Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A lay person looks at California Grassland Habitat and the Grazing Issue

El Chorro Ranch

Published in the Santa Barbara Independent, April 17, 1997-- Earth Day

What is the Grass?
A lay person looks at California Grassland Habitat and the Grazing Issue           

A child said What is the grass? Fetching  it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...

Or I guess the grass itself is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means.

Walt Whitman
            We stood on the deck of a newly built house, perched upon a slanting sandstone outcropping, gazing down the mile long vista to where the canyon narrows to a "V", prior to where it opens up again and reaches the coast. Through the gap we could see the western most points of Santa Rosa Island as the evening shadows spread across the variegated slopes of the spectacular landscape.
            The valley, perhaps a view shed of 250 acres, was filled with dry summer grasses, headed out and gone to seed, gold under the clear sky. As the owner and I looked at the vista, my host  said, "Do you know where I can buy some Purple Needle grass ? I want to try to reestablish it in this area." The long grassy vista stretched before us in the growing darkness. Beyond the pale of the driveway and the small orchard of Macadamia nuts, the vast, silent army of dry, alien grasses rustled in the coastal breezes.
            The  purchased native bunch grasses, now only grown in small quantities in a few specialized native plant nurseries, would likely survive along the protected edges of the new house, where careful yearly spraying with Roundup or constant hand weeding would protect them from the competition of the billions of annual grasses covering every uncultivated, uncemented, or untarred square inch of California grassland. But would these grasses ever cross the entrance road, spread down to the small creek, and eventually reach the coastal bluffs in the distance?
            Prior to the land occupation of this region by the Spanish government in 1769, the situation was quite different. This small valley, like every other part of California's Mediterranean grassland region, stretching east to west from the Sierra Nevada to the coast and north to south from Redding to the Mexican border, was dominated by perennial bunch grasses, green most of the year, going dormant during only the driest months, and then sprouting from the same roots through the thick bunched stalks at the base of the plant when the autumn rains began. Evolving through tens of thousands of years in the geographical isolation of California's rare Mediterranean climate, the native perennial grasses were uniquely suited to the area's warm, wet winters and long, dry summers. 
            Not long after 1769, with the arrival of European civilization, California's millions of acres of native perennial grassland fell to one of the largest and most rapid botanical blitzkriegs in recorded history. Largely the invasion was inadvertent. For instance, the ballast soil of European ships, shoveled into the sea by sailors and washed ashore by waves, was full of millions of annual grass seeds from Mediterranean Europe. It is said the Padres introduced some intentionally, such as the Alfillerie, native to the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa. They are also credited with introducing the teasel, whose comb-like dried seed pods were used to card the sheep wool produced by mission flocks. They may have brought the yellow flowering mustard, originally a European field crop, which has now become a common sight on hillsides in our area.
            But evidently  the vast majority of European annuals arrived simply by chance. The vigorous seeds of the wild oats and barley, the perennial and annual ryes, the foxtail, bromes, wild radishes, hemlock, and so forth, entered accidentally, hitchhiking along with the inevitable spread of western civilization, embedded in the dried mud of soldiers' boot heels or entangled in the tail hair of imported horses and cattle. The near total transformation of California's vast grasslands from native perennial bunch grasses to annual exotic European weeds must have been very rapid indeed. Only about eighty years after the first Spanish land expedition had crossed the Sonoran desert into California, William Cooper, an early Anglo sheep rancher, rode over Rancho Lompoc to see if he wanted to buy it. Far up in the isolated San Miguelito Canyon, he found hillsides covered with wild oats, a European annual, so tall that he could tie them in a knot above his saddle horn.
            Largely unmanaged herds of semi-wild horses and cows, established along the chain of missions, had grown unchecked, and certainly contributed to the spread of the invading annuals. Even without these unmanaged grazing activities, it is probable that the European exotics would have conquered the native perennials. Each of the invasive European plant species, being largely annuals, germinates anew from seed, and one plant, when it dies, can exponentially produce dozens of seeds, ready to germinate the next season, to ensure the survival of its kind.
            In their native European habitat,  these annuals had evolved to spread rapidly, to occupy bare ground. Many of our exotic European weeds, such as the wild oats, are said to fulfill a specialized role in their original habitat. In Europe's Mediterranean region, for example, they can serve as a transitional plant, one that can quickly cover bare terrain after a fire, assisting in the prevention of erosion. After serving in this temporary role, they generally yield the ground back to perennial bunch grasses, which were originally dominant before the conflagration. However, this is not the case in California. Researchers don't know why, but here, ever since the European exotics overwhelmed the native perennials,  they have remained the climax crop. The European weeds' impressive and unchallenged dominance remains abundantly clear on virtually every public and private patch of ground, whether it be a rare vacant lot along L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard or the steep, rugged foothills of Sequoia National Park.
            The various events leading to the near total transformation of California grasslands were serendipitous for livestock grazing. The vigorous annuals provide a far greater biomass of forage for animals to consume than the native perennials would have, had they been able to fend off the huge European invasion. The exotic annual grasses offer a wide variety of forage that grows at different stages of the wet season, ranging from the early germinating, extremely hardy Alfillerie to the late growing annual rye, which can grow and stay green well into June, after other annuals have already died and gone to seed. Livestock, when properly managed, can stay in extremely good condition throughout the long dry months by foraging on the dry stalks of the dead grasses and the many nutritious seeds produced by annual plants, such as those in the small clover burrs lying on the ground. In the autumn, even the tiny mustard seeds will be consumed by cattle.
            In short, from a strictly botanical point of view, California's grasslands are now utterly dominated by invasive European weeds; however, from an agricultural perspective, these grasslands have also been transformed into extremely productive, natural forage, a forage that requires only normal seasonal rains for its germination and growth. Furthermore, the utilization of California grasslands requires no synthetic fertilizers or chemical spraying whatsoever. Also, unlike most of the grazing operations in the rest of North America and in Europe, no massive, expensive mechanical cultivation and storage of artifically grown feeds and hay are generally required. Moreover, beef raised on Mediterranian California grasslands, if not injected with growth hormones and antibiotics or fed hay sprayed with pesticides, can be as wholly "natural" a food source as one can find anywhere.
            Once when I was on a botanical tour of the southern portions of Vandenberg Air Force Base, the leader, a college instructor, would not take the group to the old Sudden Ranch, a 14,000 acre stretch of grassland along the coastline north of Jalama Beach,  because he said it had been "ruined" by grazing. Evidently, from this point of view, the solution would be to eliminate all grazing on the base, and this action in and of itself would eventually allow the native plants to return to their former dominance. This approach appears to be the general consensus of many groups interested in native plants. The Nature Conservancy, for example, immediately eliminated all grazing, by both cattle and sheep, on Santa Cruz Island when they acquired the property. Most public agencies, at the State and Federal levels, tend to agree with this assumption. This concept obviously has merit when what requires protection is in fact being directly or indirectly destroyed by the actions of grazing animals. On the mountainous parts of Santa Cruz Island, for example, the totally uncontrolled grazing of feral sheep has obviously contributed to serious erosion on steep slopes. Quite sensibly, some public and private agencies have interests that do not necessarily include providing forage for commercial grazing animals.
            It is interesting to note, however, that in Santa Barbara County alone, since World War II, over 200,000 acres of once private grazing land have been acquired by  Federal and State agencies or private environmental groups. These areas include Vandenberg Air Force Base, the two big channel islands, the former Segwick Ranch, and Gaviota State Park. Of course, grazing has become a controversial issue on all of these lands, and has either been totally eliminated, tightly restricted, or recommended to be gradually phased out.
            The "rangeland war" currently being fought on public lands in the mountain and great basin states from Montana to Arizona has led to a nation-wide polarization between commercial grazing interests and public  agencies and private environmental organizations. However, many, if not most, of the issues raised in this huge and complex national debate about the role of grazing on public lands in those western states need not concern us when we turn to the unique situation of California's grasslands.
            Much of California is an ecological island on the edge of a continent, an exception to everything else in north America. Most of California's land area is one of a few very rare Mediterranean climate zones in the entire world: Europe's Mediterranean Basin, the tip of western Australia, the southern part of South Africa, and central coastal Chile are the only other similar climatic regions. In terms of grassland habitat and grazing issues, what happens to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountains has virtually no relevance to what happens to the west. To assert the same arguments about the negative impacts of grazing in Winnemucca, Nevada and Gaviota, California is simply to be walking and talking blindfolded.
            Over many years, I have made a point of closely observing fenced highway rights of way throughout Santa Barbara County and California, some of which have been closed to grazing for 75 years or more, and I have seen no evidence that eliminating grazing promotes the restoration of native perennial grasses. In fact, the vigorous European exotic weeds, once liberated from the suppression of grazing animals, merely start to compete with one another for seedbed space, evolving into a near botanical monoculture, with wild oats or mustard generally winning the contest.
            On the other hand, I have watched a ranch that had been conservatively operated with 180 cows and that was dominated by wild oats and mustard suddenly have its stocking rate raised to 250 cows. The impact of this increased grazing pressure was the reverse of what many of us thought would happen: Instead of being "ruined," over the years a wide variety of European exotics, including much more burr clover, began to grow on the ranch. Also, more native spring wild flowers, the California poppy and various species of Lupines, appeared, due perhaps to the decreased competition by the coarser European annuals, such as mustard, for example, which actually exudes a toxin that suppresses the growth of neighboring plants, native or exotic.  I had not expected the ranch to grow more diversified botanically and to increase the quality of its forage, but that is surprisingly what happened.
            The several hundred acres of coastal grasslands in Gaviota State Park, removed in the 1970's from grazing by state policies for managing park lands, have not progressed towards the ancient perennial bunch grass prairie seen by Cabrillo when he sailed north along the Santa Barbara Channel in 1542. I have been told that Cabrillo referred to these same hills as "lomas de oro" or hills of gold; however, he was certainly not referring to the eight foot high stands of mustard, an introduced European field crop gone wild, that now dominates much of these same hills. It is most likely that Cabrillo was actually seeing large stands of California Poppies, spread throughout the interstices between the native perennial bunch grasses. As long as State Park policies remain what they are, Poppies, our State flower, will rarely, if ever, be seen on those protected hills again. After several decades of being protected, the coastal Gaviota grasslands remain a botanical embarrassment, a mammoth preserve for exotic European weeds, perhaps a native plant botanist's worst nightmare. Certainly, from a strictly native plant point of view, this State protected grassland has remained just as utterly "ruined", if not more so, after a quarter century of protection from cattle, as are the still grazed grasslands of Vandenberg or any private local ranch.
            Sadly, the results of these policies  in Gaviota State Park will be the conversion of the ancient grassland seen by Cabrillo into Baccharis, commonly known as Coyote Brush, a vigorous woody plant. Gaviota's coastal grasslands will soon suffer the same fate as those in Montana del Oro, a 4000 acre coastal State Park west of San Luis Obispo. When it was privately owned and grazed, I have been told that Montana del Oro's coastal mesas offered the most spectacular spring wildflower displays one could find anywhere in the state. The very name of the park probably refers to its once famous stands of native wildflowers. Now those same grasslands are lost, covered with thick stands of brush, protected from fire and grazing forever by the State Park system. Which would the California public prefer to see, fields of native California floral displays or a climax crop of dense, head-high monotonous brush? Which most closely approximates the "lomas de oro" that Cabrillo observed four-hundred years ago?
            The Coyote Brush is, of course, a native California plant; however, it is doubtful that it once dominated the Gaviota and Montana del Oro coastal habitats in the pre-European era. If these areas had originally been brush-choked habitats, it is unlikely that they would have been selected as the sites of Spanish and Mexican era land grant ranchos, whose irregular boundaries intentionally enclosed the best grasslands and generally excluded brushy and rough unproductive land. Also, there are no historical records to my knowledge of large scale Nineteenth Century Spanish, Mexican or Anglo period brush removal efforts. Early ranchers simply used the land as they found it, and did not bother with range improvements.
            I have been told that the Coyote Brush may itself be a transitional plant; if so, its invasion of ancient grassland areas might lead to other plant establishment opportunities, such as oaks in some instances. I have often observed Coyote Brush protecting young oaks from grazing animals where I live. But it is doubtful that soil and geological conditions along most of the Gaviota coast would ever naturally permit the growth of an oak forest: I suspect that the brush will remain as long as the State's policies protect it, and the ancient grassland area will be lost in a few decades to Coyote Brush, looking very differently from the "lomas de oro" that Cabrillo, the first European visitor, once saw.
            In California, at least, one can approach  grassland issues by using a theological analogy.  California's perennial bunch grass prairie was the result of an ancient Edenic ecological balance, one attained after tens of thousands of years of trial and error evolution. Once this pristine habitat fell to the exotic European weeds, it was gone forever, a paradise lost. Now we should accept the realities of this new post-lapsarian age. The more vigorous of these imported weeds will continue to prosper whether they are protected from grazing or not. The simple truth is that when livestock grazing is eliminated from Mediterranean California grasslands, the European weeds will merely compete with one another, until a few vigorous species dominate the entire area, crowding out both other non-native plants as well as suppressing the opportunities for the recovery of the natives. On California's grasslands, all that the elimination of grazing most commonly achieves is the successful dominance of the most aggressive European plants. The evidence is overwhelming, and, if we choose to look with care and attention, this evidence is all around us. We need to realize that grassland California is an utterly fallen, corrupted botanical world, one dominated nearly entirely by greedy and indefatigable exotic European annual weeds, vegetation which no native plants botanist would have any interest in preserving and protecting whatsoever.
            These conclusions lead me to question why there is such an uproar over the continuation of the grazing operation on Santa Rosa Island. I have read in the News Press that 5% of the island's land area is occupied by rare and endangered plants. The remaining 95% has been "ruined" by what botanists justly call exotic European weeds. Certainly, the isolated rare and endangered plant areas should be managed in some logical way to foster the perpetuation of those diminished species. No one wants to promote extinction. The island is, of course, National Park land, and parks are created in the public's interest to protect and preserve what is wonderful, rare and endangered for future generations.
            However, what is the argument against grazing at least the remaining 95% of the island indefinitely? In Marin County the 65,000 acre Point Reyes National Seashore, a complex coastal ecological habitat, continues to be grazed by numerous private dairy and beef operations, as well as a sizable government sponsored elk restoration project. If grazing is totally eliminated from all of Santa Rosa Island, will not its vast, spectacular and productive 54,000 acres of grassland become in a strictly botanical sense our State's largest exotic European weed preserve? What is the evidence that the island will revert to an approximation of California's pre-European grassland habitat simply through the elimination of grazing? What, in fact, do policy makers want the island's enormous and magnificent windswept grasslands, perhaps its chief attraction for the visiting public,  to look like in fifty or one hundred years?  Gaviota State Park's coastal hills? 
            If native plant specialists consider 95% of the vast island grassland "ruined" by invasive European weeds, and if past experience informs us that Santa Rosa's grassland will continue to remain utterly dominated by the most vigorous of those alien plants, whether or not they are grazed, then what exactly are policy makers preserving and protecting by discontinuing grazing? Also, if grazing were to be totally eliminated, could there not be some unanticipated negative consequences for the stability of endangered native plant populations? Could not the already diminished native flora come under increased competition for scarce moisture and space from the extremely aggressive exotic European weeds, their chief rivals, once these weeds are no longer suppressed by grazing animals?
            Each season, all over California, the European weeds produce billions of tiny seeds. These plants' rapid, ruthless, astounding invasion of California probably has few rivals in recorded botanical history. Annually, they deposit their enormous seed bank over every square inch of potential grassland soil. These seeds produce vigorous plants that eventually crack cement sidewalks, quickly fill vacant lots with eight feet tall mustard, and provide excellent forage for livestock on land that can't be used for anything else. Perhaps spraying hundreds of gallons of Roundup on newly germinated exotics and then hand planting many thousands of expensive nursery raised native bunch grasses would momentarily restore a few acres of the ancient California bunch grass prairie. However, wherever it may be located, such a sanctuary would inevitably be surrounded by many thousands of acres of aggressive European annuals.  A mere handful of mustard seeds would obliterate the entire project in two growing seasons. The Edenic past of California's ancient perennial grasslands will never be restored, and eliminating grazing on public or private grassland as a step towards recovering this lost botanical habitat is a false and incoherent policy. Perhaps we need to learn that even by not meddling with what has already been meddled with, we are still, in fact, ruthlessly meddling with it.
            I have often searched my family's ranch for remnant pockets of Purple Needle grass or other pre-Columbian native grasses to discover how, where, and why those that did survive the astounding European botanical blitzkrieg have managed to do so. I have admired our indigenous grasses in native plant nurseries, where they are carefully raised in individual pots, artificially perpetuated like zoo animals whose natural habitats have been largely destroyed.  They are beautiful, delicate looking grasses, and they continue to survive in well tended native plant gardens or in isolated pockets in remote, rugged areas on private ranches where they have not been subjected to the competition of the European weeds or unduly heavy grazing. 
            Once I thought I had found a large area of native bunch  grasses; however, the grass turned out to be merely a perennial rye, yet another European invader. But one time I crossed a steep barranca to check some old, rusty fence. I spotted some widely spaced, extremely delicate, lacy  bunch grasses that I had never seen before, growing together in a space the size of a kitchen table, a small, sunlit opening surrounded by tall oaks. To my jaded eyes, they looked strange and odd, foreign, unfamiliar. I admired them and moved on. I like to think that they are the lost remnants of our ancient bunch grass prairie, hidden, like Ishi, the last of a local tribe. They still remain on that sheltered north-facing slope, stoical, undisturbed, indifferent to all that we have done and to all that we have not done.