California neighborhood demands return of cows

Jun 24, 2011

Located 16 miles east of Oakland, CA, in the greater San Francisco Bay area, the town of Walnut Creek is a haven for well-off commuters who prefer the pastoral beauty of the town’s publically-owned open spaces to San Francisco’s urban hustle and bustle. With an average income over $85,000, and the average home costing over $800,000, Walnut Creek fits the stereotype of a comfortable up-scale West Coast community. And with its citizens far more likely to be dog walkers, bicyclists, and hikers than ranchers, it would certainly seem an unlikely place to hatch a small, but determined movement in support of cattle grazing.

But don’t tell this to Frank McCormick, member of the Summit Ridge Homeowners Association. McCormick has recently been spearheading an effort to have cows returned to the 177-acre Acalanes Ridge Open Space which borders on the Summit Ridge neighborhood where he has resided for over 30 years. The reason? One simple word. Fire.

As long as anyone can remember, there have been cattle grazing seasonally on Acalanes Ridge.

"We’re guessing it probably goes back to Spanish days," says McCormick.

However, this year, the city decided not to renew the grazing lease that has typically allowed a local rancher to graze cattle from December through June. The lease provided the city with a small amount of revenue—approximately $2,000. But according to McCormick, the cows provided the city with a far more important service: reduction of fine fuels on highly burnable grasslands that border on Summit Ridge homeowners’ property.

An unusually wet winter has left Summit Ridge residents surrounded by a waving savanna of exceptionally tall grass, which will soon dry into highly flammable tinder as the summer heat sets in.

Describing the abundant grass, McCormick explained that it is currently "four or five feet high. Before, it was always half a foot—whatever the cows would mow the lawn down to."

Removal of the cows has put the Summit Ridge Homeowner’s Association at loggerheads with the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces (PROS) Commission, which in 2009 decided that Acalanes Ridge should be cow-free.

According to Heather Ballenger, Walnut Creek public services director, the decision was based on a 2008 survey in which citizens were asked to give input about the management of city open space.

"One of the biggest issues ... that came out of that process was concern about the cattle grazing," said Ballenger.

In particular, Ballenger indicated that there had been several reports of cattle that had attacked and hurt people, and also their dogs. Ballenger also indicated that the PROS Commission had been notified that the cattle grazing could be negatively affecting biodiversity on the grasslands. Of particular concern was the possible impact the cows could have on a project to reseed oak trees.

"We work in tandem with what we call our Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation," explained Ballenger. "They do restoration of oak habitat. They keep track of the flora and fauna ... so there’s always a ‘push-pull,’ if you will, of the cattle and what they were eating versus the habitat restoration."

Yet McCormick and the concerned homeowners association members who have signed McCormick’s petition are not persuaded that these reasons justify removing the cattle, which they claim has eliminated an important means of mitigating fire danger. The residents’ concern is deepened by the fact that, in 1991, the East Bay Area was ravaged by the Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire, which began as a small burn but quickly spread due to overgrown vegetation. The devastation wrought by that blaze, in which 25 people were killed, 150 injured, and $1.5 billion of property lost, is still seared into local memory.

In light of the potential danger, McCormick, an economist, argues that the benefits of having cattle on Acalanes Ridge far outweigh the alleged drawbacks that prompted PROS to kick the cows off.

"All of these things seem to be quite small to us compared to the fire danger to our community," remarked McCormick.

Reducing a catastrophic fire hazard might seem like a no-brainer, but the situation is not so simple. McCormick said that the PROS Commission has claimed grazing is not an effective means of keeping the grass under control, and that both grazed and ungrazed open spaces are similarly overgrown. McCormick strongly disagrees.

"They have said that the cows aren’t very effective in holding down the fire danger," said McCormick. "I have not met anyone who agrees with that statement."

Current research would seem to back McCormick up. Dr. Richard Reiner, a project ecologist with a 24-year history at the Nature Conservancy, has been studying the effect of cattle grazing on California grasslands for decades. Reiner points out that there are two main ways to prevent a build up of "thatch," or the dead fallen grass that both chokes out native forbs and wild flowers, and becomes highly volatile fine fuel. One is to burn the thatch. The other is to graze.

"In the hills of the Bay Area, we found that both fire and grazing tend to have positive effects on the floristic biodiversity," explained Reiner, because both reduce the presence of thatch. However, he pointed out that "grazing around metropolitan areas is a much more viable tool than prescribed fire," citing both air quality issues and the threat of using prescribed fire near residential communities.

Reiner also questioned whether cattle are responsible for the problems the Walnut Creek Open Space Foundation has experienced with reseeding oak trees. For the past six years, Reiner has been studying oak restoration on four different ranches, both on grazed and ungrazed land. Although the ungrazed study plots had slightly more seedlings on them, the difference was so small that Reiner described it as "probably not biologically significant." What was significant was that none of the seedlings on any of the plots—grazed or ungrazed—were reaching the sapling stage. Clearly, Reiner explained, some factor is interfering with the seedlings maturing, but it is not cattle.

"Something else is happening there," said Reiner, though it has not yet been discovered what is preventing the oaks from achieving maturity.

At this time, the city of Walnut Creek has received a petition signed by 137 residents from the 161 homes in the Summit Ridge neighborhood, as well as 27 emails detailing why cows should be returned to Acalanes Ridge Open Space. As the pressure mounts, it appears that the city is somewhat changing its attitude toward four-footed fire control. According to an email sent to homeowners by City Manager Ken Nordhoff on June 17, the city was at that time finalizing a contract to graze goats on 7.1 acres adjacent to the Summit Ridge neighborhood as a interim fire mitigation measure.

But as McCormick pointed out, the city must pay between $700 and $1,000 an acre to have a goat herder come in and manage the goats. Goat grazing is expensive, and the city can only afford to graze a thin buffer zone around the neighborhood, in addition to the disking it has done in accordance with county fire ordinances. Cattle grazing, by contrast, brought in a modest revenue to the city. And although McCormick has no particular objection to using the goats to create a buffer, "except as a taxpayer," he maintains that grazing cattle is more effective because the area grazed is not limited due to cost. Grazing goats is "a very expensive way of addressing the problem," said McCormick, adding: "We would prefer that the entire 170 acres be grazed."

According to Ballenger, the groundswell of objections to the removal of the cows has come as a surprise, largely because the PROS Commission was attempting to act in compliance with citizen sentiment. At this point, however, there can be no mistaking the views of McCormick and his supporters. As Ballenger described it, the unfortunate fact that the cows’ removal coincided with a uniquely wet winter created a "perfect storm;" with an unusually large fuel load and no cows to mow it, citizen concern has been running extremely high.

Would a less wet year have created less of a furor? Perhaps. But according to Janet Upton, spokesperson for Cal Fire, the California State Fire Department, this year should not be seen as unique in its potential for fire threats. High fire danger is obviously not exclusively a function of heavy winter rainfall. Other conditions, like draught, can also pose a major fire risk. Whereas the current year’s rainfall is at 135 percent of normal, 1991, the year of the Berkeley-Oakland Hills fire, only received 77 percent of the average annual rainfall. The lesson here would seem to be that a "perfect storm" may take many forms—wet, dry, windy, electrical. Arguably, a fire-wary resident would be wise to be concerned, whatever the weather.

"The fact of the matter remains," stressed Upton, "that the simple baseline for California [is that] we have a Mediterranean climate ... which means every year has the potential for large and damaging fire. Every year."

Due to the high interest in the matter, the PROS Commission will be vetting the issue of returning the cows to Acalanes Ridge on July 11. Ballenger emphasized that the public has been notified and is encouraged to attend.

McCormick is optimistic that the city may reverse its decision and recommend that the cows be returned.

"Right now, things are heading in a very favorable direction," he said.

Apparently, the numerous citizen appeals, as well as a June 17 article covering the dispute in the Contra Costa Times have caused the commission to revisit their decision.

"I know of only one person who wants the cows removed," remarked McCormick. "The sentiment is overwhelming to return [them]." — Andy Rieber, Correspondent