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.
All of the above resulted in abandonment of the land by ranchers who could no longer make a living in cattle ranching.
But starting about a decade ago, and more formally four years ago, the SCS began exploring solutions with the collaboration of the Glenn County and Stony Ford Conservation Districts. Other agencies participated, including Cooperative Extension Service farm advisers from the University of California, the US Forest Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game.
"We basically found that most of our symptoms were a direct result of ignorance in the way the land, vegetation, and herding were managed," says Wendell Gilgert, district conservationist for the SCS. "We realized that some consciousness-raising was needed along with a formal project approach."
The feature that sets California's model apart from similar experiments in other states is the mandatory educational component.
In addition to matching funds for such things as fencing, seed, and access roads, organizers realized that ranchers needed to understand such basics as how to manage controlled burning of chamiso bushes that were choking out other plant life; how to move cattle from pasture to pasture during different seasons (for example, moving away from softer soils when they are wet so as not to compact the dirt); and how to keep them away from noxious seeding weeds or from too-lush grasses.
"Each rancher has a different set of circumstances and must interpret the model individually," says Leonard Jolley, state range conservationist for the SCS in California. "The dramatic increases in livestock, wildlife, plant life, and water dynamics have completely changed the nature of the entire area."
Of about 120 area ranchers, 30 are signed up for the 10-year program, which makes them eligible for up to $100,000 in matching revenues, contingent upon participation in the field seminars.
To demonstrate some results, Mr. Gilgert parks his blue Ford Bronco on the eastern slope of the Coast Range Mountains here and leads his visitors into the foothills. Branching into a steep meadow, he tugs on the deep roots of perla grass and needle grass, both perennial plants with stronger roots than the brome grass that had overtaken much of the area.
"Because of the aerated soil, the water stays on the land longer, and when it moves off, it doesn't carry soil particles with it," Gilgert says. He points to the hoof prints of grazing cattle that have helped provide a soft pocket for the grass seed to take hold.
"There is a movement all around the West that doesn't want livestock on the land," Gilgert says. "But if managed properly, cows and other herds can be a great asset. Building a successful business around them allows ranchers to stay on the land, become its steward, and help it bloom for other plant life and wildlife."