Bay Nature magazineApril-June 2007

Farming and Ranching

Letter from the Publisher

April 1, 2007

About 15 years ago, I took a solo backpack trip in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness near Ebbets Pass in the Sierra. On the first morning, camped beside a small lake, I was awakened—much too early!—by the sound of moos and bells, and emerged from my tent to find dozens of cows in and around the lake. When I returned to camp that evening after a day hike, the cows were still there. I was, to say the least, furious, and chased them away; but their darn bells kept me awake all night. On returning home I fired off an indignant letter to the Forest Service demanding to know by whose definition this could be called wilderness!

I say all this to establish my bona fides as a card-carrying member of the No Cows in Wilderness Society. My general take on cows in public open space has been decidedly dyspeptic: They’re ugly, they trash streams and ponds, they turn hiking trails into mud, they inhibit oak tree regeneration, and they leave cow pies under shady trees. I’ve rejoiced whenever a park agency, like Mount Diablo State Park in 1990, moved to evict cows.

But lately I’ve had to rethink my position. Oh, they’re still ugly. And I cursed at them during a recent walk at Briones Regional Park, while slogging and slipping through a muddy portion of cow-trampled trail. But take a look at our story on page 18, which references a ten-year study recently completed by the East Bay Regional Park District on the impact of cows on life in ponds. The result? Ponds from which cows were excluded hosted fewer threatened amphibians than ponds where cows were allowed. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to believe this. I visited ponds of both types at Briones, and I much prefer those with clear water and lush vegetation to those with muddy banks pounded by cows. But if California tiger salamanders have a different opinion, who am I to object? Amphibian biodiversity probably trumps personal aesthetics.

I have to admit these findings make some sense. The tiger salamander and red-legged frog evolved here along with large herds of ungulates, such as tule elk, and there were no agency personnel to fence them out of creeks. Botanists have made similar findings about wildflowers: In grasslands where no grazing occurs, more aggressive nonnative grasses can out-compete natives. But in some places when cows graze back the exotics, the native wildflowers have a fighting chance. Of course, it would have been preferable to leave the elk and pronghorn in place to begin with, and never introduce cheatgrass and ripgut brome. But that horse is way out of the barn, and (to mix metaphors) we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.

And so it appears that cattle, properly managed (and that’s key), can be one tool—along with controlled burns, fences, volunteer weeders, etc.—in the land manager’s toolbox for promoting biodiversity in open spaces. Keep this in mind when you’re out enjoying this year’s wildflowers. Who knows, maybe you have a cow to thank for that lovely field of tidytips!

About the Author

From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.

This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.

Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column "Field Reports."

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