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Public Land Grazing Is Important to the Conservation of San Francisco's East Bay Private Rangelands

The Issue

Many important natural resource lands in the Bay Area are privately owned by ranchers, and others are leased by public agencies to ranchers for grazing. These lands provide forage and numerous other ecosystem services, including those valued highly by the public, such as a pleasing landscape and wildlife habitat. It is well-known that the private land is at risk of fragmentation and development, when ranchers decide to sell their lands. What role does the availability of public lands play in their decisions? How important is public land in the ranching enterprise and to the local industry? This study addressed these questions to assess the role of public land grazing in East Bay land conservation efforts.

What Has ANR Done?

In 2005-2006, UC Graduate Student Researcher Adriana Sulak conducted a survey of the lessees of the three largest leasing agencies – the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and the East Bay Regional Parks District. Participants were asked a variety of questions about their public grazing leases, including the extent of their dependence on their public grazing leases and what actions they anticipated they would take if they were to lose their leases. In addition, public land managers at these agencies were interviewed about how they viewed public leasing. This project formed part of Adriana’s dissertation research under the supervision of UC Berkeley Professor Lynn Huntsinger and was conducted in collaboration with Santa Clara, Contra Costa, and Alameda County UC Natural Resource/Livestock Advisor Sheila Barry, and Shasta County Director and Farm Advisor Larry Forero. The project was advised by a committee of livestock producers, land managers, and conservationists, including project collaborators Steven Blank, Extension Specialist at UC Davis, and Karen Sweet, Executive Officer Alameda County Resource Conservation District.

Results show that the public-private connection between agency and lessee lands in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties has important ramifications for land conservation in the Bay Area. Over 17.5 percent of the private land in these two counties is connected to someone with a public grazing lease (either through direct ownership or through a private lease arrangements), and changes to public grazing leases could affect them. Without public land grazing, more than half of Alameda and Contra Costa ranchers would likely sell their private lands, resulting in a loss of open space, public land buffers, and wildlife corridors. If public grazing leases are lost, ranchers are likely move out of the area, discontinue their business, or both, further degrading the "critical mass" needed to support industry infrastructure. By offering livestock producers a source of forage that can enable them to maintain a larger herd size and hence more income, public leases help to sustain the economic well being of the remaining private ranches, and to leverage conservation of extensive private rangelands.

Because of the key role played by public grazing leases, local public agency decisions will play an important part in shaping the future ranching community and landscape of the area. Public land managers reported that they look for lessees that are willing to work with them on conservation, that have nearby properties, and that have operational flexibility. By working in conjunction with local agricultural communities, the agencies could make use of their unique position to have far-reaching effects on private land conservation.

The Payoff

Outreach and Agency Policy Can Help Preserve Working Landscapes

Consideration of the public-private lands connection highlighted by this research will lead to planning and policies that will help prevent the unnecessary loss of private lands to development, as well as conserving important private land buffers for public preserves. In addition, the findings are incentive for UC Cooperative Extension to reach out to public lands managers and agencies and to promote greater networking among lessor agencies.


Lynn Huntsinger
UC Berkeley
ESPM-ES 3110
137 Mulford Hall