2011-08-21 "Golden State grasslands" by Jon Christensen from "San Francisco Chronicle" newspaper
The natural beauty of Northern California's grasslands is a paradoxical thing. There is little that is natural about it.
For many years, this caused no end of consternation. Early explorers, missionaries and ranchers were unsettled by constant fires set by Indians to keep grasslands open, producing seeds and attracting wildlife. In more recent times, environmentalists have battled to get rid of cattle, which brought new grass species to California, pushing aside native plants in almost all of the state's grasslands.
Those emerald green hills of spring and summer's golden waves of windswept beauty? Turns out they're an impure product of human history. But in the Bay Area, ranchers and environmentalists are coming "full circle," in the words of rancher Scott Stone, to fully embrace this paradox and work together to ensure that these "working landscapes" continue to work.
The threat -
Around the globe, grasslands are in dire need of such care. Nearly half of all temperate grasslands, like those in Northern California, have been plowed up or paved over. They are the most threatened and least protected habitat in the world. Less than 5 percent of temperate grasslands are protected globally.
The Bay Area is doing stunningly better. Of the 1.7 million acres of open ranchland remaining here, more than 1 million acres are protected under agreements with ranchers who keep working the land. They're happy to do it. "It's great to go to work every day," says Stone, a fourth-generation rancher whose herd of 800 cows grazes on the oak-studded hills atop Blue Ridge east of Lake Berryessa.
These days, environmentalists are happy to see ranchers and cows out there, too. "Grazing is an important tool for conservation," says Bettina Ring, executive director of the Bay Area Open Space Council.
Around the Bay Area, grazing is being used to create and maintain habitat for threatened species such as the San Joaquin kit fox, the burrowing owl, the red-legged frog, the tiger salamander, the bay checkerspot butterfly and the Ohlone tiger beetle. Grasslands also provide habitat for native bees and other pollinators. Scientists at UC Berkeley have calculated that native bees living in nooks and crannies in the soil and trees and in the hollow stems of grazed grasses and reeds pollinate 35 to 39 percent of California's crops, a service worth $937 million to $2.4 billion a year.
Claire Kremen, a professor of environmental sciences, announced those findings at a recent "uncommon dialogue" among ranchers, environmentalists, scientists and historians at Stanford University.
Working ranches -
Darrel Sweet, a fifth-generation rancher in the sere, treeless grasslands of Altamont Pass, says he has been "surprised and delighted" by the growing recognition of the importance of keeping working ranches in the mix of the Bay Area's metropolitan matrix. His ranch looks down on Livermore. Wind turbines and housing developments march across the nearby hills.
"If the habitats are a result of what ranchers have been doing, how are you going to protect the habitat without protecting what the ranchers have been doing?" Sweet asked the group at Stanford.
He has some answers. The Sweet ranch is protected under the Williamson Act, a California law that enables the ranch to be taxed as rangeland rather than the far higher market value it would have if it were subdivided into ranchettes. That helps the Sweets make the ranch pay economically and keep it in the family. He also has used Caltrans funding for wetland mitigation and federal funding for wildlife habitat to create and protect habitat for three endangered species - tiger salamanders, red-legged frogs and kit foxes.
Ranchers in other parts of the Alameda Creek watershed are working with the San Francisco Public Utility Commission to protect an important source of drinking water for the city's Hetch Hetchy system. Well-maintained rangelands with good grazing management shed fewer contaminants and sediment into waterways than the roads and homes of subdivisions. Paying ranchers to stay on the land and improve their rangelands turns out to be a better investment than paying for additional water treatment facilities.
Farther south, in the Santa Clara Valley, environmentalists want to make sure ranchers keep their cattle grazing on habitat for the threatened bay checkerspot butterfly. The cows keep down the grass, making room for native wildflowers, and the butterfly thrives. If the cows disappear, the butterflies disappear, too.
Critters on the land -
Up on Scott Stone's ranch, they're raising Swainson's hawks on land protected by a conservation easement as well as growing grass-fed beef sold in Whole Foods Markets throughout Northern California. The beef is marketed by Panorama Grass-Fed Meats, a natural and organic beef distributor founded by Darrell Wood, who grazes his cattle in the Vina Plains, where Coho and Chinook salmon run up Deer Creek and endangered fairy shrimp thrive in vernal pools protected by a conservation easement purchased by the California Rangeland Trust. Conservation easements paid Wood and Stone for the development rights on their ranches, which now can never be subdivided. These ranchers love talking about their "ground" and the critters that share it. There is a soft side to their hard-working cowboy drawls. Yet they are hard-nosed businessmen. "Cattle ranching is a business," Wood emphasizes. And it ain't easy making ends meet.
Increasingly, it is a business that concerns everyone who cares about California's grasslands and what they produce for all of us. But Stone and Wood chuckle ruefully when asked about a successful "business model" for keeping ranching in the Bay Area. "You'll never find two outfits that are the same," says Stone. "There's no one-size-fits-all model," says Wood.
Most successful ranchers have multiple family members with jobs off the ranch "to support our ranching habit," says Stone. They piece together other payments for the "ecosystem services" that they provide for all of us - clean water, habitat for species, and maybe someday, capturing and storing carbon dioxide in the soil - through conservation easements, tax breaks, mitigation monies, government grants and cooperative projects with conservation organizations. And they sell a premium product to customers who care about what they eat and where it's grown - in some of Northern California's most iconic scenery, those oak-studded golden grasslands.
Jon Christensen is executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, which sponsored the recent "uncommon dialogue" on ranching and rangelands with the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.
Darrell Wood repairs a fence on his land in Tehama County, above, where he raises organic beef cattle that he sells to Whole Foods markets in Northern California. He runs the largest ranch in the state raising organic beef and works to balance the needs of farming with preservation of the grasslands.
Credit: Photos by Brian Baer / Special to the Chronicle