TNC sees California ranchers as key conservation partners

May 11, 2012

People in the ranching industry take great pride in their stewardship of the land, but aren’t known for grandstanding about their achievements. Even in southern California’s Kern County, where ranches are often the last outposts of natural habitat for the area’s native golden eagles and black bears among increasing suburban sprawl, the ecological importance of ranches often goes unnoticed.

All that can easily change, however, when a national environmental group shines a spotlight on the role ranching plays in preserving the area’s last remaining open spaces. And even that can go slightly awry, as when the Los Angeles Times ran an article last week titled “California ranches where cattle and wildlife coexist,” a title not likely to astonish many ranchers as earthshatteringly surprising.

The story, however, was sure to draw some attention. The article documented the purchase of two major ranches by the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and a development easement on a third ranch to create a “wilderness preserve” on nearly 32,000 acres of vanishing habitat in the Tehachapi Mountains, southeast of Bakersfield.

This kind of purchase may sound like no news at all to ranchers, many of whom regard TNC as a deeppocked environmental land baron looking to phase land out of agricultural production permanently.

But interestingly, the socalled “wilderness preserve” mentioned in the Times’ article is not going to be owned, or even run, by TNC, a minor detail the Times omitted to mention. The real news is that TNC is currently in the process of selling the ranches back to ranchers—albeit with development easements which will prevent the land from being subdivided in the future—on the premise that keeping the land in ranching is the best deal for the environment, and the best deal for ranchers.

TNC senior project manager E.J. Remson explained:

“What we plan to do is to sell those two ranches we own outright to ranchers, and we’ll sell them with an easement on it, so the ranchers will be able to buy the property at a substantial discount, because [the] easement prevents any future development.”

Remson maintained that the strategy of buying ranches and selling them to ranchers doesn’t represent a new way of doing business for TNC, though some ranchers may beg differ. But from Remson’s perspective, ensuring that the land stays in ranching just makes good ecological sense. “Our thinking is that if we can keep that area in ranching, managed like it has been for the past 150 years by those ranchers, then that’s a huge benefit to us.”

To create the developmentfree corridor, TNC purchased two sizeable ranches: the 7,300 acre Caliente Ranch for $5.25 million, and the 15,000acre Tollhouse Ranch for $11 million. According to Remson, the Caliente had already been slated for subdivision, but the developer had backed out following the real estate market crash. The owner of the Tollhouse Ranch was simply looking to retire. To complete the corridor, TNC also purchased a $2.7 million easement on the 9,600-acre Parker Ranch, which remains in the Parker family.

Bill Parker seems satisfied with the arrangement.

“The conservation easement on this ranch has had zero impact on our style of living,” Parker told the Times. “That is, except for one thing: There’s lots more coyotes, squirrels, golden eagles, bluebirds and frogs than there used to be.”

Remson pointed out that from his perspective, buying easements is preferable to buying ranches. However, when ranches are likely to be sold for development, a different strategy is necessary.

Remson explained that together, the three ranches compose a 50-mile strip of land that creates the last remaining wildlife corridor between the Sierra Nevada and the California Coastal Range; all other surrounding land being either inhospitable desert or having been gobbled up by development.

“It’s a critical area for conservation purposes,” explains Remson, “[and] for protecting plant and animal species that we at the Nature Conservancy care about.”

Located at the intersection of the Sierras, the central valley foothills, and the Mojave Desert, the area is also noted for being extremely biologically diverse, boasting two endangered species and a host of others. Interestingly, ranchers are also becoming something of an endangered species in the area, with developers looking to convert productive ranch land and key habitat into housing and commercial space.

In approaching the challenge of conserving the shrinking area for wildlife passage, Remson’s philosophy seems to have been simple: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. This has lead TNC to approach conservation in the area not by changing things, but by trying to keep them exactly as they are.

“From our perspective, the things we care about, the different plants and animals and the wildlife linkage are functioning now, and they’re functioning now because the landscape is open,” Remson pointed out. “It’s all in ranchlands. … That works for us. And it also works for the ranchers.”

TNC’s approach to conservation in Kern County comes as a breath of fresh air to the ranching community, many members of which have been preaching the compatibility of cattle and wildlife for generations. Not all members of the environmental movement have cared to listen. But Remson needs no convincing. Rather, he readily makes many of the points that are deeply intuitive to ranchers.

“The thing you’ve got to ask yourself is, if ranching goes, what’s going to replace it,” queries Remson. “And the ‘what’s going to replace it’ is not a good thing from [TNC’s] perspective… suburban sprawl.”

Remson also noted that even if TNC “had all the money in the world” to buy ranches and take them out of production, “we would still want to keep them in ranching,” pointing out the vital role grazing plays in controlling fire prone overgrowth.

“If you took the cattle off, you’d build up all this understory thatch that can create hot fires and it can …kill all the oaks,” Remson explained. “There’s not a practical way to keep the grass down without cows.”

This is a tune that ranchers would like to hear more environmentalist groups whistling. Although there are a few notable exceptions, many activist groups, most notably Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, persist in the view that ranching is simply a bad deal for the environment.

At least regarding his area of expertise, Remson isn’t buying it.

“In the area that I’m working [in], there’s clearly very strong benefits to both sides for keeping the status quo on the land; keeping the land in grazing,” says Remson. “[P]robably the only long-term practical way that [TNC] can accomplish our conservation goals is by partnering with the ranchers.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent