Head ‘Em Up, Move ‘Em Out!

Are the cattle grazing in the regional parks creating a profound, environmental mess as activists contend, or are they a living symbol of the grand -- and fading -- tradition of ranching in the hills?

Greg Schneider is not afraid of a little cow dung. In fact, he’s pretty brave even when confronted with clumps that are squishy and smelly and likely to ooze over the tops of hiking boots. He’s been known to stick his foot right into a cow pie to photograph it. Schneider has learned that to wage a war against cattle grazing on public lands, he has to get up close and personal.

Schneider is the first to admit he’s not a trained biologist or ecologist; he’s an engineer who just happens to have spent nearly every morning for the past eight years hiking a cluster of land parcels in the hills above Danville collectively known as the Sycamore Valley Open Space. Recently, Sycamore Valley became part of the 55,000 acres of public land that the East Bay Regional Park District leases to ranchers. Shortly after the arrival of the cattle, Schneider says, his favorite lands were drastically transformed. “It looks like it’s been nuked!” he complains.

On an early morning hike, it’s easy to see why Schneider is so upset. After parking at the edge of a subdivision studded with big new houses, Schneider heads off on a fire trail along a creek. To one side lies ungrazed land not owned by the park district. A deer shelters in a fold of the hills, shaded by the spreading branches of an oak. Knee-high grasses and shrubs are broken by swaths of empty land that were plowed to create firebreaks. But soon after crossing the creek and passing through a gate that marks the border of the parkland, the scenery begins to change. Schneider points to the lush green creek bed, a haven for several species of grasses and, he says, the endangered red-legged frog. The creek is now fenced off — a result of Schneider and other environmentalists pressuring the district and threatening to sue if cows trampled the endangered frog — but the hawk-eyed Schneider has found cows in the stream anyway. “The fence is not maintained well enough,” he complains.

Farther up the hill, Schneider points out the deep pockmarks made by cow hooves, and the rows upon rows of packed-dirt cattle trails that have terraced the hillside. Along the fire trail and streambeds, whole chunks of earth have been torn off by thousand-pound cows rushing to join the herd. “This is normally a narrow, ephemeral stream,” Schneider says, pointing to a shallow, flattened bed of exposed dirt. “But when the cows trample it, they widen the streambed, and that disrupts the flow.” He leads to the gnarled stump of what was once, he says, a full-grown coyote bush — mowed down by a hungry bovine. “There’s something grossly wrong here,” he says.

Perhaps, but if you travel farther east, to the district’s outlying parks along the Altamont Pass or the Sunol Grade, you’ll see a dramatically different view of the impact of cattle in the East Bay. There you’ll find golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, scanning the neatly cropped grasses for any of the hundreds of ground squirrels who prefer the kind of low vegetation achieved by grazing. Tiny burrowing owls and the endangered San Joaquin kit fox (an adorable twelve-inch-tall creature) also depend on a habitat of low grasses. Over the years ranchers have built numerous stock ponds and spring boxes on these lands, providing year-round water not just for cattle but also for the red-legged frog and the tiger salamander.

“You go up to the worst-looking, muddiest pond, and there tend to be tons of frogs and salamanders,” says Steve Bobzien, the district’s ecological services coordinator. He points out a small puddle that, at this late time in the season, is all that remains of a broad, flat, muddy pond. Sure enough, three or four frogs plop under water, reemerging minutes later to see if the coast is clear. “There have been some cases in other districts where cattle have had an impact — maybe they stepped on a frog,” Bobzien concedes. “But we haven’t seen that on our parklands. The negative impacts are so minimal that they’re almost negligible, and instead you have to look at the fact that hundreds and hundreds of frogs are benefiting from grazing.”

It’s hard to reconcile the differences between these two snapshots of the park district’s hotly debated cattle grazing policy. Environmentalists say cattle degrade the natural environment, displacing native species of flora and fauna; park officials counter that grazing was part of the landscape even before the European introduction of cattle and is part of the natural process. Removing all grazing now would disrupt the current ecological balance — and leave the parks vulnerable to uncontrolled fire. Then there are the area’s ranchers, who say their way of life is already being threatened by disappearing open space.

In an attempt to reconcile these divergent interests, the district held a series of public workshops last year to review its grazing policy, but they did little to resolve the conflict; though the district adopted limited changes, its grazing policy remains substantially the same. Now, as the park agency gears up for yet another attempt at a ballot measure aimed at increasing its funding, it could be forced to face another lawsuit over grazing. Environmentalists are already gathering their forces — and this time they plan to bring a wealth of new research to the table to support their cause.

Chris Ising is a member of a rapidly dwindling tribe: He’s a local rancher who was born to the business. “My mother was the rancher and my father was the Culligan man, so somehow I ended up doing both,” he says with a chuckle. Ising, who now owns two water services, also manages a 5,000-acre cattle ranch in Livermore that has been in his family for eighty years. His is certainly not a hardscrabble existence — the ranch boasts a fine home and shiny SUV — but it’s no trophy ranch either. With the help of his two hired hands, Ising isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, whether installing water pipes, reseeding grasses after last year’s drought, or tending to first-time mothers and their calves.

“You can make a living ranching but, when the rates are good, you could make the same at the bank,” Ising says. “I do it because I love it. It’s outdoors; it’s working with animals; when you have both a mother and her calf survive because you were there to help, it’s a good feeling. It’s a wholesome way of life — if we have a roundup, we still call all the neighbors. Where else do people still interact that way? As ranching decreases, that feeling is not going to be there.”

The pressure of encroaching urban sprawl is probably the biggest factor driving ranchers out of the business. “Frankly, you’ve got land that’s got a lot of value,” says Ising, who also serves as the president of the Alameda-Contra Costa Cattlemen’s Association. “Finding range land to lease has gotten very competitive.” The East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) isn’t the only source of cattle forage; private landowners and other public agencies, like water districts, also lease grazing land. But the parks are the focus of attention for environmentalists, who say that the environmental damage inflicted by cows is especially galling when it occurs on land specifically set aside as parkland. “This is the last land there is for us to enjoy as public, and ranchers are using it to run a for-profit business,” says Schneider.

The parks district has offered grazing leases since the early 1960s. Before that, most of the district’s lands were in the hills just above densely urban areas. But when the district annexed Contra Costa parks in 1961 and began purchasing other large tracts, it found itself managing big pieces of traditional rangeland. “When we buy land that was formerly in ranch use,” says Tom Mikkelsen, Assistant General Manager for Planning and Stewardship, “we inherit a whole bunch of things that are useful to park users — ranch roads that suffice as multipurpose trails, for example. You get benefits, but you also pick up the responsibilities.” More than half of the 93,000 acres owned by EBRPD are grazed — mostly by cows, although sheep and goats also munch grass on a few parcels. At any given point during the grazing season, November through May, there are about 8,000 domesticated animals grazing on East Bay parklands. The parks charge ranchers between 10 and 16 dollars per cow per month. Those leases generate between $250,000 and $350,000 for the district each year, but grazing is not a moneymaking proposition for the parks; according to Mikkelsen, that money simply covers the cost of running the program, including fence repair and the monitoring of rainfall and other factors required to adjust grazing levels.

For parks administrators, the chief financial benefit of the grazing program comes in not having to spend as much on fire-prevention techniques such as mowing, prescribed burns, and herbicides — all aimed at reducing the buildup of brittle grasses and brush that could spread wildfire. “Grazing turns out to be the most practical, cost-effective, and most easily regulated land-management tool,” says Ray Budzinski, the district’s wildland vegetation program manager. “If a fire were to start in an unmanaged grassland, there wouldn’t be any stopping it — it’s just so dense, and there’s so much dead vegetation that’s accumulated.”

Take Schneider’s beloved Sycamore Valley, for example: “You probably noticed all the nice, expensive homes surrounding that vegetation?” he says. “We’re the responsible agency for managing the land that’s next to those homes. Before that land was donated to the parks by developers, it was covered in mustard — a nonnative, six-foot-tall weed that just leaves a skeleton stalk when it dies. To impact the mustard plants and keep them from coming back, you have to hit the ground hard.

“You have to understand that we’re managing the land for a purpose. It’s like an island surrounded by million-dollar homes. If a fire starts on that land and those homes go up in flames, and the parks are determined to be negligent, then tax dollars are going to be spent to pay out [lawsuit settlements], instead of on park maintenance.”

Environmentalists, however, question the assumption that cattle grazing is necessary for fire control. They point to Mount Diablo State Park, where cows were kicked off most of the mountain in the late 1980s; according to Mount Diablo Supervising Rancher Dave Matthews, the mountain has seen no significant increase in brush fires since the change. “Fires still burn on grazed land,” says one former firefighter in the EBRPD’s own fire department who asked not to be named. “We had to spend a lot of time out in those overgrazed areas.”

Although prescribed burns are a major part of the brush-management plan at Mount Diablo, EBRPD officials say there’s a host of problems with the technique. Even at Mount Diablo, burning has slowed to a halt because it’s feared that the fires may have a detrimental effect on the endangered Alameda whipsnake. Those are the all-too-common side effects of prescribed burning, Budzinski says. “Even though we have our own fire department, we hardly get 200 acres burned each year,” he says. “The projects get canceled more often than not, because of weather changes or because some other cooperating fire agency can’t make it.” Burns are also regulated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District: Fire puts smoke into the air, and since burning must happen in the dry season, when air quality concerns are already at their peak, it’s not necessarily a better option for the environment, parks staff argue. And with the specter of the 1991 Oakland hills fire still fresh in many minds, controlled burning is unpopular with residents of the housing developments that abut many parks.

One key issue in the debate over fire control is the struggle between native and nonnative flora and fauna. To cite one example, native species such as deer and the less-common tule elk now compete for forage with cows; if grazing were to be eliminated, their numbers might increase. But the native-versus-nonnative debate is far from clear, especially when it comes to vegetation. Many invasive species, like mustard and the star thistle, are high-fire risks, and cows will eat them especially when the plants are still small.

The puzzle over native and nonnative plants is an old one in the district’s history, and the grazing debate is adding fuel to the fire. “Previously, especially in the hill parks above Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond, there were efforts to create what is considered more parklike landscapes — like Golden Gate Park — by planting pine and eucalyptus,” says Mikkelsen. “Most people now admit that was a mistake. Now the type of land people value is the grassland and oak vegetation mosaic that you get with ranch land, with open grassland on the hills, and oaks and bays in the ravines. But we’re less certain if people like cattle grazing in the parks — we’re finding that people are divided on that.”

According to environmentalists, that’s an understatement. The Berkeley office of the Center for Biological Diversity has been leading the fight to curb grazing in the parks, and the group filed suit along with the Alameda Creek Alliance three years ago challenging eleven of the district’s grazing leases. “Each park has a land-use plan, and grazing should be addressed in those,” argues the center’s Jeff Miller. “But the vast majority of those land-use plans mention grazing only in a single sentence or single paragraph, with no mention of the environmental impacts. And since those land-use plans were prepared, a lot of new species have been listed on the threatened and endangered lists, and there has been new research on the impacts of grazing on trout and amphibians. So we sued under the California Environmental Quality Act, saying, ‘You need to programmatically analyze and mitigate your grazing policy.'”

Environmentalists hit a brick wall, though, when an unsympathetic judge dismissed the lawsuit in a curt three-sentence ruling. “The court refused to allow us to introduce expert testimony from biologists,” says Miller. “We could only use existing records, and, of course, the park has not accumulated any scientific research. So we’ve set about to give the park district scientific data on the impacts of grazing. It’s now in the administrative record if we pursue further legal action. And what we’re finding, especially from before-and-after photos at Sycamore Valley, is that the environmental damage is devastating.”

But finding scientific data specific to the East Bay is difficult. While the effect of cattle grazing on federal lands in the arid Southwest has been the subject of significant study and debate over the years, that research has for the most part focused on the negative impact of grazing on stream areas. Still, even the US Forest Service has found that grazing is the key reason why species are listed as endangered throughout the Southwest.

On federal land, the debate is intensified by the hefty federal subsidies that allow ranchers — for the most part wealthy hobbyists or giant corporations — to graze cattle at prices wildly under market value. That tax dollars go to help an industry destroy public lands has sparked strong reactions among environmentalists. But the disparity in grazing fees does not apply to EBRPD lands, where leases are comparable to those on private lands of the same feed quality. An even greater gap between the much-studied rangelands of the Southwest and the parklands administered by the EBRPD lies in the difference in terrains. The park district oversees ecosystems ranging from arid hills to wetlands; rainfall varies from only sixteen inches per year on some dry highlands to up to thirty inches closer to the bay. This diversity can narrow the difference between well-managed grazing and overgrazing. According to Budzinski, average stocking level in the parks is about one acre per cow per month. “But that is misleading,” concedes Mikkelsen, “because cows are herd animals. They congregate, and that’s where you get impacts — when you have too many cattle not moving around. And if cattle move through a trail, they’re going to mess it up, and hikers don’t like that.”

It’s possible, park officials say, that the unsightly conditions that have enraged environmentalists are actually exceptions, places where range managers are in the process of changing grazing levels or reacting to herd preferences. Range management is largely reactive: Range managers measure the amount of grass left on a property at the end of the grazing season, and put that measurement in a formula that also takes into account soil type and expected rainfall to determine the stocking levels for the next year. “We have the stocking levels down to where we’re pretty accurate from year to year,” says Budzinski, “but if, say, all of a sudden January rolls around and it stops raining, then you’re in a situation where you have to start making decisions about reducing the numbers of cattle.”

As for site-specific solutions, like fencing out delicate riparian areas, Budzinski takes a wait-and-see approach: “If a creek is completely run down and the banks are trampled and the plants are pedestaled — that is, there’s been such heavy trampling that the plants are growing on clumps of dirt — then it’s time to fence out the creek,” he says. “But we still won’t keep the cattle out permanently, because the area will still need vegetation management.”

For wildlife advocates, protecting riparian areas is an absolute must — in fact, it’s just a starting point. According to US Fish and Wildlife Services’ reports, livestock grazing is a key threat to the red-legged frog, a local species facing extinction as it loses more and more of its streambed habitat. “Peer-reviewed, scientific articles have shown that cows trample and eat vegetation, and that vegetation is important to the riparian ecosystem,” Miller says. “It shades the stream and keeps the temperature cool, it holds the banks together, and it traps insects which are food for other animals. Plus, cows erode the bank, increasing silt, which smothers amphibian and fish eggs and fills pools with sediment. When cows defecate in the stream, they increase the nutrient load, which leads to algae blooms.

“And in areas where there’s been heavy grazing for years, it actually changes the morphology of the stream channel — from an incised, narrow-cut stream with overhanging banks to a wider, flatter stream. And with that, the temperature goes up, the habitat goes down, and when you get rain, instead of water slowly percolating in, you get flash wash-outs because you have compacted soils and no vegetation to slow the water down.”

Again, most of these studies were performed in the high west — Utah, Colorado, and western Oregon — but Miller argues that they’re relevant nonetheless. “The impacts we’re talking about — the trampling of streambeds, thermal pollution — really are not ecosystem dependent. Those are physical impacts, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in an arid climate or not. Sure, some ecosystems might rebound better, but whether they do or not is irrelevant if you keep the cattle stocked at such high levels that they’re continually causing problems.”

Studies have also found that grazing or overgrazing negatively affects a multitude of other critters, including the endangered Alameda whipsnake and fairy shrimp, steelhead trout, western pond turtles, and the Bay checkerspot butterfly. Though the Center for Biological Diversity has submitted a stack of reports to the parks, environmentalists worry that anecdotal evidence is being substituted for peer-reviewed scientific study. Park staffer Bobzien, for example, completed a study of red-legged frog habitat that has been cited by the district as evidence that there is no statistical difference between wetland frog populations on grazed land and that not grazed; Bobzien himself admits, though, that this work was more anecdotal than empirical, as well as being incomplete. “Frankly, for us to really nail down this grazing issue, we’d have to study it for thirty years,” he says. Sue Bainbridge, a researcher at UC Berkeley’s Jepson Herbarium, has been working with state park officials collecting data on changes to the ecology on Mount Diablo. She confesses to watching the EBRPD grazing review with trepidation. “I found their grazing review report really scary, because there’s a tendency to put things out there that haven’t been shown with actual science,” she says. “Some of the reports are speculation. When you actually go and say, ‘Where are the data, the numbers; what’s the experimental design?’ it’s not there. And on the other hand, there’s certainly plenty of good evidence to suggest that cattle grazing is harmful to riparian areas.”

But for some upland species, like the endangered San Joaquin kit fox, research suggests that grasses left high would be detrimental. In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service actually requires the district to run some kind of grass management program — like grazing — on certain parcels specifically to protect the kit fox. “Unless you find some other way to keep land as habitat — you could return it to native grasslands, but that would be hugely expensive — you have to simply mimic the natural conditions,” says Heather Bell, a senior biologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species program. “When you use cattle as a management tool, you can recreate the conditions that the kit fox would have had. Natural isn’t natural anymore.”

In some ways, this is the crux of the issue: How can parklands best serve nature in a highly altered environment? Bell’s position is echoed by EBRPD staffers: “Cattle grazing has been here since the 1750s when the Spaniards colonized California,” says Mikkelsen. “And for better or for worse, all the rare endangered species on grasslands have adapted to cattle over the past 150 to 250 years. So when you want to come in and consciously alter that system, you have to do it in a way that does not eliminate or eradicate species. If all cattle were taken off the range, the natural evolution of the landscape in the Bay Area would be from grassland to chaparral, and, at least on the north and east faces, eventually to trees. That would remove habitat for the species that depend on grasslands, like the red-legged frog, the Alameda whipsnake, the tiger salamander, and the kit fox.”

The district’s policy, Budzinski says, is to work within existing conditions. “In Round Valley, for example: When we acquired that property, we found that a healthy population of red-legged frogs had been existing with the cattle for years,” he says. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it? If the streams are teaming with frogs when there are cattle there, there’s no sense in spending money or doing anything that might alter the dynamics of what’s happening out there. So, there’s no protection of that creek, because it obviously didn’t need it.”

For environmentalists, that’s just not good enough. “When you read the park’s mission statement,” says Schneider, “there’s a real environmental vision. Their charter is to preserve. But the reality of the parks is much different. What happens is they go in and graze these parks and destroy them.” He points to Mount Diablo as a model for how the district can navigate the tricky path to a state of nature.

“There are areas that have always been grassland at Diablo, but they probably would have been a different grassland before cattle grazing was introduced by Europeans,” says Joanne Kerbavaz, senior resource ecologist for California State Parks. “There were herbivores that were important in these system like tule elk, that are no longer here, that would have grazed differently than cattle do. Then you add in Native American activity, which probably meant more burning than we see occurring naturally. And there are a lot of alien species on the mountain because of the introduction of grazing. So it’s real complex to determine what a natural system would be, but we prefer to use a process that more closely mimics the natural, like prescribed burning. There will be some winners and some losers in that. Some natives will drop out of a system if there’s not disturbances [like cattle grazing] keeping their competitors at bay; and grazing would keep land in grasslands that would perhaps, in a natural occurrence, go towards coastal scrub — and there are different animals that exist in either regime. The bottom line for state parks is that we try to manage for a natural process. We try to avoid a manipulation that favors certain species. We would rather see the biodiversity that results from that natural process.”

For now, it’s unlikely that EBRPD will head in this direction. Although the district did host an open review of its grazing policy, key grazing opponents called the process a sham and dropped out after the first few meetings. As a result, tensions have only intensified. Still, some changes to the way parkland grazing is handled have been instituted; in an effort to shift the burden from a centralized range manager to staff who spend more time on the ground, park rangers are now involved in monitoring grazing impacts in the parks. And Mikkelsen says he’s been directed to do a better job of monitoring important grassland species. “We’re in the process of preparing our budget, and we will be putting in for staff and resources to expand grassland monitoring and restoration programs,” he says. “We would like a pilot study for five parks over the next year, and then apply that in more parks.”

Meanwhile the anti-grazing movement may be gathering steam. The Sierra Club recently took a more active stand than it has in the past; early this year the bay chapter finalized a position paper on grazing in EBRPD lands that called for a thorough environmental review of the grazing program as a whole. The position paper would place squarely on the shoulders of the park district the burden “to establish with reasonable scientific certainty that nonnative herbivore grazing will achieve the desired ecological objectives.”

“Absent that showing,” the paper concludes, “grazing should be prohibited.”

“An environmental review is not the be-all and end-all for us,” says Miller. “It’s just the minimum. What we’re talking about here is public land. What is the purpose of our open space in the East Bay? Is a private, commercial activity like ranching the best and highest use for our land? I would say no. Fundamentally, that is not a proper use of our public resources. I would argue that the highest use should be to restore these lands, as much as possible, to natural conditions, so people have a place where they can experience a natural ecosystem, be inspired and reconnect.

“In the end it comes down to what you want your parks to look like — criss-crossed with rows, barbed wire, and domestic cattle, or like a natural landscape?”

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