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 Response to Two Critical "Letters to the Editor" of Grasslands Article Published in The Santa Barbara Independent

Roundup, El Chorro Ranch, 2009
A reponse to the Kennedy and Zappala letters from Bob Isaacson

I enjoyed reading Mr. Kennedy's and Mr. Zappala's letters on my article "Can California's Grassland Eden Ever Be restored," and would like to respond to their main points.

First, Mr. Kennedy takes me to task for not mentioning the negative impact of grazing on "our threatened native oak community." My essay's chief focus was only on clarifying the impacts of grazing and nongrazing on California grasslands. The oak tree issue is another entire article in and of itself. The coast live oaks are not considered endangered by any county, state, or federal agencies and grow quite vigorously on our area's cattle ranches. Most local live oak groves have trees of different ages in them, indicating regular reproduction and growth, in spite of grazing.

I took an oak tree class a few years ago and learned that the issue is not a simple one. Cattle, if they run out of grass, will eat oak seedlings and create browse lines on mature oaks. However, oaks are not their first choice of forage. In fact, researchers do not target cattle as being necessarily the chief enemy of young oaks. The exotic annual grasses seriously compete with oak seedlings for soil moisture in the spring (a critical point in the first year of the young oak's development), and the abundant and aggressive exotics generally win the competition. Also, since 1769, the annual grasses' outstanding capacity for seed production has caused an immense explosion in the rodent population, which destroys a large amount of each season's acorn and seedling production. I disagree with Mr. Kennedy's assertion that the coast live oaks are not maintaining their population. Quite the contrary, they are currently, after 200 years of cattle grazing, a remarkably durable, thriving species in our area. In fact, I have seen a series of photographs taken all along the Gaviota-Lompoc road in 1912 , and the number and size of oak habitats have increased dramatically just about everywhere.

Mr. Kennedy's second point is that I am guilty of "deconstructing the ecological plenum" with "superficially reasonable language" to hide an "economic agenda." Rest assured, Mr. Kennedy,  that I oppose COLAB and state water,  voted for Gail Marshall (and Walter Capps and Bill Clinton), am not a member of the local cattleman's organization (because they contributed financially to Mike Stoker's supervisorial campaign), am overjoyed that Gaviota State Park exists (because otherwise it would have been cut up into 42 more Hollister ranchettes with 84 legal dwellings), am a second generation member of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, co-sponsored the Santa Barbara County Grazing Ecology Conference (an effort that brought together 200 cattle producers and ecologists for a dialogue to explore common ground), invited 60 environmentalists to tour our ranch's riparian zone, and generally tend to wear Birkenstocks, Levis, and Gap or J. Crew shirts. Lastly, it is quite natural for me to quote Walt Whitman because I am also a college English Instructor. Check out my Introduction to Poetry web page, and perhaps I will no longer seem quite like a howling fifth horseman of the Apocalypse (riding, of course, a Hereford cow).

As for your concern that the native bunch grasses cannot coexist with "domestic ungulate grazing pressures," we have a significant amount of Purple Needle Grass growing happily on many different areas of our ranch, which has been grazed continuously since the mission era. The small patch I mentioned at the end of my article appears to be a different variety that I have not yet identified.

Turning to Mr. Zappala's comments,  I agree that Gaviota State Park is in fact a "delightful mosaic" of riparian, chaparral, oak woodland, and grassland habitats. My wife (a botanist) and I often hike and ride horseback over the park trails. Thank you for the offer of your list of 85 species of plants, but we have already catalogued most of the  native plants in the park for the local school.  In my article, I specifically addressed problems I see in the few hundred acres of grassland in the "coastal hills," and not the entire park, most of which is naturally chaparral or sagebrush. Some moderate or light grazing for a few months of the year on these coastal hills could help suppress the exotic annual weeds and increase the opportunities for both flora and fauna biodiversity. For example, one does not see hawks hovering above the park's coastal hills because they cannot dive through six feet of mustard and bull thistle to kill snakes and rodents. I recently read about a largely grassland State Park in the Santa Clara Valley that has been successfully incorporating some cattle grazing into its management program.

Finally, Mr. Zappata, you criticize what you have perceived as the negative impacts of grazing between Gaviota and Goleta. I will refer you to the Bible for all of us local native plant aficionados, A Flora of Santa Barbara Region, California.  On page 17 there is a photograph of cattle grazing above the highway right of way fence of my family's ranch. Below the fence is a heavy stand of mustard, resembling Gaviota State Park's coastal grassland area. The caption for this photo reads as follows: "Drought of January 1976. If rains come at regular intervals, wild flowers may be exceptional on the heavily grazed land inside the fence, and a repeat of more Black Mustard on the outside."

Bob Isaacson

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