For those of us who raise cattle and sheep, and for more than 90 percent of our state’s threatened and endangered species, rangelands are more than the rolling hills we drive through on our way from one city to the next. California’s rangelands are our home – a home that is increasingly threatened.
Fortunately, a unique partnership between ranchers, government agencies, academics and environmentalists that formed nine years ago is finding common ground in addressing these threats. Next week, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition will meet in Oakdale to discuss how to keep California’s rangelands – and ranches – sustainable, both ecologically and economically.
Private rangelands account for 12 million of California’s 101 million acres. More than 85 percent of our state’s drinking water comes from rangeland watersheds. Rangelands support some of the Golden State’s most iconic landscapes: the oak-studded hills of the Coast Range and the Sierra foothills have a long heritage of grazing cattle and sheep. Some of our most charismatic wildlife – from eagles and owls to blacktail deer and mountain lions, call these rangelands home.
These lands remain viable habitat largely because they have been managed for generations by ranching families. In addition to the ecosystem services they provide, these lands provide food and fiber – and jobs – for a growing population. Beyond these economic benefits, well-managed grazing actually benefits water quality, enhances habitat values, protects communities from wildfire, and sequesters carbon.
But California’s ranching and rangelands are threatened. Rangelands continue to be converted to other uses – housing tracts and strip malls. The economics are challenging – prices for beef and lamb often fail to keep up with rising expenses. Too many times, regulation adds to these expenses. Children in families who have made their living from the land for generations often don’t see a future in ranching. In many regions, rangelands are being converted to more intensively farmed permanent crops. Nonprofits and agencies often acquire rangelands without funding or plans for management.
When each of us began our careers, these threats divided us. The ranching community viewed environmentalists as a threat to its way of life. The environmental community viewed cows and sheep as a threat to the state’s ecology. Many agencies viewed their roles in these disputes as purely regulatory. Thanks to the vision and hard work of a handful of ranchers, environmentalists and agency staff who realized our common interests in 2005, the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition was born. These visionaries agreed to work together to protect and enhance the rangeland landscape that encircles California’s Central Valley 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 proved to be very effective in maintaining and enhancing working landscapes.
• Educating the public about the benefits of grazing and ranching in these rangelands.
On Jan. 21, 400-plus ranchers, environmentalists, researchers, educators and agency staff will gather in Oakdale for the ninth annual Rangeland Coalition Summit. While we’ll hear from experts about the threats to these ecosystems, we’ll also hear about examples of collaborative efforts that are protecting rangelands – and ranching – in California and around the West. Most importantly, we’ll talk – cowboys will rub elbows with botanists; sheepherders will converse with conservationists. We’ll rediscover our common ground – and we’ll continue to find ways to keep ranchers ranching!
Moving forward, we hope policymakers, land use planners and the public will seek out rangeland expertise. We encourage our legislators to emphasize funding programs that provide for voluntary conservation of privately owned rangelands. And we encourage agencies, organizations and ranchers to become actively engaged in the work of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition.
Dan Macon owns and operates Flying Mule Farm in Auburn; Sheila Barry is a University of California Cooperative Extension staffer and Joan Keegan works for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.