Rangeland Conservation Group Impresses with Leadership & Vision

After attending the annual summit of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition (CRCC) in Davis last week, I’m more impressed than ever with the group and their efforts. The long-term viability of California’s grazing lands — under siege in many ways — depends on the leadership, partnership and vision of the stakeholders in this coalition.

CRCC is a coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, land trusts, public agencies and researchers working together to preserve and enhance the ecosystems services of California’s rangeland while supporting the long-term viability of the ranching industry. The focus of the summit was on managing rangelands for multiple ecosystems services and highlighting the many public benefits rangelands provide — food provision, wildlife habitat, open space, limiting urban sprawl, watershed protection, recreation, and not least of all, carbon sequestration.

The summit also highlighted the threats to these working lands. For example, many speakers mentioned the negative impact of the defunding of the Williamson Act (a program that has provided tax incentives for farmland protection for decades) that is no longer effective in providing counter-pressure against development. A research team from UC Davis reported on rancher survey findings indicating that 42 percent of ranchers would sell some or all of their land without financial support from the Williamson Act, and 56 percent of those predicted the land would be developed for non-agricultural purposes. Jaymee Marty from The Nature Conservancy stated that their research shows the biggest threat to rangeland conversion is from intensive agriculture such as vineyards, orchards and irrigated pasture — a threat that the Williamson Act does not mitigate. This gap points to a need for better programs to protect rangeland.

This is a group not afraid to talk about climate change, both in terms of the impacts it will have and the climate benefits offered by rangelands. Many rancher members are carefully watching the carbon market in hopes that it will provide new financial incentives to keep them in business. The many scientific and political barriers to fulfilling these hopes have yet to be overcome.

To put a point on the impacts of climate change discussed at the summit, just a couple of days later a report was released called “The Impact of Climate Change on California’s Ecosystem Services.” Predictions under two climate models are both bad for ranching — warmer, drier conditions will desiccate grasslands while warmer, wetter conditions will cause intrusion of less digestible brush. Summarizing the findings for rangelands, lead author Rebecca Shaw said, “A less stable climate will reduce the ability of natural landscapes to support cattle grazing, so ranchers may have to grow or buy extra hay instead of getting it for free from nature, as they do now.”

Some of the most exciting research work in this field is coming out of the California Rangeland Watershed Laboratory at UC Davis at the Graduate Group in Ecology, both headed by Ken Tate. Several members made presentations at the summit and are closely involved with CRCC. They have a strong interest in improving their participatory research efforts by working more closely with ranchers to correlate research findings with on-the-ground experience.

One of the most interesting presentations was made by Valerie Eviner (a CalCAN science advisor) who described how difficult it is to translate scientific findings and models to real ranch conditions, and how challenging it can be for ranchers to balance competing ecosystems management and economic priorities. She acknowledged that scientists still are not able to give prescriptions to ranchers since there is so much variability in rangeland systems. She described an ambitious project they are undertaking to collect vast amounts of information and observations from ranchers in an attempt to draw connections between management strategies, geographic and climatic conditions and the resulting impacts on ecosystems indicators. CalCAN will play a supporting role in this research as it moves forward.

Keep an eye on this coalition. There is a lot to learn from their whole systems approach and collaborative multi-stakeholder structure.

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