Rangeland owners in the Bay Area face substantial pressure to develop their land. The short term financial gains from developing rangeland for vineyards or residential construction can be very large. In Sonoma and Marin Counties several conservation groups, including the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, are dedicated to preserving rangeland and the cultural and environmental amenities that only open space can provide. The most common instrument for rangeland preservation is a conservation easement. The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), in partnership with UC Berkeley researchers, is currently engaged in a project that explores the
possibility of simultaneously expanding rangeland conservation and
increasing rancher welfare through the use of
novel conservation easement payment structures,
including annuities and variable
Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES).
A conservation easement is an agreement between a landowner and a conservation group that ensures that a parcel of land is not further developed. Conservation easements are permanent—even if the original owner decides to sell the parcel, the easement remains in force. Conservation groups typically compensate landowners by paying them a substantial one-time lump sum. Since an easement decreases the resale value of the parcel, the landowner's property tax liability is often decreased as well. Another important motivation for landowners is securing financial stability for future generations (Rilla and Solokow 2000). Conservation groups are motivated by a range of social, environmental, and ecological goals, including preservation of public goods: open space, biodiversity, soil health, and rural lifestyles (Cross et al 2010).
Under PES systems landowners are monetarily compensated for
making changes to their land management practices.
For example, the owner of a parcel of forest land might receive an annual payment in return for abstaining from logging on the parcel. Depending on the terms of the agreement, the land owner could receive the same payment amount every year, called an annuity, or a variable payment based on the level of ecosystems services that the parcel provides. A conservation group would regularly monitor the parcel to ensure that the terms of the PES agreement had not been violated. PES systems have been successfully implemented in France, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Brazil, but are relatively rare in the United States.
Many families in Sonoma and Marin Counties have been ranching on their parcels for several generations, developing deep and personal connections to their land. As a result, those landowners may have a greater interest in whether or not subsequent generations continue to ranch on their parcels. These landowners could potentially find an annuity more attractive than a lump sum, and a PES based on the amount of residual dry matter (RDM) on the parcel, which would reward ranching and active land management, might be more attractive still.
PES and annuity payment structures would expand the menu of land conservation options available in Sonoma and Marin Counties,
without restricting conservation groups' ability to continue to offer traditional lump sums. With more options comes the possibility of more land conservation, more money in the hands of ranchers, and better alignment between rancher and conservation group motivations.
The class learned about the direct link between urban consumers and local food producers, providing a powerful conduit for educating the public about the importance of local food production and rangeland management. Sonoma and Marin Counties are perfect models for demonstrating how
preserving family farms contribute to
social, economic and ecological sustainability at
local, regional and even national levels.
Ranching PRNS, albeit smaller scale, remains a local industry, which provides job creation, training and business succession, and market expansion for many other ranchers and farmers.
Through the 1980s and 1990s and into the early 2000s, efforts to conserve threatened and endangered (special status) species on western rangelands often meant removing livestock ranching. Research findings, demonstration results, and failed conservation efforts in recent years involving endangered species has supported the continuation of livestock ranching and the reintroduction of grazing to some rangelands that were “protected” through grazing removal. At the landscape level,
research has demonstrated that livestock ranching
maintains extensive, open spaces by
reducing land use conversion, fragmentation of habitat,
and vegetation type conversion from invasion of brush.
Threats to native biodiversity, including special-status species, are likely to increase with removal or decrease of grazing. Research and experience have shown that grazing is strongly linked to maintaining habitat for some special-status species on PRNS lands, while they have been inconclusive for others. Sonoma alopecurus (Alopecurus aequalis var. sonomensis) is found in eight naturally occurring populations in Sonoma and Marin Counties; the four sites in Marin County all occur at PRNS and are all grazed by cattle; Sonoma spineflower found solely in a grazed pasture at PRNS. Tiburon paintbrush and Marin dwarf flax occur on serpentine grasslands, with six occurrences of Marin dwarf flax on Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) grazing lands. PRNS staff concluded, “Marin dwarf flax may benefit from a moderate level of cattle grazing through the reduction of taller competing vegetation as the flax is subject to shading by competing grasses or may be suppressed by build-up of thatch from previous year's herbage if left ungrazed.” (USNPS 2001).
Documented research, along with good stewardship provided by generational ranchers, has demonstrated the benefits provided to the ecosystems at Point Reyes National Seashore.
U.S. National Park Service. 2001. Biological Assessment on the Renewal of Livestock Grazing Permits in Point Reyes National Seashore and the North District of Golden Gate National Recreation Area Marin County, California. 65 pp.
In 2013, Pepperwood initiated a Conservation Grazing Program using electric fencing to control herd density, manage seasonal timing and increase rest periods between animal impact events. Rangeland research and practical experience has demonstrated that animal disturbance can have a positive impact on grasslands and some native fauna if properly managed for conservation goals.
Grazing is a tool many land managers use to create disturbance in grasslands to improve soil health, reduce thatch cover, combat invasive weeds, increase native species diversity and restore historical impacts once created by native fauna.
The use of domestic grazing animals to achieve conservation goals is not new and is sometimes referred to as targeted or prescribed grazing or holistic grazing. Pepperwood prefers the term “conservation grazing” because it speaks directly to the goals of their grazing program.
Cattle managers use electric fencing and portable water systems to maximize the ability to control animal density and duration on varying grassland types and environmental conditions. The Conservation Grazing Program at Pepperwood intends to demonstrate that by using variable density, short duration grazing and adequate periods of recovery, rangeland managers can make progress towards conservation goals.
References available upon request.
The University of California Cooperative Extension recognized rangelands and their importance in Sonoma County, creating the “Ecosystem Services Interpretative Signage” to increase awareness and knowledge of park visitors, mangers and decisions makers of working rangelands and the ecosystem services. Rangelands are also referred to as working landscapes, are locally managed and provide essential biological, scenic, economic, and recreational values locally and throughout the world. Working landscapes are threatened in many areas by development, conversion to
Beyond the obvious benefits of beef cattle grazing such as food production, grazing can benefit individual plant and animal species, can help manage fire hazards, and, in the absence of natural disturbance regimes, help maintain Sonoma County's landscape structure. Beef cattle not only provide beef as food, they are also used as grazing tools, keeping weed or shrub invasion at bay, enhancing wildflower displays, or maintaining a low grassland canopy height to allow visibility, foraging, and movement of small mammals such as voles and ground squirrels. Rangelands not grazed or otherwise managed, especially where they abut or intergrade with shrublands, will become shrub invaded, which converts grasslands to coastal scrub. As well as increasing fire hazards, this conversion results in loss of coastal grasslands and; thus, loss of the species that occupy them. Fire and livestock grazing are the two main tools we can use to maintain grassland ecosystems. In Sonoma County, fire has become more difficult to use, livestock grazing is the most common and practical option. Maintaining rangelands has several benefits associated with water, including increasing water infiltration and increasing vernal pool inundation period for fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander. In addition to ecosystems services associated with water, livestock grazing can also improve habitat for native annual forbs & grassland birds, control invasive weeds, reduce fire hazard, etc.
Through the 1980's, 1990's, and into the early 2000's, efforts to conserve threatened and endangered (special status) species on western rangelands often meant removing livestock ranching. Research findings, demonstration results, and failed conservation efforts in recent years involving endangered species have supported the continuation of livestock ranching and the reintroduction of grazing to some rangelands that were “protected” through grazing removal. At the landscape level, research has demonstrated that livestock ranching maintains extensive, open spaces by reducing land use conversion, fragmentation of habitat, and vegetation type conversion from invasion of brush.
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The relationship of grazing to some threatened and endangered species was reviewed in the U.C. Extension Report co-authored with Marin County, The Changing Role of Agriculture at the Point Reyes National Seashore. The report addresses Myrtle's silverspot butterfly (3) which inhabits coastal dunes, prairie, and scrub. Habitat suitability depends on numerous factors, but two critical components are the presence of its larval host plant, the native dog violet (Viola adunca) (4), and adult nectar plants including numerous native wildflowers, as well as common weeds such as bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) (5) and Italian thistle (Carduus pycnocephalus) (6). Most of the Myrtle's silverspot butterflies documented at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) have been found in areas that are grazed by cattle. Butterfly surveys done by PRNS staff in 2003 showed occurrences of Myrtle's silverspot on 13 ranches, all of which support livestock operations (Adams 2004). Recent research on Myrtle's silverspot (Adams 2004; USNPS 2007) documents that Myrtle's silverspot and cattle have co-existed for over a hundred years and that the density of the nectar sources was higher in grazed areas. Biologists studying the Myrtle's silverspot at coastal lands recorded more butterflies in grazed dunes and grasslands than in ungrazed plant communities. At time of the species' listing, the USFWS believed that cattle grazing significantly decreased the habitat quality of the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly. However, a five-year status review by USFWS found that the moderate cattle grazing regime currently used by ranchers on coastal lands did not significantly affect the distribution of Myrtle's silverspot butterfly at that site. Current threats to the Myrtle's silverspot butterfly include: urban or industrial development of any property with suitable habitat for the butterfly; poaching; small population size; the effects of reduced host and nectar plant density due to invasive plants and forbs; road mortalities during the adult flight season; and, the probable constriction of the range and distribution of this butterfly due to global climate change.
Rancher stewardship includes development and maintenance of livestock water sources, pest management, debris clean-up, and forage improvement. Ponds developed for livestock water provide half of the available habitat for the endangered tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) (9) in the San Francisco Bay Area. These results focus on California's annual rangeland, which is the habitat type where most of the special status species associated western rangelands are found.
Grazing lands provide a direct link between urban consumers and local food producers, a powerful conduit for educating the public about the importance of local food production and security. Sonoma and Marin Counties are perfect models for demonstrating how preserving family farms contribute to social, economic and ecological sustainability at local, regional and even national levels. Ranching has positive health impacts including increased food access and food security, food to local business and schools, improved health literacy and general well-being. Ranching in Sonoma and Marin Counties, albeit smaller scale, remains a local industry which provides job creation, training and business succession, and market expansion for many other ranchers and farmers.
References on file.