Saving the edges of the Central Valley
Throughout the borders of the Central Valley where cattle graze, although the great fields of vernal pools in pasturelands are being illegally taken, individuals and groups are finding positive ways to work together to try to stop the destruction of this unique ecology, home to a number of endangered and threatened species, essential for groundwater storage, open space that does not contribute to air pollution, and productive cattle land.
We include a several pieces:
"Easy on the land," by Glen Martin, San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2006;
The California Rangeland Resolution, an unprecedented agreement among local ranchers and their industry groups, farmers and their industry groups, state and federal resources agencies and local, state and national environmental groups, that this land must be saved. There is even one local land-use authority, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors;
A US Fish & Wildlife Service white paper, “Wetlands Creation in existing vernal pool landscapes.”
EASY ON THE LAND
Ranchers and farmers, spurred by the growing market for natural foods, are finding a silver lining in the conservation cloud
Glen Martin, Chronicle Environment Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006
Darrell Wood drove slowly across his land near Chico, a battered cowboy hat pulled down over his forehead, his eyes darting back and forth as he sized up the Black Angus cattle grazing nearby. In the back of his truck, three border collies stood at attention, ready to work.
The cattle looked in prime shape as they stood in lush pasturage dotted with sapphire vernal pools. Large flocks of northern pintails dabbled in the water, while white-tailed kites hovered overhead and red-winged blackbirds called from the sedges along the pools.
"This ecosystem is like anything else," said Wood, gesturing across the gently rolling plain that stretches all the way to the foothills of the Sierra. "Properly managed, it flourishes. Improperly managed, things start falling apart. We're doing everything we can to manage it properly."
Not too many years ago, that kind of talk might have sounded strange coming from a cattleman. But Wood represents a new breed of rancher. He and hundreds of other ranchers and farmers in California and across the nation are part of a growing private initiative that "embeds" wildlife habitat into the working agricultural landscape.
The trend is driven more by market incentives than bunny-hugging sentiments: The natural and organic food business is now a multibillion-dollar industry. But farmers and ranchers who produce for this market find they also have the opportunity to improve or create wildlife habitat on their land.
Adding to the incentive for wildlife-friendly agriculture are conservation easements -- essentially, cash payouts by government agencies or private conservancies in voluntary exchange for future development rights. The trend for such easements is bullish. In the last 20 years, about 260,000 acres of land have been protected in California through conservation easements --Â with 85 percent of that land set aside in the last decade.
Increasingly, environmentalists see easements and similar management tools -- and the ranchers like Wood who utilize them -- as key elements in 21st century conservation efforts.
"To a large degree, our society has become reluctant to fund large-scale national park and wildlife refuge acquisitions," said Dawit Zeleke, the Central Valley eco-regional director for the Nature Conservancy's California program.
Wood and his family own 10,000 acres and lease 100,000 acres from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management near the Lassen County town of Susanville, which they use as summer pasturage for their stock. They also own 2,700 acres and lease 10,000 acres from the Nature Conservancy on the Vina Plains near Highway 99 between Red Bluff in Tehama County and Chico in Butte County.
The area is considered a top priority by environmentalists because of its vernal pools -- seasonal wetlands that support several native plants and animals. The conservancy requires ranchers to pay fair market value for leased land. In the Vina Plains area, that averages about $12 an acre, said a spokeswoman for the California Cattlemen's Association.
Wood said he manages his stock to mimic the way tule elk once grazed the land.
"We allow the cattle to graze very intensively for short periods, then move them off," he said. "When the elk came through, they did essentially the same thing -- they ate everything and moved on. That keeps all the indigenous vegetation in the system. It's adapted to that kind of cycle."
When the land was managed more traditionally -- with cattle allowed to graze moderately, rotated off when the grass got shorter and moved back on when the grass grew back -- the vernal pool ecosystems suffered, Wood said: Noxious nonnative plant species, such as yellow star thistle and Medusa head, took over.
Wood's family has been ranching in Northern California since the 1860s, but in recent years he found it tough making a profit by raising and selling his cattle in the standard ways.
"Several years ago, cattle prices were at all-time lows, and I didn't know if we were going to survive," he said. "A guy approached me and asked if I was interested in raising natural grass-fed beef -- no hormones, no grain or antibiotics. I went for it. Right from the start, we got better prices than we did for standard beef."
The natural beef business has steadily expanded since 2000, and Wood's production has grown with it. He has enlisted neighboring ranchers into his operation, and the partnership now ships 130 to 160 cattle weekly, mostly to Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe's, but also to several restaurants.
While Wood allowed he isn't getting rich, the future looks brighter than it has in some time. But if you're going to make it with natural beef, he said, profits must come from conservation easements and grants as well as cattle sales.
In addition to the Vina Plains programs, Wood's family is restoring wetlands, riparian corridors and upland sage-hen habitat on their property in Susanville, east of Mount Lassen, with funding from the National Resource Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Environmentalists have long criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service for allowing excessive livestock grazing on federal lands. But grazing levels are about a third of what they were in the 1950s, said Ralph Mauck, a rangeland management specialist for the bureau's Eagle Lake district office, which manages about 1 million acres of rangeland near Susanville.
The district allows about 9,000 cattle and 5,000 sheep on its range, and ranchers are paying the district assessments of about $85,000 this year, Mauck said. Federal wildlife habitat can be improved by improving cattle range, he added.
"If it's done right, when you do one, you do the other," Mauck said. He said his agency is emphasizing management policies that incorporate wildlife values -- fencing off sensitive habitat areas, reseeding range to native plants and protecting riparian zones.
While ranching naturally lends itself to habitat restoration because the landscape is left more or less intact, intensive farming -- the cultivation of grains, vegetables or fruit -- is another matter.
To grow these crops, the face of the land must be changed radically, and usually little room is left for critters. In California's Sacramento Valley, there is one exception to this broad rule: rice lands. They can provide vast expanses of prime seasonal habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and raptors. Environmental impacts can be further reduced by growing the grain organically, or with minimal fertilizer and pesticide applications.
Lundberg Family Farms in Butte County has been a prime mover in the promotion of eco-friendly rice farming. The company and its contract growers cultivate about 12,000 acres of rice around the crossroads hamlet of Richvale, and markets a wide array of products, from organic brown rice to rice cakes, rice syrup, rice chips and rice milk.
The Lundbergs don't have any acres in true conservation easements, said the company's board chairwoman, Jessica Lundberg, but they participate in a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative known as the conservation security program. Under the program, farmers are paid an incentive to maintain and improve environmental soil and water standards on their lands over a 10-year period.
The Lundbergs enrolled 3,500 acres, comprising their core family holdings, into the program and received $45,000.
The enterprise's patriarch, Albert Lundberg, came to California with his wife, Frances, in 1937, having fled the dust bowl in Nebraska, said CEO Grant Lundberg, the grandson of the founders.
"The complete environmental collapse they witnessed in the Midwest was due mainly to terrible farming practices, and it made a tremendous impression on them," he said. "When they came out here, they were determined to improve the condition of the land, not degrade it."
The Lundbergs were at the forefront of organic grain production in California, obtaining certification for organic rice production in 1980. Today, about 9,000 acres of rice land under the family's control is certified, with the remainder managed for "natural" rice produced with minimal pesticides and artificial fertilizer.
Organic and natural rice fetch higher prices than standard rice. Another attraction, Jessica Lundberg said, is that the land fares better under organic production. The regular use of cover crops for fertilizer improves the tilth and net fertility of the soil, she said, and shunning chemicals and artificial fertilizers saves money -- and is a boon to wild creatures.
During a recent tour of the Lundberg fields, wildlife was omnipresent. Pheasants burst from ditch side coverts, and scores of ducks and shorebirds foraged in the soggy fields.
The Lundbergs also pioneered post-harvest field flooding. Throughout most of the last century, Sacramento Valley rice farmers burned their rice stubble after harvest to dispose of the straw and reduce disease pathogens. But the family always felt flooding was a better way, said Jessica Lundberg.
Such "decomp" rice flooding is now standard for the industry. It wasn't wildlife concerns that drove the trend -- rather, stringent air quality standards in the 1980s and 1990s required an alternative to stubble burning. But birds and other wildlife have been major beneficiaries of the practice.
"It attracts all the ducks and geese that over-winter in the valley," she said. "They eat the waste rice, trample the stubble down, incorporate it into the soil where it degrades. That gets rid of the straw and increases the volume of organic matter in our soil -- makes it richer and healthier."
The Sacramento Valley's flooded rice fields now amount to hundreds of thousands of acres of seasonal wetlands, said Greg Mensik, the deputy refuge manager for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which administers six refuges in the Sacramento Valley.
Zeleke of the Nature Conservancy said educating American city dwellers about private conservation efforts will be the next great challenge for the movement.
"As the population becomes more and more urbanized, people lose touch with the essential qualities of sustainable, wildlife-friendly ranching and farming," he said. "But I think we'll see increased public access to these properties -- guided tours, fishing and camping, maybe even some new variations of the classic dude ranch. We have to get people out there so they can understand the stakes."
The California Rangeland Resolution
The undersigned recognize the critical importance of California’s privately owned rangelands, particularly that significant portion that encircles the Central Valley and includes the adjacent grasslands and oak woodlands, including the Sierra foothills and the interior coast ranges. These lands support important ecosystems and are the foundation for the ranching industry that owns them.
WHEREAS, these rangelands include a rich and varied landscape of grasslands, oak woodlands, vernal pools, riparian areas and wetlands, which support numerous imperiled species, many native plants once common in the Central Valley, and are home to the highest diversity and density of wintering raptors anywhere in North America;
WHEREAS, these rangelands are often located in California’s fastest-growing counties and are at significant risk of conversion to development and other uses;
WHEREAS, these rangelands, and the species that rely on these habitats, largely persist today due to the positive and experienced grazing and other land stewardship practices of the ranchers that have owned and managed these lands and are committed to a healthy future for their working landscapes;
WHEREAS, these rangelands are a critical foundation of the economic and social fabric of California’s ranching industry and rural communities, and will only continue to provide this important working landscape for California’s plants, fish and wildlife if private rangelands remain in ranching;
THEREFORE, we declare that it is our goal to collaboratively work together to protect and enhance the rangeland landscape that encircles California’s Central Valley and includes adjacent grasslands and oak woodlands by:
Keeping common species common on private working landscapes;
Working to recover imperiled species and enhancing habitat on rangelands while seeking to minimize regulations on private lands and streamline processes;
Supporting the long-term viability of the ranching industry and its culture by providing economic, social and other incentives and by reducing burdens to proactive stewardship on private ranchlands;
Increasing private, state and federal funding, technical expertise and other assistance to continue and expand the ranching community’s beneficial land stewardship practices that benefit sensitive species and are fully compatible with normal ranching practices;
Encouraging voluntary, collaborative and locally-led conservation that has proven to be very effective in maintaining and enhancing working landscapes;
Educating the public about the benefits of grazing and ranching in these rangelands.
Current signers of the California Rangeland Resolution include the following:
Alameda County RCD
Alameda County Board of Supervisors
American Land Conservancy
California Cattlemen’s Association
California Resources Agency
California Wildlife Foundation
Central Valley Land Trust Council
Bureau Land Management
Defenders of Wildlife
Butte Environmental Council
California Audubon Society
Institute for Ecological Health
California Cattlemen’s Association
Natural Resources Conservation Service
California Dept of Fish and Game
San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
California Dept of Food and Ag
San Joaquin Valley Conservancy
California Farm Bureau Federation
Sierra Foothills Audubon Society
California Native Grasslands Association
The Nature Conservancy
California Native Plant Society
Trust for Public Land
California Oak Foundation
US Fish and Wildlife Service
California Rangeland Trust
US Forest Service
California Resource Conservation Districts
Wildlife Conservation Board
US Fish & Wildlife Service white paper
Wetlands Creation in existing vernal pool landscapes
For the past couple of years (and probably before) we have been reviewing
and accepting the creation of vernal pool features/wetlands within existing
vernal pool landscapes as a means to address the no net loss of wetlands
policy. Specifically I am talking about the practice of creating vernal
pools in existing vernal pool landscapes where none occurred previously (as
opposed to restoring or re-creating vernal pools where it can be determined
they did occur previously). Each time we are asked to accept this practice
we have difficulty determining that this mechanical ground disturbing
activity does not significantly affect the function and value of existing
vernal pools landscapes (uplands as well as wetlands) and also result in
adverse impacts to listed species like plants, salamanders and shrimp.
Each time I see another one of these creation proposals, the densities go
up and the project seems more like the creation of a Frankenstein type
creature than "enhancing" or complimenting the processes of a natural and
The only compelling reason I can see for these types of creation proposals
are that this is the most cost effective approach for the regulated
community. That is, credit can be given for preserving existing vernal
pools (which are difficult and costly to develop on in the first place) and
creation can be accomplished without purchasing additional ground.
I can see no real biological benefits of this approach that do not outweigh
the impacts, nor do I see any credible scientific evidence that this is an
appropriate approach for vernal pool conservation. In fact the more and
more we analyze and discuss this issue in the scientific and academic
community, the more and more evidence is presented that we are likely
causing great harm to an existing functioning landscape. Impacts to upland
components/habitat for listed plants, pollinators, salamanders and kit fox,
hydrology, water chemistry, microclimate, etc are just a few of the impacts
that have been brought to my attention.
I know there will continue to be great debate about the pros and cons of
this practice, and we should continue have this discussion in the
academic/scientific community. It is just getting very difficult to have
this debate in the regulatory process.
Thus, my thoughts for the day. We are reviewing several of these types of
actions in the office now and we will continue to work with the proponents
to minimize the impacts to listed species and if necessary to suggest the
appropriate compensation to avoid significant impacts and likely have to
prepare additional biological opinions on the proposals.
However, in the future, my strong recommendation is to look for
restoration/creation sites that are not within existing vernal pool
landscapes. There are numerous areas where vernal pools have been lost or
impacted due to agricultural or other practices that are prime candidates
for creation/restoration. If we are asked to evaluate the creation of new
vernal pools in existing landscapes that have impacts to listed species it
will be very difficult to justify these proposals on biological grounds
without out considerable analysis of effects to uplands, wetlands,
hydrology, etc. Please, consider looking away from existing vernal pools
for your creation component. thanks
Assistant Field Supervisor
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office
2800 Cottage Way-Suite W-2605
Sacramento, CA 95825