A chance to model holistic land stewardship

06/17/2020

I grew up on the mean streets of Nicasio. My childhood involved romping around looking for cow skulls in the hills and coming back with poison oak. Try as I might, I couldn’t kick the habit of crawling around outside and now run a small native landscaping business in Los Angeles. 

If anything has become clear in my little lifetime, it’s that the earth is alive. We are part of a self-regulating and unstoppably creative planet inhabited by countless shape-shifting species, and together we compose its rich ecosystems. 

The beatific National Park Service has come of age watching our untrammeled American lands shift and evolve under its 100-year stewardship, and has learned to take excellent data to monitor the way that natural and unnatural processes influence ecosystems (to burn or not to burn!). While its protection has spared so much beauty from the iron spear of development, its operation has helped us see that wilderness itself is fictional: all land is carefully governed by complex webs of life that have involved humans for a very long time.

On the Point Reyes National Seashore, the social ecosystem matches the natural ecosystem in complexity. Somehow fitting the bill of a majestic wild place, the reality on the point is that this landscape has been burned for hundreds of generations, extirpated of predators and protected for dairy cattle for 200 years, massively fenced, sparsely grazed and trailed, protected from burning, moated by a rustic suburbia, and then set upon by herds of elk and hikers.

None of this takes away from its sheer beauty: the ocean lapping cliffs, kestrels tipping on the wind, a fearsome sense of the unassailable expanding beyond the horizon. In fact, the beauty speaks to the power of a well-stewarded landscape. And while the environmental impact report on the ranching activities of the historic dairy farms is 20 years overdue, I’m glad it has come at last, because the future of the dairies on protected land offers a rare opportunity to forge a new ethic for land stewardship.

Our eyes are only just beginning to clear from the 70-plus-year crater impact of global turbo-capitalism on agriculture in America. Get-big-or-get-out agribusiness has left our food systems vulnerable and our farmscapes sick. Careful observation by heartfelt farmers worldwide who stuck with their intuition matched with the profound discoveries in natural science over the past few decades (read: microbiology) has helped articulate an alternative to the reckless agribusiness model. The alternative reminds us that soil, seed and the water cycle are the most sophisticated technologies we have, and that small, diversified farms hold the key to a regenerative agriculture. Turns out, the historic ranches of Point Reyes fit just such a prototype.

But the incentive to adopt regenerative farming practices has been mostly snuffed. On the one hand, the outsized political influence of the national ranching community has frankly protected an antique status quo, and on the other hand the fundamentally non-agricultural park service has since henpecked that patronage with restrictions over the ensuing decades. The Point Reyes National Seashore needs to adopt evaluable metrics that support the heath of the land and the farm, and allow new farm practices to achieve them. 

The ranches must be allowed to diversify. Chickens, ducks, possibly sheep, and other low-impact animals must be allowed and put into a rotational graze pattern with the cattle. If grazing is maintained through a rotational pattern, it may even be possible to expand the elk territory on ungrazed areas. The dairy enterprise itself may need to be abandoned—is it economically viable? I think it is right to restrict the ranches from drawing on additional water for crops, but perhaps there can be incentives to hydrate the landscape passively: with pond-building, rainwater harvesting and non-invasive silvopasture windbreaks. The application of compost must be allowed. 

The park service will continue to be responsible for evaluating how these practices impact the larger whole of the ecosystem of the peninsula based on measuring soil-building, water infiltration and biodiversity. Pesticides and chemical additives to the land must be restricted under the same policies that currently serve to maintain a healthy, safe place for the public and the natural world. 

Most small farms just don’t have the time or means to get real data on their impact on the local ecology while working full time. Ranching under the stewardship of the park service creates a unique opportunity to monitor and enforce good farming habits, establishing a rare example of an inhabited “wild” landscape. Nonrenewal and eviction of the ranchers to re-create a “pristine” elken landscape is a half-truth and a lost opportunity. 

To me, it is the possibility of marrying astute scientific observation with real food-producing land work within the greater context of preserving wild land that unifies the issues we are facing today on this great planet. If a model can be generated at the seashore for this kind of holistic stewardship, we can only imagine what else lies beyond the horizon.

 

Peter Cameron is a playwright and gardener from Nicasio and a fifth-generation Californian. He lives in Los Angeles, where he runs a native landscaping company focused on soil health and watershed restoration.