Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Federal Lands Grazing

One of my friends is a multi-approach farmer. He raises sheep and goats for meat, uses a mule for farm power and grows an array of summer vegetables. He is also the man in charge of conservation efforts for the Nevada County Land Trust. In a recent discussion about land use, we touched on the effects of managed grazing on local landscapes, and how important they are for a variety of reasons: brush (and fire load) management, fertilizing the soil, and generally providing control of many invasive species. In fact, I was surprised to learn that part of the conservation efforts in Bear Valley, part of the Cache Creek watershed northwest of Davis, requires the regular grazing by cows as part of the land trust easement requirements. They found otherwise that the invasive grasses outcompeted the wildflowers native to the region.

I was surprised that the discussion of public lands lease rates did not come up, and it has given me some pause. I don’t know about other part of the country, but our local foothills generally benefit from managed grazing. For example, another friend introduced meat goats onto his third generation timber lands, and mitigated the need for extensive brush clearing using mechanical and chemical control methods. The goats not only control the brush, but fertilize the ground at the same time, providing a nice trade of inputs and outputs. Finally, the goats can also be sold as a meat commodity.

Locally, many people “rent” herds of sheep or goats to come and graze the brush to minimize fire fuel loads and create the mandated fire breaks around their homes and properties. It occurred to me that not only do people pay for this service, that it could be argued that BLM and the US Forest Service might also need to pay service fees to the herd owners who provide such a valuable land management tool. This could theoretically off set the need for land lease rates, making the exchange commensurate.

According to a report from the Counsil for Agriculture Science and Technology, “the positive roles of animals in environmental conservation is usually overlooked. Grazing mitigates plant communities, can be managed to sustain or enhance desirable plants and be neutral or benefical to watersheds and wildlife.” (Animal Agriculture and Global Food Supply, pg 5)

However, the according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) report, "National Animal Agriculture Conservation Framework, " the 2002 Farm Bill sought to establish conservation services. However, the financial needs of bill would exceed available funding. The bill would provide producer assistance to improve their operations' environmental performance through free or low-cost services, while trying to find additional funding from public investments. This sounds suspiciously to me like charging people for doing what they are already doing, and paying farms that need to the most change to make the changes.

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