hough Bay Nature Institute hasn’t moved from its West Berkeley office since it opened in 2000, we’re now in a new neighborhod. That’s because the area has recently been rebranded as the “Gilman District.” This once gritty industrial area in the northwest corner of Berkeley sports a brand new Whole Foods Market (complete with Allegro Coffee Roasters serving pour-over single-source coffee), across the street from the latest outpost of Philz Coffee (more pour-over), which is next door to the Kickstarter-funded Donut Dolly (open till 4:00 pm, but usually sold out by 3:00). The newest addition to this tasty line-up is Farmburger, a restaurant that features craft brews and burgers made of freshly ground, locally sourced, grass-fed beef, with posters educating diners about the ranches that supply it. There goes the neighborhood!
There’s nothing too surprising about this scene in the Bay Area circa 2015. But in working on this issue’s special section on rangelands and ranching, I found the contradiction hard to ignore: Just as demand for locally sourced beef is rising, the ability of local ranchers to produce it is going down. The soaring rents and real estate prices that make it difficult for young writers and families to live in the Mission (or Gilman) District also make it difficult for local ranchers—young and old—to keep ranching in west Marin or southern Santa Clara.
But hey, Bay Nature is a nature magazine; why should we care about this trend (beyond hoping that our rent doesn’t go up)? The answer has to do with a growing understanding of the role of rangelands as a significant component of Bay Area open space—40 percent of the land mass in the ten-county region. Think of the region’s iconic oak woodlands and grasslands, from the treeless rolling hills of eastern Solano to the foggy coastal prairies of the San Mateo coast.
I used to look at these beautiful landscapes and rue the fact that so many of them were “locked up” behind fences and “overrun” with cattle. These places should be open to the public! And even on some public lands, like Briones Regional Park near Orinda, there are cows that leave huge divots and “cow pies” on the trails and trample the aquatic vegetation by the ponds. Aren’t they harming this ecosystem?
So I was surprised to learn from a study done on East Bay Regional Park District land that populations of endangered red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders do better when cows have access to the stock ponds. And I started to understand how cattle might actually be filling the ecological niche in grasslands once occupied by herds of elk, bison, and antelopes.
Could it be that cattle grazing might be a net positive for some habitats? This seems like heresy to someone who has written letters protesting the presence of cattle in erstwhile wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada. I don’t even like cows—I prefer my animals wild and undomesticated, though I’ll admit to enjoying the occasional grass-fed burger. But I’m impressed by the science-based work done by conservation organizations in conjunction with local ranchers to figure out how rangelands can be managed to both enhance biodiversity and produce healthy food. And if the ranchers aren’t going to take care of this land, who will? Having them stay on the land as stewards seems preferable to having them sell out to developers of McMansions.
I’m sure that some readers will have concerns about our take on the role of ranching in open space stewardship. There is certainly a lot more to say about the topic and I invite your comments so we can continue the discussion online at baynature.org/rangelands. Whatever your perspective, I appreciate your being part of the community that cares passionately about the Bay Area’s extensive and diverse open space.