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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

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land UseTags , , , ,

Huffman bill assuring 20-year leases for Point Reyes ranchers clears House

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Cattle ranchers would be assured a lengthy future in Point Reyes National Seashore under a bill written by Rep. Jared Huffman that was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives, with environmental groups divided over the issue.

The bill by Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat known for his environmental politics, would require the Secretary of Interior to issue 20-year permits to the long-standing family-operated beef and dairy ranches in the scenic Marin County seashore managed by the National Park Service.

The four-page bill also orders the government agency to manage the seashore’s famed tule elk herd to keep the grazing animals separate from the ranches and dairies.

“We’re thrilled,” said Jackie Grossi, whose family runs a 1,200-acre Point Reyes cattle ranch. “We just want to ensure that there is long-term stability for the ranches.”

Jackie and Rich Grossi, their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter manage the ranch, which is, like all of the affected cattle operations, on federally owned land purchased by the government decades ago.

Ranchers say they need long-term permits to justify investment in their operations.

In an unusual exercise of bipartisanship, the bill, HR 6687, was co- authored by Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and last year advocated for repeal of the Endangered Species Act, a move Huffman has vocally opposed.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8782302-181/huffman-bill-assuring-20-year-leases?ref=mostsection

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, Land UseTags , , ,

Groups ask judge to halt Point Reyes National Seashore farm leases 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Three environmental groups have asked a federal judge in Oakland for an order to halt the process of granting long-term leases to the cattle ranches operating on government-owned land at Point Reyes National Seashore.
The Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley, Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Idaho-based Western Watershed Project contend the National Park Service is moving to grant 20-year leases to the ranches without completing an assessment of their impact on the 71,000-acre national seashore, a popular wilderness destination visited by 2.5 million people a year.
The original lawsuit, filed in February, rattled ranchers whose families have been working on the windswept peninsula for generations.In the request for a court order filed last week, the groups said the Park Service intends to “short circuit” the case by completing a ranch management plan and issuing the leases, thereby denying the groups “any chance at meaningful relief.”
“The Park Service cannot simply predetermine that ranching should continue long-term at the national seashore without any public input or environmental study,” Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release.
The park is currently operating under an “antiquated plan” prepared 36 years ago with no environmental impact statement, the release said.
The environmental groups contend that decades of cattle grazing have trampled the seashore’s landscape and polluted its waterways. Huey Johnson, a former California secretary of resources who now heads the Resource Renewal Institute, has called the Park Service’s management of the ranches a travesty.
The Park Service, ranchers and their allies contend the agriculture and wildlands can coexist side by side. When the seashore was established in 1962, preserving the peninsula from development, it specifically included the historic ranches, marked by signs along the seashore roads.
Read more at: Groups ask judge to halt Point Reyes National Seashore farm leases | The Press Democrat