This page last updated February 08, 2009
The Year Ned's Cattle Came To
The previous section gave at least ten examples of why cattle's grazing is hazardous to the ecological health of a wildland area. However, I would like to specifically address the five common justifications mentioned in section 9 (see page 9) for the use of cattle grazing as an acceptable public wildlands management policy.
The often-touted concept that cows are the answer to producing lush grasslands of unsurpassed beauty lacks substance in my opinion. There are acres and acres and acres of lush grasslands in California that are not subjected to cattle grazing. In many instances Mother Nature has sole responsibility for these lands and she does extremely well without the assistance of cattle. The hills of the SVRP have been lush and green every spring for as long as I can remember without the assistance of Ned's cattle. If cattle grazing is such an effective concept then why aren't herds of cattle everywhere there is open space?
What proponents of this policy must consider is not just the after-effect of the cattle grazing (i.e. lush grasslands) but what is the impact that these cattle have on the surrounding ecosystems while they perform their grazing activities?
In the literature by proponents of cattle grazing there are consistent references to the days of old. For example in the Wildlands Management Policies & Guidelines document prepared by the EBRPD there is the following statement:
" A short 10,000 years ago, vast herds of native horses, grazing mammoths, elk, bison, scrub ox, and woodland musk ox grazed on what are now EBRPD lands."
The claim is that these animals contributed to preserving the floristic diversity of the East Bay. There seems to be some inference in such statements that these animals had some innate intelligence when it came to consuming vegetation regardless of where they might be roaming. I contend that these animals would indiscriminately eat whatever appealed to them and as a result would have dictated the floristic diversity of an area and not preserved what might have been there before they arrived on the scene.
Regardless, the relevance of what happened 10,000 years ago at the SVRP lands seems moot. In a metropolitan area such as the San Francisco Bay Area, it is my understanding that the EBRPD is acquiring the open-space wildlands with a goal of preserving it as it exists today, so that the general public can enjoy these lands for their recreational use. Highly populated areas surround most of these wildlands and they may or may not have had grazing exposure prior to the EBRPD acquiring them for the public. If the intent is to preserve, how does the introduction of cattle on virgin areas (i.e. areas that do not exhibit typical characteristics of land that has been grazed such as hoof imprints), such as the SVRP, result in any element of preservation?
One final point with regard to the animals that roamed 10,000 years ago. These animals were not surrounded by a barbed wire fence and most likely did not spend months grazing a small 500-acre area such as the SVRP. The resulting effects of these ancient grazers therefore cannot be compared to the situation that exists with Ned's cattle at SVRP.
One of the premier arguments in favor of cattle grazing is that cattle can promote the proliferation of native plants. This statement is a very interesting one. First of all, who determines what is native? Second, who has made the decision that certain plant species that arrive on EBRPD wildlands through natural processes, such as being carried by the wind from surrounding areas, are to be considered non-native and exterminated?
With regard to the first point, there probably would be considerable contention between experts as to which of the dozens of species of plants that might be found in an area like the SVRP are the native ones. Is there just one true native or are there many true natives that coexisted? This seems so subjective. If this is an indeterminate issue among humans, how is it that cattle are able to make the definitive determination?
With regard to the second point, realize that our earth is in a constant state of flux. In the SVRP area you can see a marked change in the species that grow depending upon weather conditions. It has been my observation that if the rain lasts late into the spring, different species of wildflowers and grasses will make themselves present. Or for example, this year cooler spring weather lasted well into June. This has dramatically changed the amounts and types of vegetation in certain riparian areas in and around the park.
To attempt to characterize any one area's landscape as so static that one can definitively identify non-native plants seems extremely difficult, especially for a cow. This statement is made somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as proponents of cattle grazing do not really expect the cattle to sort this out. They simply want the cattle to remove the accumulations of dead plant material on the grasslands. This action, proponents contend, enhances the growth of native plants but apparently not the non-native plants.
While the existence of non-native plant growth provides one of the principal justifications stated by the EBRPD (see 3/5/99 letter in Appendix B) for having a grazing program, severe accumulations of dead plant material on the SVRP grasslands is a rare occurrence. Accumulation of dead plant material is natural in California because of the lack of summer rainfall and the predominantly hot temperatures. Most of the vegetation that germinates in the spring dries out and dies by the end of June. The majority of this dead plant material has little effect on the growth of new plants when the rains return in the late fall. Even though the severe accumulation of dead plant material is rare, the cattle are given full roaming rights to all areas of the park. So Ned's cattle intensely searched for these infrequent patches of accumulated dead plant material in order to save the native plants. However, any positive benefit that they might have achieved was more than outweighed by the negative impact of their presence in the area.
Another term that is frequently used in conjunction with the native/non-native species issue is plant diversity. These two concepts seem contradictory in the context of this discussion. How does the elimination of the non-native vegetation from an area promote plant diversity? The only way this concept would be consistent is if one were to take the extremist view that non-natives are completely overtaking the natives, allowing no other species to coexist. Such extreme conditions are not apparent in the SVRP.
The explanation from cattle grazing proponents of how grazing promotes plant diversity is vague and non-specific. Mr. Ray Budzinski, the individual responsible for implementing the EBRPD Grazing Program, states (see 3/5/99 letter in Appendix B):
"Research has demonstrated that moderate intensities of grazing and trampling can increase plant diversity by decreasing the ability of the non-native vegetation to dominate and exclude other species. A managed grazing program directed toward removing a portion of each year's vegetative growth opens up the plant canopy and admits light, which favors a higher diversity of plants."
What is interesting about this statement is the suggestion that opening the plant canopy favors a higher diversity of plants. I contend that, contrary to Mr. Budzinski's preceding statement that grazing decreases the ability of non-native vegetation to dominate, opening the canopy will likely promote the growth of non-native vegetation as well. Consider the star thistle, specifically targeted by the EBRPD as a pest plant species. This plant normally does not come into full bloom until late June or early July, after the native grasses have dried out. Since cattle grazing reduces the height of the native grasses, it is quite possible that grazing is facilitating the growth of the star thistle!
In any event, whether one is considering the native/non-native species issue or the plant diversity issue, it is difficult to truly see the relevant connection between these two issues and necessity for cattle grazing. In my opinion both of these are very weak arguments in favor of grazing given the examples of negative side effects that were illustrated in the previous section.
The Wildlands Management Policies & Guidelines document identifies about a dozen species of pest plants. It is interesting that most of the "pest" plants identified are those with thorns. Some of those identified, such as the artichoke thistle, create some beautiful flowers in the spring. When I met Ned one morning at SVRP he had indicated that he had chopped down some of the artichoke thistle. I had noticed this along the trail before I met him that morning. If these plants are not in the middle of a trail where they could be a nuisance, why are some so willing to exterminate them? The artichoke thistle plants are few and far between at SVRP. They are there every year but have not managed to go out of control and take over the park by any stretch of the imagination.
This is really getting off the topic of this report. The only reason I bring up the issue of pest plants is that the EBRPD has indicated that they will use grazing as an active management technique against shrub encroachment. One of the specific encroachers is coyote brush. There is not a lot of coyote brush in the SVRP. There are only a few individual shrubs in the whole park and they cannot be considered encroachers in the context of the EBRPD document. I presented pictures earlier of one shrub that was nearly chewed down to the ground. In my opinion, these few shrubs add beauty to the park and should not be grazed by the cattle. This is just another example of the indiscriminate consumption of vegetation that should be protected by the EBRPD. The cattle have no way of discriminating other than by their palates. For this reason the validity of using cattle grazing as an active management technique for these types of problems is highly questionable.
Cattle grazing proponents often use Fire Hazard Reduction as one of the principal justifications for the use of cattle grazing. Mr. Budzinski of the EBRPD states in his letter (3/5/99 - see Appendix B):
"Livestock grazing is also used to reduce dangerous fire hazards by controlling the proliferation of grasses and other vegetative fuels, which is an important consideration in the management of park land near residential areas."
This is certainly a valid reason for using grazing if indeed the wildlands were left in a state where the amount of highly flammable dry vegetation was significantly reduced after the grazing season so that there was no longer a fire hazard. However, if the cattle only reduce the amount of potential fuels in randomly specific areas but there still exists a significant fire risk in the park then this is NOT a valid justification for using cattle grazing as a wildlands management technique. It then only becomes an excuse to justify the cattle's presence.
Mr. Budzinski of the EBRPD further states in the same letter:
"Land use and vegetation changes over the past two centuries have irreversibly altered the landscape, making it necessary to use management techniques to maintain an ecological balance between native and non-native vegetation and to achieve wildland fire safety objectives."
While he alludes to wildland fire safety objectives, the specifics of such objectives are not defined in available documentation. The Wildlands Management Policies & Guidelines document discusses Fire Hazard Reduction but the specific fire safety objectives are lacking.
So, while proponents of cattle grazing may provide valid arguments for the use of cattle to reduce fire hazards, the EBRPD has failed to show that this is a valid reason for their use of cattle in this regard within the SVRP. A more important consideration with regard to this issue is the increased fire risk to residents of Danville who live close to the park.
When I set out on this path of attempting to create an awareness of the damage that cattle caused in the SVRP, I simply was responding to the apparent lack of acceptance by the EBRPD that there truly is a problem. After several phone calls and two attempts by letter (EBRPD responses to these two letters can be found in Appendix B) I found this organization unwilling to accept that perhaps there might be a problem. It is apparent they have become insensitive to these issues because they are now acclimated to such damage. But my perspective was different; I was only acclimated to the natural state of this park after hiking in it for many years. The deterioration that I witnessed in as little as two weeks after the cattle were introduced was nothing less than shocking. I thought I was in a bad dream, I could not believe this was really happening. I was outraged.
The purpose of the remainder of this section is to try and summarize what I have learned and to perhaps raise the awareness of others that this policy of cattle grazing must be reassessed. If after such a reassessment it is decided that this policy is warranted (not possibly justifiable), then stricter controls on its use must be put into place.
What was most disturbing was the response I received from the EBRPD to the situation that existed in the SVRP. This response can be found in the Appendix B (letter dated 3/5/99). In the second to the last paragraph Mr. Budzinski responds to my concerns with the following:
"I was unable to discern any 'severe damage' to the trails (or surrounding lands) when I conducted my inspection of the property after we spoke on the telephone."
This is an example of how desensitized the EBRPD is to all of the issues I have identified in this report. How could I have such an adverse reaction to what was happening and Mr. Budzinski see nothing? (A point of interest here is that while Mr. Budzinski found nothing, he did contact Ned, who soon after re-graded portions of the trails on several occasions throughout the winter and spring. This grading of the trails prior to the beginning of June had never occurred during the many years that I had been hiking on these lands. Why was this special grading necessary if there was no damage?) There is something seriously wrong with the program. If you review the EBRPD 1997 Master Plan they certainly "talk the talk" of preservation and ecological responsibility. Unfortunately they do not "walk the walk".
The EBRPD Wildlands Management Policies & Guidelines document outlines guidelines for Monitoring and Evaluation Standards for the grazing program. Apparently these guidelines are not being adhered to. If you read their document and the results that have been documented here you will understand the apparent disconnect. One significant element that is missing from these Monitoring and Evaluation Standards guidelines is developing a thorough record of the state of public lands before they introduce a program that is as controversial as cattle grazing. Otherwise how else can you assess the impact of such a program? If all you have as a basis for comparison are the other already-damaged parks, how can an accurate assessment be made? This is indicative of Mr. Budzinski's inability to discern any damage in his response above.
I attempted to raise my concerns again by letter. No further dialog was offered other than "we have nothing more to add to our first response". It was clear I was not going to make any further headway. My only option at that point was to document the conditions in the park and share them with those who would take the time to read this report, hoping that maybe they would see my perspective on this issue.
To close on the topic of EBRPD insensitivity to cattle grazing issues I wanted to comment on one of Mr. Budzinski's quotes in his 3/5/99 letter. I found it very interesting that the EBRPD takes the position that:
"Land use and vegetation changes over the past two centuries have irreversibly altered the landscape, making it necessary to use management techniques to maintain an ecological balance between native and non-native vegetation..."
What the EBRPD needs to consider is that they may also be irreversibly altering the landscape with their grazing policy. My exposure to the damage at SVRP has provided me with a heightened awareness that now makes it easy to spot the cattle damage that exists in other EBRPD parks that allow cattle grazing (which is nearly all of them).
When I embarked upon trying to get someone in the EBRPD to acknowledge there might be a problem, I had no idea that this was such a controversial issue. I quickly found out from other sources that ranchers and environmentalists have been debating this issue for a long time.
As I reviewed the book Beyond the Rangeland Conflict I found that positive steps are being taken by both sides in order to understand each other's positions on this issue. Perhaps the most significant thing I learned as I read both sides of this issue is that ranchers seem to only positively identify with the "after-effects" of grazing while the environmentalists are concerned with both the "immediate & after-effects" of grazing. In the book just mentioned there are numerous pictures showing how the land looks many months after grazing has stopped. Often the "after" result is very compelling. However, after looking through this book I became suspicious after noting that in the two instances where they used before and after pictures for comparison (p.43 and p.95), they did not appear to be of the same place. While only considering the long-term after-effects may be acceptable on private grazing lands; it is not acceptable for public lands such as those managed by the EBRPD.
The rancher's perspective appears to be that they accept the negative aspects (they do not refer to them as such) of grazing while it is occurring because in the long term everything will be OK. Throughout the book Beyond the Rangeland Conflict pictures are used to make their point. The problem with this method of illustrating why grazing is good is that you are unable to stand on that land and feel the hoof imprints or see the disfigured riparian areas because they are now overgrown and all you see is the "lush" vegetation.
The environmentalist also considers immediate effects for a number of reasons. First of all, they are frequently the users of public wildlands. Secondly, they have a respect for the inherent beauty of the natural state of these lands and hope to recreationally experience them in that state. Finally, they are more sensitive to the intricate balance of nature. So the environmentalist is not just concerned with what it will look like months later, they are also concerned with negative aspects of the cattle grazing while it is occurring. Numerous examples of such negative aspects have been presented in this report.
Consider the situation with the SVRP. The taxpayers provided the funding for purchasing these wildlands with the understanding that they would reap some recreational benefit for doing so. I think you will agree that the benefit was heavily in favor of Ned and not the public. These lands had been accessible for 12 months out of the year before EBRPD began managing them. When I say accessible I mean that we had access to the trails and hillsides without having to hop the fence, or to tromp through ankle-deep mud and manure, or stumbling through hoof imprinted trails, or having to smell the stench of urine and manure-laden trails. These conditions persisted for most of the winter and spring.
It is unacceptable that the public takes second position to the cattle that destroy the beauty of the park. The public is also required to put up with the mess that cattle create for 7-8 months out of the year. I fail to see the benefit to the public of such a program when one objectively performs a cost-benefit analysis. The costs are very high with little benefit in return.
Ned would certainly disagree with that statement, as it's a great deal for his business. He enjoys partially subsidized grazing on public land. While he has finally removed the cattle for the hot summer months since the vegetation has stopped growing, it is most disturbing to walk through the park and find the mess that he left after closing the gate behind him.
Ranchers who use public lands should be held accountable for the mess their cattle create. They should also be responsible for continuous monitoring of where their cattle roam. Keeping them out of sensitive riparian areas as well as protecting vegetation that should not be consumed. Unfortunately some of the damage situations illustrated with pictures in the previous sections would be unavoidable. This has to again be considered in any cost-benefit analysis.
My primary goal in writing this report was the hope that future parklands can be saved from cattle grazing damage, preferably by not introducing cattle at all. Given that might not be the choice of the EBRPD, I can only hope that cattle grazing could be introduced into a new park area in a more responsible and scientific manner. The EBRPD Wildlands Management Policies & Guidelines document outlines guidelines for Monitoring and Evaluation Standards for the grazing program. It is clear that considerable thought went into producing this document and defining the guidelines. What I would question is how well are these guidelines enforced? It would be interesting to examine the historical record that the EBRPD has accumulated since the cattle were introduced into the SVRP. What is the scientific assessment derived from the EBRPD Forage Utilization, Range Analysis & Range Monitoring guidelines? I would be surprised if any such analysis exists. I would also ask is there another EBRPD document that prescribes how to specifically implement each of these guidelines or is implementation arbitrary?
In closing I offer the following suggestions and recommendations:
EBRPD - East Bay Regional Park District
SVRP - Sycamore Valley Regional Park
FORAGE - All browse and herbaceous food that is available to livestock or wildlife.
RANGE ANALYSIS - Analysis of the land grazed by livestock.
The following quotes were obtained from a petition form that I circulated to known users of the SVRP. The petition included the following statement:
As a resident of the Danville area I am a user of the Sycamore Valley Regional Park. The recent introduction of cattle into this park has created unacceptable park conditions. I request that the EBRPD permanently cease all cattle grazing at this location.
The following quotes were written on the petition form as additional comments by the individuals noted:
"As a resident of Meadowcreek, I have used the park the past seven years for leisurely walks to escape the hustle and bustle around Tassajara. Since the arrival of the cattle, I have been unable to enjoy the quietness that the park used to offer, not mention the enjoyment of seeing wild turkey, coyotes, rabbits, deer and various bird species. It is truly a shame that the park is now used for cattle to graze rather than local residents to enjoy its beauty."