Valuing California Rangelands – A Way Forward

Vernal Pool

Co – written with Jessica Musengezi

Three weeks ago, the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University hosted an Uncommon Dialogue on Rangelands Policy and Research with the intention of bringing together scientists, policy-makers, economists, and representatives from local and state government agencies to share perspectives on ranching and its role in conserving California rangelands.  Rangelands are integral to the protection of services we sometimes take for granted – clean water, clean air, and pollination of our food crops. These systems are currently under siege from high-intensity agriculture and development of infrastructure, such as subdivisions.  The issue of conserving not only natural habitats, but preserving the culture that protects these habitats is complex, and involves multiple stakeholders encompassing an area of more than 34 million acres in the Central Valley and interior Coast Range.

Conserving rangelands is a multi-level problem, it is about conserving landscape (maintaining connectivity, extent, and biological diversity); improving and maintaining the financial and ecological viability of working ranches that are the bedrock of the landscape; and managing pastures, understanding the vegetation and habitat, and how to maintain and improve the services they provide.

Complex as the problem may be, there are promising market-based mechanisms to address the challenges rangelands are facing.  Ranchers are struggling to maintain profitability and they need additional incentives to help them stay in the black. Dr. Gretchen Daily of Stanford University emphasized the need for a new business model that allows ranches to combine revenue streams from ecosystems services (i.e. carbon sequestration, water quality improvement and wildlife habitat),  as well as sale of cattle, conservation easements, and government programs providing the level of income needed to keep ranchers from converting their lands.

Paying for ecosystem services entails identifying and quantifying the services provided by rangelands and implementing practices on ranches to secure provision of services.  Dr. Claire Kremen of U.C. Berkeley presented research that demonstrated the important services provided by wild pollinators. According to her research, wild bees pollinate approximately 35-39% of our commercial crops and about 50% of these bees come from rangelands. This is a strong argument to identify and quantify these services, so they no longer go unrecognized.

At the farm level the science of understanding the benefits of grazing is substantial and gives ranchers a variety of options for ecologically sustainable management. One novel idea is teaching cows to eat weeds. Cows are trained to seek out and eat nasty weeds, sparing the herbicide a farmer might choose to use instead – talk about cost effective weed management! Clearly there is no shortage of innovation and creativity, it is ‘Uncommon Dialogues’ such as this one held by Stanford and partnerships fostered by groups like the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition that synthesize existing knowledge and chart an integrated path forward to meet our shared conservation goals.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.