Soil-Management Lessons Help California Ranchers Federally Funded Program Teaches Conservation Methods to Owners

Article excerpt

ARE grazing animals a help or hindrance to the land that supports them?

Do their hoofs destroy existing plants and pack the soil, making dirt impervious to sprouting seeds and causing deleterious erosion? Or can the four-footed action of cattle and sheep, even deer, actually aid the development of better grazing land by aerating the soil to provide a spongy quality that holds vegetation?

The results of a remarkable project here - the first of its kind in California, with a feature that is different from similar programs elsewhere - suggest that the conventional wisdom on the damaging effects of hoofed animals may need to be revised.

Ranchers are turning around long-term trends of dwindling plant life and wildlife in this drought-scorched state by monitoring and controlling the foraging habits of cattle herds, moving them with the aid of less-stressful means such as whistles and electric fences (instead of herding them with horses or motorcycles), and paying close attention to the types of grasses cultivated for feed.

Their achievements, agricultural observers say, may have broad implications for ranchers from Iowa to the Sudan.

"The idea is that humans have to become involved managers of their own resources to make the best use of what nature gives them," says Jay Collins, assistant state conservationist of water resources for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Soil Conservation Service (SCS).

Starting in about 1983, with more formal plans crystalizing about four years ago, the Upper Stony Creek Watershed Project began offering area ranchers matching financial aid for fencing, roads, wells, and erosion abatements. But the funds are contingent upon the ranchers' participation in field studies on how to burn brush, properly seed new fields, and choreograph cattle movements to use the land beneficially.

Acknowledging that there are other programs like this in the US that emphasize such conservation methods over the more costly building of levees, dams, and bigger reservoirs, Mr. Collins says, "This is the first and only with a mandatory educational element attached." (See story, right.)

The project, which is administered by the SCS, covers approximately 250,000 acres (about 25 miles by 15 miles) in southwestern Glenn and northeastern Colusa Counties. The land is primarily used for grazing. About 45 percent is brush land, and about 33 percent is woodland: conifers and oak. Oak savannah and grasslands cover about 20 percent, and the remaining 1.5 percent is cropland and water.

As long as 20 years ago, several environmental agencies began noting major problems: Land overforaged because of livestock distribution; poorly distributed, poor-quality, and insufficient water; diminishing plant diversity; poor wildlife habitat; and soil prone to erosion and sedimentation. In areas next to streams, lowered water tables resulted in degraded stream channels and sparse vegetation, including few trees. …