Nearly two thirds of the 120,000 acres of parkland in the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) are leased to cattle-grazing interests, under the oversight of park managers. Grazing policies have an important impact on plant habitat, riparian areas, the preservation of native species, and sediment runoff into San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, current grazing policies aren’t adequately protecting our public resources.
Starting in the late 1980s, environmentalists fought to protect grassland and mixed woodlands from the impacts of overgrazing. After years of discussion, a détente was reached among EBRPD, academics, and environmentalists who all agreed to work together on a compromise plan. EBRPD staff and an eight-member Range Management Technical Advisory Committee that included ranchers, academics, park staff, and environmentalists released the “Wildland Management Policies and Guidelines” policy statement in 1992. The document was redrafted in 2001 “to better protect riparian areas, to improve monitoring and restoration activities, to improve conditions for park users, to encourage alternative management techniques, and to improve public understanding about grassland management.”
In the 15 years since, drought conditions have prevailed in Northern California and are ongoing, without historical precedent in terms of duration and intensity. With ecosystems subject to severe stress, environmental stakeholders must join together again to reconfigure grazing policies and practices to face the new epoch of climate extremes. The science of range management has progressed and changed, with a better understanding of interdependencies, a growing acceptance of the use of fire as a management tool, and better economic models for managing open-space preserves.
Grazing licenses set forth management policies for each grazing contractor, and are revised annually. Their objective is to leave enough dry vegetation on the ground to protect the pasture from loss of topsoil, prevent sediment runoff, and retain moisture. Each contract specifies a minimum amount of vegetation, the mass of Residual Dry Matter (RDM) in the pasture at the end of the dry season in early fall. The requirement is greater than 1,000 pounds per acre (10.41 grams per square foot), usually between 6 and 8 inches of standing grass.
Traditional grazing practices such as high-herd densities and year-round intensive foraging are not adapted to intense drought conditions, as shown by widespread shortfalls in Residual Dry Matter measurements. This indicates that grazing management has failed to keep pace with environmental changes and evolving science. Traditional practices have stripped vegetation, terraced steep hillsides, and trampled riparian habitats. In some areas of the EBRPD you can see evidence of cattle damaging wetlands, encroaching on busy trails, and stripping grasslands to less than six inches of dry grass. Overgrazing of grassland creates a bare appearance, like a golf course without the putting greens, interspersed with patches of dense, prickly non-native thistle. Practices that cause such degradation of our public parkland must change.
Maintaining adequate forage cover lessens erosion, increases soil permeability to store moisture, and reduces evaporation losses. Grasslands found throughout the East Bay Regional Park District must be managed as public landscapes to serve diverse stakeholders, including threatened native species. The environmental community should have several seats at the table as the EBRPD Wildland Management Policies and Guidelines are redrafted.