of projects for ENLC to work on, including large-scale pinyon-juniper restoration. ENLC also partnered with Tri-County Weed to develop Cooperative Weed Management Areas (CWMA), to attack weeds before they become an even larger problem. 

ENLC later started hosting an Annual Winter Weed Conference in Ely that attracts speakers from around the region. ENLC partners with the White Pine County 4-H program to do natural resource presentations with four revolving themes; water and weeds, wildlife, geology, and archaeology.

Until 2017 ENLC had plenty of work but faced new challenges under the Trump Administration.  Macfarlan said that the Trump administration was reviewing budgets and noticed the BLM was spending 25 percent of its budgets on cooperative agreements, and the new administration felt that work should be accomplished through contracts. 

ENLC at that time was set up for cooperative agreements, but not contracting. Funding got very slim for a couple of years, even though the BLM had plenty of work that needed to be done. 

What remained of the cooperative agreement process had become very lengthy and difficult to navigate, so even fewer cooperative agreements were awarded. Fortunately, ENLC weathered the changes and is still fulfilling its mission.

When asked what are the biggest challenges to Eastern Nevada landscapes, Macfarlan didn’t hesitate. “The climate is changing…This change is bringing weeds from the Mojave Desert, drier and warmer conditions, no monsoons.” 

Another challenge is the encroachment of pinyon-juniper into sagebrush-steppe habitat due to fire suppression.  She also mentioned the lack of water. “This is the first year I’m not getting a Christmas tree. The pinyons are so drought-stressed.”  

“Wild horses are a chronic problem,” Macfarlan said. She referenced a July 22, 2019 report on KUNR public radio,  that chronicled more than 40,000 wild horses in Nevada now live on a landscape that can only hold 12,000. These wild horses reproduce at a 25 percent annual rate. 

“Horses graze 20 hours a day, I know because I have my own horses and know how much feed they go through.” They compete with the native wildlife for forage and water. She said until our culture can get past anthropomorphizing horses and our short-term memory about eating horses (see this article about the history of horse-eating in the U.S.), the problem will continue.

Macfarlan is proud of where ENLC is now. “Most non-profits implode in the first five years,” she said. The organization has a good base and has started getting Seeds of Success contracts. She would like to see the organization grow, additional education outreach, and more private membership in the future.

When Macfarlan decided she would retire at the end of the year, the proactive Board of Directors started in the summer a search for a new executive director. They selected Eric Horstman, who has been working side-by-side with Macfarlan since October.

Eric Horstman, executive director, ENLC, photo Gretchen Baker/theAlly

Horstman grew up in Weaverville, CA, and says that moving to Ely, NV is “moving up from a no-stoplight town to a stoplight town.” He had a bit of a detour, though, going to school and then to the Peace Corps in Ecuador and then working as the Executive Director for the Pro-Forest Foundation. He was ready to make a change due to the Covid lockdown.

“I found myself in transition in Ecuador. I had worked for 26 years with the Pro-Forest Foundation on the outskirts of Guayaquil,  the largest city in Ecuador, it’s on the coast working in a dry, tropical forest.  The forest supports a wide diversity of plant and animal species including jaguars, great green macaws, howler monkeys, and distinct, bright green ceibo or kapok trees. We managed a 15,000-acre protected forest called Cerro Blanco, or White Hill.”

While there, he faced numerous challenges. The Guinea grass that was planted on a previous cattle ranch was very flammable and at the beginning, intentionally started forest fires that directly threatened the forest and the foundation´s infrastructure. Squatters and land traffickers wanted to take over the land and tried to invade three times. 

Horstman said, “I had death threats against me and had to have a bodyguard for six months.” Nevertheless, he had drawn the line in the sand, and eventually, the squatters respected it and the area continued to be protected. The Foundation planted 647,000 native dry forest trees and over a million tree seeds, built an educational center, did outreach, and encouraged ecotourism. 

Ready for a return back to the States, Horstman said he is excited to join ENLC as the next Executive Director. “I love to learn and read and think outside the box. I look forward to new and exciting conservation initiatives.” He added, “The [ENLC] Board is incredibly active.  ENLC has great partners, enthusiastic people ready to move forward on different fronts despite obstacles.”

While Betsy enjoys retirement, she will keep busy as a co-chair of the PlayCleanGo Committee for the North American Invasive Species Management Association (NAISMA) and chair of the White River CWMA. She will also hope to ride her horses more often and spend more time with her cashmere goats.

You can learn more about the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition on their website. 


Gretchen Baker lives on a ranch in eastern Nevada with her husband and children. She is an author, photographer, and the ecologist at Great Basin National Park.