Lease noose tightens for cattle grazing as more land is set aside for protection

Capital Press Staff Writer

August 12, 2002

SACRAMENTO, CA - Grazing land in the Central Sierra Nevada foothills is becoming harder to find.

As more land is developed and more emphasis is put on protecting wildlife and water, competition for grazing leases has increased.

A recently released study shows that ranchers who lease land from the U.S. Forest Service in the Central Sierra plan to continue ranching despite increasing competition for foothill grazing areas.

“There’s a likelihood that leasing (grazing land) would become more difficult in the future,” said Lynn Huntsinger, a UC-Berkeley associate professor. Huntsinger was the principal author of the study “Sierran Grazing in Transition,” sponsored by the Sierra Nevada Alliance, California Rangeland Trust and the California Cattlemen’s Association.

“If ranchers lost (their leases) the preferred alternative would be to lease more land. But one-third of them would seriously consider selling the ranch altogether,” she said.

The research, which the coalition of agricultural and conservation groups released on July 30, determined that reductions in Forest Service grazing allotments would reduce a rancher’s income. Some ranchers would turn to leasing private foothill lands if they lost their federal allotments.

To complete the look at the role Forest Service grazing plays for foothill ranches in the state, the three agencies interviewed 23 ranchers in the Central Sierra Nevada foothills. Those ranchers use the Tahoe, Stanislaus and El Dorado National Forest lands for summer grazing.

To compare notes, the researchers also interviewed 14 ranchers who had similar herd sizes, but do not use federal grazing lands.

Generally, ranchers utilize forage in the higher elevation forest clearings, open forests and mountain meadows during the late spring and summer when lower elevation forage has dried up.

The surveyed ranchers estimate that 40 to 50 percent of their income can be attributed to summer grazing. The leases are also valuable because they are a historical, family tradition.

“We’re hanging on because it’s a tradition for us,” said Tal Neilsen, a rancher in El Dorado County. “It’s a tradition. And it’s a way of life.”

To keep ranching vital in the state, the groups that led the research have offered seven recommendations to help keep ranches sustainable in the Sierra Nevadas.

“Ranch lands are a part of the Sierra Nevada history,” said Joan Clayburgh, executive director of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, based in South Lake Tahoe. She said private and government groups need to think creatively to help keep ranching a part of the foothill landscape.

One way for ranchers to keep a vital business is to create products with a higher market value such as organic and natural meats, said Ben Higgins, a CCA spokesman.

“They could also be compensated for the open space value,” said Nita Vail, executive director of the California Rangeland Trust. The agencies also suggest that ranchers manage for wildlife, reduce fire hazards, improve forage supply and apply for state and federal programs that reward cattlemen for conservation efforts.

Despite the challenges facing them, the ranchers surveyed showed interest in staying on the foothills land.

“Our ranchers are definitely challenged, but thankfully they’re very determined,” Clayburgh said.

Neilsen, the foothill rancher, said he and his family would do “whatever it takes” to stay in business.

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