An unusual collection of more than 30 farm groups, environmental organizations and regulatory agencies has signed onto a California Rangelands Coalition, marking the first time that some of the entities have worked together.

The disparate groups — many of which have clashed in the past — have pledged to work cooperatively to preserve and enhance rangeland for the good of the ranching industry, and for the health of plants and wildlife. An undercurrent of the agreement is that development needs to steer clear of rangeland.

The coalition is focused on the ring of foothills around the 400-mile-long Central Valley, a region that includes pieces of 28 counties. So far, Alameda County is the only county to sign the coalition’s California Rangeland Resolution. Other county governments could soon be hearing from the coalition.

“Even if we don’t agree on land management or land use,” said Karen Sweet, executive officer of the Alameda County Resource Conservation District, “we agree that the worst thing that can happen is development. We’re going to have to find ways to keep agriculture viable.”

“There is definitely pressure to put houses in areas that are ranchland. Both environmentalists and ranchers would like to prevent that,” added Alex Pitts, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although the coalition is emerging as an advocacy group, it was the Fish and Wildlife Service that helped create it. Steve Thompson, operations manager of the agency’s California-Nevada office, found that he was receiving similar correspondence from ranchers and environmentalists. Both interests have a strong desire to preserve rural landscapes, albeit for different reasons. Ranchers sought incentives for preserving and improving ranchland for the sake of agriculture; environmentalists sought preservation of the same lands for the benefit of plants and wildlife.

Thompson brought representatives of numerous groups together for a meeting in the Alameda County community of Sunol last fall. The representatives soon found that they agree on 95% of issues, said Tracy Schohr, director of industrial affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association. By January, the groups had settled on a rangeland resolution that calls for:
• Keeping common species common on private working landscapes.
• Working to recover rare species and enhancing habitat on rangeland, while minimizing regulation.
• Providing economic, social and other incentives to keep ranchers in business.
• Increasing private, state and federal funding for practices that benefit sensitive species and ranching.
• Encouraging voluntary, locally led conservation efforts.

Among the groups that have signed the resolution are the Cattlemen’s Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the California Rangeland Trust, the Fish and Wildlife Service, state departments of Conservation, Fish and Game, and Food and Agriculture, Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense and the Trust for Public Land.

The coalition’s first priority is to lobby in Washington, D.C., for funding from the 2007 farm bill. The coalition would like to see more federal money for conservation easements and for programs that enhance rangelands.

In fact, the debate over the farm bill is largely about whether the federal government should pay for commodities or farmland conservation, said Alvin Sokolow, a semi-retired professor at University of California, Davis. Because California grows few commodities, it has traditionally not received a large amount of farm subsidies, even though California is the nation’s leading agricultural state. In 2003, California farmers received $97.2 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, according to Sokolow. But that represented only about 5% of funding nationwide from the federal conservation reserve program, which mostly pays farmers to idle cropland.

“The argument is being made by ranching advocates that ranchers are the best stewards of the land, rather than public owners,” Sokolow said. “I think the argument is accurate, especially when comparing ranchland to cropland.”

Besides more money, the coalition would like to see a streamlining of regulations, or at least a new approach to enforcement. This would fall into the concept of “safe harbors.” As it now stands, landowners who undertake projects that aid endangered species can get stuck in a difficult regulatory bureaucracy, even though the species would receive no benefits if not for the ranching project, Schohr said. Ranchers can spend two years getting various approvals for fairly simple projects, such as building new stock ponds, that also happen to be good for a rare species.

Pitts said the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the argument, and the agency is comfortable with safe harbor agreements. “That habitat wouldn’t exist if not for ranching,” she said.

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said conservation groups involved with the coalition do a lot of work on grasslands and vernal pools, which are small, seasonal wetlands that some species rely on for survival. Scientific studies have shown that grazing is a good technique for controlling non-native species in grasslands and for protecting vernal pools, Delfino said.

Still, the bottom-line issue is land use. Environmentalists and, at times, farmers and the state Department of Conservation have used conservation easements to steer development in certain directions, limit new areas of development, or establish buffers between cities. And conservation easements — in which development rights are essentially retired in exchange for a one-time payment — are not universally accepted. Ted James, planning director in Kern County, which has vast stretches of grazing land, noted that ranchers in his area are suspicious of such easements because they limit property rights.

John Hofmann, director of natural resources for the Regional Council of Rural Counties, also expressed skepticism about conservation easements.

“I’m just not convinced that a conservation easement is a good deal for the people who own the land,” Hofmann said. “That money doesn’t come in perpetuity, but the conservation easement is in perpetuity.” The purchase of an easement does not ensure that agricultural lands remain productive, he noted.
Moreover, counties often do not learn about conservation easements until they are already in place, and the landowner is applying to the county for a permanent property tax break.

“Maybe we had that land zoned for development,” Hofmann said. “Now we are having to find a new place for development. It takes some of the planning flexibility out of local government’s hands.”

It is not uncommon for grazing land to be targeted for development precisely because the soils do not qualify as “prime farmland” or “farmland of statewide importance.”

Delfino conceded that the local government piece of the ranchland preservation effort is an issue the coalition needs to address over the long term.

Schohr, of the Cattlemen’s Association, said the group has purposefully avoided specifics of local land use thus far. “It’s taken a lot of time to decide on the policies that we want to change,” she added.

“We think ranching on the private lands in the Central Valley and surrounding foothills areas is environmentally beneficial,” Delfino summed up. “When you’re looking at the amount of development in the Central Valley, and the conversion of ranchlands into housing, it’s a concern.”

Tracy Schohr, California Cattlemen’s Association, (916) 444-0845.
Kim Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife, (916) 313-5800.
Karen Sweet, Alameda County Resource Conservation District, (925) 371-0154.
Alvin Sokolow, University of California, Davis, (530) 752-0979.
John Hofmann, Regional Council of Rural Counties, (916) 447-4806.