‘Boots and Birkenstocks’
Conference celebrates a new era of collaboration between cattle ranchers and environmentalists
If environmentalists wanted to live their values, they’d drink less wine and eat more beef.
That was Ed Pandolfino’s humorous take on a serious message he offered during an all-day conference held last Thursday (Jan. 8) at Chico State University. The topic was conserving California’s cattle rangelands, and Pandolfino was there representing the Audubon Society.
Cattle? Audubon Society? What’s going on here?
Or, as Pandolfino put it, “What’s a tree-hugging bird nerd doing hanging around with a bunch of cowboys?”
Indeed, many among the 400 or more participants who filled the Bell Memorial Union Auditorium proudly wore large belt buckles, cowboy boots and Stetson hats. But there were just as many environmentalists like Pandolfino. That was the whole point of the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition’s fourth annual summit.
The coalition’s makeup reflects the fact that two groups that formerly were enemies—cattle ranchers and environmentalists; or, as one speaker called them, “boots and Birkenstocks”—have discovered in recent years that they can be more effective working together than against each other.
That’s because grasslands are vital to the continued existence of numerous species, including birds. As Pandolfino pointed out, about half of California’s birds, including most of its raptors, depend on grazing lands for habitat and food.
The biggest threat to those grasslands? Not development, as you might expect, but vineyards. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of acres of prime grasslands in the Sierra Nevada foothills and, especially, the Coast Range have been planted in wine grapes.
As a result, environmentalists have learned they need to work with cattle ranchers if they wish to preserve the grasslands habitat on which numerous species depend.
Interestingly, the rangeland coalition got its impetus right here in Butte County.
As Barbara Vlamis, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, explained in her welcoming remarks to summit attendees, BEC had been involved in a lawsuit to protect the remaining vernal pools along the edge of the Sierra foothills, and specifically to keep their fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp on the endangered-species list. Much to Vlamis’ surprise, the suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Little did we think that our case, sponsored by a local group with just 800 members, would go all that way,” she said.
A further lawsuit resulted in creation of a recovery plan for the vernal-pool habitat, one that necessarily involved the cattle ranchers who owned most of that habitat. As BEC had learned, rather than hurting vernal pools, grazing helps them by fostering plant diversity.
Meanwhile, as an outgrowth of its work on vernal-pools conservation, BEC had met with several other environmental groups and formed the California Endangered Species and Habitat Alliance. That group began meeting regularly with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
At one point, the service’s regional director, Steve Thompson, approached the alliance and asked it to prioritize and come up with one major proposal for environmental action. The group turned to Pandolfino, one of its members, and he developed a white paper on vernal pools and what was needed to protect them.
Thompson, impressed by the study, shopped it around, got lots of positive responses, and decided to form a coalition of ranchers, resource agency officials and environmentalists to work on the issue collaboratively.
Today, just a few years later, the coalition is a thriving organization representing a wide range of groups—some 95 altogether—and private grasslands owners whose properties circle the Great Central Valley, including the Sierra foothills and the interior Coast Range, covering an area of 28 million acres. Its mission: to conserve the state’s privately owned rangelands and preserve and protect their ecosystems and wildlife.
The tool it uses is the publicly funded conservation easement. An easement is a contract under which a landowner agrees to sell the development rights to a habitat-rich piece of land in perpetuity, while continuing to use it for, say, cattle grazing. The easements are usually administered by a nonprofit such as the Nature Conservancy or the Northern California Regional Land Trust.
The Llano Seco Ranch, in western Butte County, is perhaps the most spectacular example of the creative use of conservation easements, which is why a tour of it was scheduled for the day following the summit.
But another major easement, the 600-acre Cottonwood Conservation Area near Oroville, is also noteworthy—so much so that much of a panel discussion was devoted to it Thursday.
Myron Openshaw’s family has been running cattle in Butte County since 1917. As a young man, he joined a cattle drive twice a year, moving cows between summer pasture near Bucks Lake and the family’s Butte County land northwest of Oroville, between highways 70 and 99.
The family has sold the development rights to 600 acres of its local land to the California Department of Transportation, which is using it as a mitigation bank to offset habitat loss caused by road projects elsewhere. The Openshaws still own the land, which they lease out to cattle ranchers.
“I knew it wasn’t developable, so I thought the best thing to do with it was preserve it,” Openshaw said during a short tour of the site Monday (Jan. 12).
The property has three seasonal creeks and is rich in vernal pools and wetlands drainages. Caltrans has set up an endowment fund to monitor and maintain the land and its endangered species.
That fund is being managed by the Butte County Resource Conservation District, one of 104 such districts in California. Formed seven years ago after county voters narrowly approved a ballot measure, its mission is to work with various groups to help private landowners conserve natural resources.
It took three years to obtain the endowment funding for the Cottonwood Conservation Area, Pia Sevelius, the BC-RCD’s director, said at the coalition summit—plus a great deal of trust among the parties. “Never underestimate the power of trust,” she insisted.
Welcome to the new era of cooperation and collaboration.
“I was bowled over when I came into this room and saw how big it was and how full it was,” UC Berkeley geography professor Nathan Sayre, the summit’s concluding speaker, told attendees. “Ten years ago, it was normal for ranchers and environmentalists to hate each other. … Now it’s normal for ranchers and environmentalists and scientists to solve problems by working together.”