Its name doesn’t roll easily off the tongue, or give a clue as to its importance to agriculture and the environment in West Marin. But the 54-year-old Marin Resource Conservation District, based in Point Reyes Station, has raised and spent tens of millions of dollars to help ranchers conserve their soil and improve water quality. Surprisingly, the RCD’s work and accomplishments are largely unknown. The organization is now embarking on several new initiatives that should be of interest to anyone concerned with local agriculture and the environment.
The Marin RCD, along with over 3,000 similar organizations nationwide, traces its roots to the Dust Bowl. To save one of America’s most important assets—its soil—in 1937, President Roosevelt and Congress established the U.S. Soil Conservation Service with a mission encapsulated in what was called the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing thy herds, that thy descendants may have sustenance forever.”
With support from that Dust Bowl initiative, a group led by Waldo Giacomini founded the Marin RCD in 1959. Since that time, the organization, in partnership with the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, has administered about 700 contracts for local ranches and farms totaling over $27 million. Most funding is obtained through government grants.
The vast majority of the RCD’s projects save pastureland and protect water quality by preventing erosion and curtailing runoff, typically by fencing off and restoring creek beds. Within the next year, the RCD will be managing projects with budgets totalling $740,000 on seven local farms and ranches, all with the cooperation and assistance of partnering agencies and the property owners.
At the same time, the RCD is taking on new challenges. One of the most important is the Marin Carbon Project, which began with a $25,000 private donation to the RCD in 2008. Those start-up funds helped the project attract a $1 million research grant from the Marin Community Foundation for the University of California, Berkeley to show that improved practices—such as the use of composting and no-till seeding techniques—can remove carbon dioxide from the air while improving the productivity of West Marin pastureland.
These benefits have now been proven, and the Marin Carbon Project will soon be implementing on-the-ground test projects on several West Marin ranches, with the goal of enabling ranchers to be compensated for managing carbon-beneficial practices. It is a win-win-win proposition: improving productivity and increasing revenue for local agriculture while reducing the carbon in the environment.
The explosive outbreak of invasive weeds in our area has become the latest focus of the RCD. Thousands of acres of West Marin ranchland already have been lost to thistles, barb goatgrass, medusahead and poison hemlock, which are harmful to grazing livestock. These plants are spreading like, well—weeds. Climate changes and cutbacks in Caltrans mowing could be making the problem worse.
Organic farmers, who cannot use herbicides, are the most vulnerable to this weed invasion. Already one West Marin organic vineyard has returned to non-organic status as a result, and local dairymen have removed organic pastures from certification. Non-organic operations are also challenged by the costs, regulations and complex process of controlling the outbreak using herbicides. So far, the invaders are winning the war.
According to Nancy Scolari, the executive director of the RCD, the epidemic presents a threat to local agriculture on par with the high cost of feed, low prices for farm and dairy products and the costs of compliance with government regulations. Earlier this year in Tomales, the RCD joined the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and other organizations to host a well-attended workshop for ranchers, and Scolari’s staff is currently seeking funding for on-the-ground projects and research.
It has been many years since the Dust Bowl, and it is doubtful that carbon credits or invasive weeds were on President Roosevelt’s agenda at that time. But, following the traditions of protecting agriculture and the environment, the Marin RCD continues the mission established in the 1930s. We are fortunate to have them in Point Reyes Station.
George Clyde, a Marshall resident and journalist, has covered the RCD for many years and is currently serving as an associate director. The organization consists of Hank Corda, president; Sally Gale, vice-president; and Steve Doughty, Robert Giacomini and Terry Sawyer, board members.