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Sense of Place: Lomas Muertas grasslands still changing

Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Coastal prairie once roamed by mammoths, covered with bunch grasses

The Lomas Muertas, or Dead Hills, appear on a Mexican map of a ranch that stretched between Two Rock in Sonoma County and the modern hamlet of Tomales in Marin County.

Ghoulish as it sounds, the name doesn’t imply any ghostly spirits. Found in several places along the coast, it refers to grasslands where trees are virtually absent.

Botanists classify our local lomas muertas as coastal prairie — a grassland type found within 50 miles of the ocean. An account from the 1850s described the prairie near the mouth of the Russian River as “waving grasses higher than a man’s head, with deer, bear, and other big game everywhere … ” that included tule elk and pronghorn.

Prior to the 19th century, coastal prairies were largely perennial bunch grasses like purple needlegrass (our state grass), oat grass and several fescue species, as well as many kinds of wildflowers. Bunch grassroots can grow 16 feet deep, providing water during the dry months. Summer is also when coastal fog creeps inland — some prairie plants are able to harvest this moisture as well.

If you had visited our coastal prairies 15,000 years ago, you would have found wildlife rivaling East Africa’s today. Grizzlies, short-faced bears, herds of bison, elk, pronghorn and mammoth, and many other large animals roamed the coastal prairies. By trampling the ground, wallowing in water holes and consuming huge amounts of leaves, bark and twigs, mammoths in particular may have played a key role in creating and maintaining a nearly treeless landscape.

Coastal grasslands are considered a “disturbance dependent habitat.” Now that the mammoths are gone, grazing and burrowing by other animals, as well as fire and drought, keep it from converting to shrubs or trees.

Before Spanish settlement, indigenous people also kept the landscape open by setting fires on a regular basis. Burning recycles nutrients back into the soil, resulting in healthier plants, which means more food for humans and game animals.

Red more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9892635-181/sense-of-place-you-wont

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Invasive species are a threat in Sonoma County parks

Steven Nett, SONOMA COUNTY REGIONAL PARKS BLOG

No, it’s not the zombie apocalypse. This threat is from invasive plant and animal species that have wormed their way into Sonoma County despite best efforts to stop them. Some are just as scary, gruesome and strange as fantasy creatures. But unlike the fictional walking dead, these invaders can do actual harm.

Take the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater.) Cowbirds originally lived on the Great Plains, following bison that scared up a rich diet of insects. Because their food source was mobile, cowbirds, didn’t have the luxury of sitting on nests to raise their young. Instead, they developed the strategy of laying eggs in the nests of other birds, who then unwittingly feed and raise them. To ensure they do, cowbirds often remove the host bird’s own eggs.

When humans brought cattle to Sonoma County, the cowbirds followed. Today, two of California’s native birds, the least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus) and willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii), are listed as endangered because of brown-headed cowbirds.

This is just one case of the silent ongoing battles between natives and invasive species in Sonoma County.

Then there’s medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae.) Medusahead is a fast-spreading grass with a nasty survival skill: The plant incorporates exceptionally large amounts of fine silica (the raw material used to make glass) into its leaves, stems and spiky awns, the needle-like crowns (pictured below) that give medusahead its fearsome name.

Read more at https://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Learn/Blog/Articles/Invasive-Plant-and-Animal-Species/?

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , ,

The amazing ability of pasture grass to sequester carbon

Jean Yamamura, THE SANTA BARBARA INDEPENDENT

A buzz has been generating in California agriculture circles over the possibilities of carbon ranching.

It’s not about producing carbon, as it might sound, but about putting more carbon back into the ground, naturally, through grasses. The theory goes like this: Native grasses send roots as deep as six feet underground, breathing in carbon dioxide as they breathe out oxygen. At a number of test acres across California, including at the Ted Chamberlin Ranch near Los Olivos, adding a thin layer of compost has created more topsoil, which feeds the microbes below ground, which enrich the grasses, which draw more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and hold it in their roots deep in the soil. Add cattle to the mix, and voilà! Carbon ranching.

What really got people excited about this simple layer of compost is that it sequesters carbon now. “We don’t have to wait for Elon Musk to geo-engineer something from space,” laughed Sigrid Wright, who heads Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council (CEC). Wright and an alphabet soup of agencies have been working together with the Chamberlin Ranch on a 60-acre demonstration project through California’s Healthy Soils Initiative.

Read more at https://www.independent.com/news/2018/apr/19/amazing-ability-pasture-grass-sequester-carbon/

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Climate Change & Energy, Land UseTags , , , , , ,

Can dirt save the Earth?

Moises Velazquez-Manoff, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE

The soil-improving practices that Wick, Silver and Creque stumbled into have much in common with another movement known as regenerative agriculture. Its guiding principle is not just to farm sustainably — that implies mere maintenance of what might, after all, be a degraded status quo — but to farm in such a way as to improve the land. The movement emphasizes soil health and, specifically, the buildup of soil carbon.

When John Wick and his wife, Peggy Rathmann, bought their ranch in Marin County, Calif., in 1998, it was mostly because they needed more space. Rathmann is an acclaimed children’s book author — “Officer Buckle and Gloria” won a Caldecott Medal in 1996 — and their apartment in San Francisco had become cluttered with her illustrations. They picked out the 540-acre ranch in Nicasio mostly for its large barn, which they planned to remake into a spacious studio. Wick, a former construction foreman — they met when he oversaw a renovation of her bathroom — was eager to tackle the project. He knew the area well, having grown up one town away, in Woodacre, where he had what he describes as a “free-range” childhood: little supervision and lots of biking, rope-swinging and playing in the area’s fields and glens.

The couple quickly settled into their bucolic new surroundings. Wick began fixing leaks in the barn. Rathmann loved watching the many animals, including ravens, deer and the occasional gopher, from the large porch. She even trained the resident towhees, small brown birds, to eat seed from her hand. So smitten were they with the wildlife, in fact, that they decided to return their ranch to a wilder state. For nearly a century, this had been dairy country, and the rounded, coastal hills were terraced from decades of grazing. Wick and Rathmann would often come home and find, to their annoyance, cows standing on their porch. The first step they took toward what they imagined would be a more pristine state was to revoke the access enjoyed by the rancher whose cows wandered their property.

Within months of the herd’s departure, the landscape began to change. Brush encroached on meadow. Dried-out, uneaten grass hindered new growth. A mysterious disease struck their oak trees. The land seemed to be losing its vitality. “Our vision of wilderness was failing,” Wick told me recently. “Our naïve idea was not working out so well.”

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/18/magazine/dirt-save-earth-carbon-farming-climate-change.html

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

North Bay dairies shift to organic milk production, seeking higher income and stability

Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Eighty percent of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties now produce certified organic milk, a change that allows them to command a premium milk price and also has sheltered them from a severe downturn that has buffeted the conventional dairy market for more than a year.
The North Bay’s shift away from the conventional dairy business, which has taken place over more than two decades, represents a striking contrast with the rest of California, where organic milk comprises less than 2 percent of total dairy production.
So many local farmers have switched to organic production that Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms, the Bay Area’s largest independent dairy processor, has reached out beyond the North Bay’s coastal grasslands to the Central Valley to satisfy its need for conventional milk.
“We have had to move east where the milkshed is,” said Marcus Benedetti, president and CEO of the company with the iconic mascot, Clo the Cow. “And that will be a trend that continues.”
But even moving to organic won’t entirely protect the local dairy industry from volatile ups and downs, as the nation’s organic sector faces a milk surplus. Already two large local buyers of organic milk have announced what they characterized as small price cuts, and some dairies could have difficulty finding processors for their milk.
Some are predicting upheaval in the larger organic market, though not as severe as what the state’s conventional dairies have been suffering.
Read more at: North Bay dairies shift to organic milk production, seeking higher income and stability | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , , , ,

Soil as carbon storehouse: New weapon in climate fight? 

Judith D. Schwartz, ENVIRONMENT 360

In [Holistic Planned Grazing], livestock are managed as a tool for large-scale land restoration, mimicking the herding and grazing patterns of wild ruminants that coevolved with grassland ecosystems. Animals are moved so that no plants are overgrazed, and grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil.

May, 2014. The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.
In the 19th century, as land-hungry pioneers steered their wagon trains westward across the United States, they encountered a vast landscape of towering grasses that nurtured deep, fertile soils.
Today, just three percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. Its disappearance has had a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of the U.S., but a key consequence of that transformation has largely been overlooked: a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere. The importance of soil carbon — how it is leached from the earth and how that process can be reversed — is the subject of intensifying scientific investigation, with important implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2. Now, armed with rapidly expanding knowledge about carbon sequestration in soils, researchers are studying how land restoration programs in places like the former North American prairie, the North China Plain, and even the parched interior of Australia might help put carbon back into the soil.
Read more at: Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight? by Judith D. Schwartz: Yale Environment 360

Posted on Categories WildlifeTags , Leave a comment on A natural history of that little yellow flower that's everywhere right now

A natural history of that little yellow flower that's everywhere right now

Chelsea Leu, BAY NATURE
Oxalis pes-caprae is an attractive little flower with five yellow petals and leaves that are cloven in a way that apparently reminded Linnaeus—who described the species in 1753—of a goat’s foot. Commonly known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup, it flowers from November to April, and in the last few months oxalis has come out in full force in the Bay Area, encouraged by December and February rains. The flowers dot hillsides, parks, and highway medians like the mottled points of light in a Monet, delighting many observers.
They do not delight Jake Sigg.oxalis2
“I’ve just been frantic about it,” says Sigg, a retired Golden Gate Park gardener and the Bay’s most outspoken opponent of yellow oxalis. “It’s our most troublesome plant.”
Oxalis pes-caprae is invasive, a weed native to South Africa that was transplanted to California early in the 1900s, probably to be grown as a demure ornamental plant. By the late 1980s, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1988, it was a frustratingly persistent nuisance in home gardens. Now, Sigg has watched in horror as oxalis has taken over the coastal grasslands he tends. He first noticed a small patch of them in San Francisco’s Grandview Park back in the 1980s. By 2003, Sigg says, it was all over the hill. “In the last 10 years it really got going fast,” he says. “It’s just a blitzkrieg.” And the onslaught will probably continue. “If we did nothing, in X many years Twin Peaks would just be one solid mass of yellow, and there wouldn’t be any other plants there,” Sigg says. “It’s destroying our grasslands.”
Oxalis crowds out native wildflowers for light and space, and prevents other plants from gaining a foothold in the land. “Oxalis is terminal,” Sigg says. Once it takes over, the wildlife that depends on native flowers moves on, leaving nothing but oxalis in its wake (and bare ground during the six months of the year oxalis doesn’t flower). An oxalis-dominated landscape drives away coyotes, hawks and owls that feed on grassland foragers, and the situation is especially dire for endangered Mission blue butterflies, which depend heavily on native wildflowers. Whole hillsides are now “marching towards monoculture,” Sigg says. But we haven’t raised the alarm because, as he wrote in 2003, “we hardly notice [the spread] because it occurs slowly, subtly, surreptitiously.”
Read more via A Natural History of That Little Yellow Flower That’s Everywhere Right Now – Bay Nature.

Posted on Categories Land Use, WildlifeTags , , , Leave a comment on Santa Rosa was once Meadowlark Woods

Santa Rosa was once Meadowlark Woods

Arthur Dawson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT/TOWNS

“Meadowlark Woods” is the translation of the Mishewal-Wappo name for the Santa Rosa area: whitsé la holma noma. At the time the Sonoma Mission was established in 1823, whitsé la holma noma was west of Mishewal lands, in Pomo territory. It was a place they passed through on their way to the coast.

Meadowlarks must have been abundant in those days. About the size of a robin, they have a yellow chest with a black V, and a distinctive song.

Meadowlarks build their nests in small depressions in the ground, often weaving grasses and stems together to create a weatherproof dome.

The Mishewal name is a clue to what Santa Rosa was like before it was (re)settled in the 19th century. As their name suggests, meadowlarks like open grasslands and the edges of marshes. “Meadowlark Woods” evokes a mosaic of grasslands, trees and wetlands.

Frank Marryat, an Englishman who visited in 1850, described it as, “sprinkled with oak trees, and it seems ever as if we were about to enter a forest which we never reach, for in the distance, the trees, though really far apart, appear to grow in dark and heavy masses.”

Grassland birds tend to have more complicated songs than those of forest birds. Perhaps it was this complexity, which more closely resembles human speech, that inspired the Coast Miwok, another neighbor of the Mishewal, to say that meadowlarks “talked too much” and “could speak any language.” (Mockingbirds have a similar reputation. Their scientific name means “many-tongued mimic” — they copy the sounds of other birds, insects, amphibians and even machines.)

Children were told not to speak to meadowlarks. They were likely to insult you by saying you were stingy, or mean, or that you ate too much. One 19th century story tells of a Chilean immigrant who was approached by a chattering meadowlark that taunted in Spanish, “Lopez ya no tiene mas whiskey” (Lopez has no more whiskey).

Today, there’s little risk of being mocked by a meadowlark in Santa Rosa. A few large oaks, the last survivors of Meadowlark Woods, can still be found in its urban neighborhoods. But to hear a meadowlark you have to leave the city and go to a place that remains open and grassy.

Contact Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at baseline@vom.com.

via Sense of Place: Meadowlark Woods.