A New Tool for Conserving Oak Woodlands

Oaks ‘n Folks – Volume 14, Issue 1 – March, 1999

The California Rangeland Trust

While many questions exist regarding the effects of grazing on oak trees, the conversion of grazing lands to more intensive uses, including farming and urban and suburban development, is more likely to adversely affect native oaks. Efforts to protect oak woodlands through ordinances and community awareness campaigns probably have helped in the statewide effort to ensure that future generations will enjoy oak woodlands, but the California Cattleman’s Association has initiated something that may have an even greater beneficial effect. At the Cattleman’s convention in December 1997, members voted to establish the California Rangeland Trust (CRT), a non-profit corporation designed primarily to keep California’s rangelands in agriculture.

The CRT, still in the formative stage, soon will be offering a diversity of services to ranchers. These services are designed to keep ranchers in business and provide alternatives to liquidating ranches. Estate taxes often are a catalyst for families selling to developers. The CRT will assist ranching families in developing better estate plans and provide the alternative of selling just the development rights, rather than the entire ranch. The CRT board of directors currently is developing criteria for selecting projects for conservation easements. Some of the factors that will be considered and prioritized are development pressure on the ranch, scenic characteristics, biological values, the likelihood that other ranches could be joined with easements, riparian habitat, and the potential for the ranch to continue business after an easement is established. The existence of oak and other native woodlands inevitably will be important factors.

The need for ranchers to obtain capital is always great, but the death of a family member, or, simply, sustained operational losses, can create a financial crisis. The sale of a conservation easement to the CRT may be the best hope for many ranching families who want to maintain their way of life and preserve the family farm. Educational programs will include information on additional or alternative revenue sources, including the value of recreational opportunities. As California’s population continues to grow, ranchers should begin to recognize the value of undisturbed landscapes to those seeking experiences outside of their urban environment. Oak woodlands increasingly will be perceived as having great value to those ranchers who diversify into providing recreational opportunities. The sustained low prices of cattle and the crash in hog prices likely will expedite this type of diversification.

The CRT is not unique in offering to acquire development rights from willing donors and sellers, but its perspective is significantly different from other, well-known trusts. Many trusts are renowned for preserving lands for environmental purposes, including the cessation of existing human activities. The benefit of such protection to native grasses and trees can be substantial, but some evidence suggests that native vegetation evolved in the presence of grazing animals and are at a competitive advantage in the presence of such creatures. To be sure, cattle are not the same as mastodons, camels, ancient horses, and bison that once grazed here, but their use of the land may better reflect that historical use than if they are excluded entirely. The CRT will acquire development easements on rangleands while actively encouraging the responsible, continued grazing use of the property.

Perhaps even more importantly, until now, many ranchers have been leery of conservation easements for fear that their new partner will disapprove of their management practices and force expensive and unprofitable changes, or even the complete removal of livestock. The CRT is run by ranchers for ranchers, so more landowners should be willing to accept easements than ever before. This, in turn, may create the best opportunity yet to sustain and maintain our oak woodlands.

prepared and edited by Richard B. Standiford, Justin Vreeland, and Bill Tietje