Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ranching Habitat

When I started my career with the California Cattlemen’s Association more than 20 years ago, the modern-day range wars had reached their apex.  The environmental community was certain that grazing cows and sheep were hastening the ecological apocalypse.  The ranching community was certain that the environmentalists and the government were conspiring to bring about the end of rangeland livestock production and ranching culture.  My introduction to agricultural policy included Bruce Babbitt’s Rangeland Reform initiative and the rise of the Home Rule movement in the Great Basin.  Ranchers and environmentalists didn’t seem to have much in common.  Nearly two decades later, I’m speaking at the 8th annual California Rangeland Conservation Coalition’s Summit in Davis later this week.  This coalition of ranching interests, wildlife and land management agencies and environmental groups represents an amazing departure from the antagonistic relationships of my early career.

In the late 1990s, a group of progressive cattle ranchers in Colorado and California founded rancher-governed and rangeland-focused land trusts.  These organizations started to build bridges with conservation groups who were realizing that vast stretches of natural habitat were indeed threatened, not by cows and sheep, but by asphalt and houses.  As the first executive director of the California Rangeland Trust, I had the opportunity to help build an organization that today has conserved more than 250,000 acres of privately owned rangeland in California.  The relationships established with agencies and conservation groups in the early years of these organizations, I think, helped build the foundation for today’s cooperation.

Early in my experience with the California Rangeland Trust, I started working with a young woman who was on the staff of the Sierra Nevada Alliance – a coalition of Sierra-based environmental groups.  Cristi Bozora (now Cristi Creegan) approached me about starting a discussion with ranchers about grazing issues.  At the end of the first meeting I organized in Jackson, one of the ranchers told Cristi, “I came here tonight expecting you to tell us all of the things we were doing wrong.  Instead, you just listened to us!  Maybe we can find some common ground on a few things.”  A year or so later, I spoke at the Alliance’s annual meeting.  An Alliance board member asked me, “Are we just leading each other down a path that goes nowhere?  I don’t see how we can ever agree on everything.” I replied that I felt we had to walk the path, using Cristi's example of listening before we spoke, before we knew where it was going.  In some respects, I think it was one of the many paths that led us to today’s increasing collaboration on rangeland issues.

As I mentioned above, much of today’s cooperation has grown out of recognition that privately owned rangelands – lands that are grazed – provide some of the last and best “islands” of habitat in an increasingly urbanized state.  Most of the remaining intact oak woodland and vernal pool ecosystems, for example, exist on private ranches.  Paradoxically, the economic success of ranching (once seen as a threat to these ecosystems) is now viewed as vital to the ecological integrity of these habitats.

In the years since I left the California Rangeland Trust, I’ve started my own small commercial sheep operation.  My daily work brings me into direct contact with the natural world.  I’ve seen hawks cruise the paddocks that we’ve just grazed.  I’ve walked through vernal pools that seem to feature a new flower every week as they dry during the spring.  I’ve experienced the enormous swings in grass growth that can result from changes in rainfall from one year to the next.  While my sheep ranching isn’t always profitable in an economic sense, it has rewarded me with an opportunity to be in nature every day.

While cooperation has succeeded in conserving significant acreages of privately owned habitat, however, we’ve not been as successful at conserving what I call ranching habitat.  Large, unfragmented landscapes are an important component of these ranching habitats, but there’s more to it.  The infrastructure of ranching, both on individual ranches and within communities, is disappearing.  Most of the land that I graze with sheep is not fenced, for example – and none of my leases have adequate stock water.  Our communities are losing infrastructure, too – the closest USDA-inspected lamb processor to my operation is in Dixon (I am required to have my lambs processed in an inspected facility if I want to sell meat to my neighbors).  I have to drive even farther to market my wool.  Finally, ranchland requires ranchers, but there seems to be a disturbing lack of young people with the knowledge and financial wherewithal to enter the profession.

In some ways, the increased cooperation between ranchers, agencies and environmentalists that has made an 8th annual rangeland summit possible is a direct result of California's rapid development in the 1990s and early 2000s.  During the real estate boom, the pace of rangeland conversion raised alarms for all of us.  The current pause initiated by downturn in the housing market is useful in many ways; it has allowed us to catch our collective breath and hopefully to plan for the next boom time.  I hope we’ll start to think a bit about ranching habitat as well as natural habitat.

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