Conserving Rural Landscapes

Spreading suburbanization
Exurban growth
Maintaining viable agriculture
Wildlife habitat on farm and rangelands
Ecological benefits from rural land stewardship
Articles in our periodical Linkages
Links to web sites and on-line reports
Books and reports

Rural landscapes have defined the western United States for generations of residents and newcomers. Vast landscapes, an endless panorama of hills, mountains, canyons and valleys, varying flora and fauna and bountiful agricultural lands have been the essence of the West. But now the future of many remaining valley and foothill landscapes is in doubt. How society deals with urban and rural growth in the 21st century will determine whether many great rural landscapes of the West remain whole or whether they change to vast metropolitan areas and large tracts broken up into rural ranchettes.

Spreading Suburbanization

Metropolitan sprawl consumes great expanses of rural lands. As long as we rely on low density subdivisions as the dominant form of new housing, metropolitan growth will continue this trend and smaller towns will grow excessively in area. Smart Growth provides the solution to this problem. Simply increasing the density of new housing can dramatically reduce land consumption. For example the American Farmland Trust , in its 1995 report Alternatives for Future Urban Growth in California's Central Valley, states that increasing the gross residential density from three to six dwelling units per acre would save one and a half million acres of Valley farmland by the year 2040.

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Exurban Growth

Sonoma County, north of the San Francisco Bay, exemplifies a very different pattern to the highly publicized sprawl of suburban subdivisions and shopping centers. . Over half the county now has an intermix of wildlands and houses. These include ranchettes of various sizes as well as small farms and vineyards. While county residents have enacted ballot measures to create urban growth boundaries around the growing cities, the low density development consumes a far greater amount of land and can have a tremendous impact on ecological health and water quality.

Ranchette development puts houses on two to 10, 20 or even 40 or 80 acre lots. The new residents often work in the nearest cities, telecommute or enjoy retirement. The Sierra Nevada provides a stark demonstration of how much land these ranchettes consume. In 1990, 1,443 square miles of the Sierra Nevada had houses at densities of one house per 4 to 32 acres, while only 89 square miles had houses at densities greater than one per acre. The latter class contained 39 percent of Sierra residents, the former 31 percent (Duane, Shaping the Sierra, 1999).

In this exurban landscape, very much altered by human development, natural plant and animal communities are degraded by habitat fragmentation, spread of exotic garden plants and predation of birds and small mammals by domestic and feral cats. Water quality is often impaired as there are rarely sufficient setbacks from water courses. Traffic becomes a problem as build out on the small parcels continues because local government cannot afford to upgrade local roads. Wildfire hazards are a growing problem.

IEH sees the way to approach exurban growth is to restrict it to delineated areas typically landscapes already impacted by partial build out of ranchette development. For example, Sacramento County takes this approach with designated “agricultural residential” communities, which are typically areas with five acre lots. At the greater county wide and regional scale it is essential to protect large landscapes from creation of small parcels and exurban growth and to preserve viable farming and ranching

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Maintaining Viable Agriculture

The long term viability of agriculture is essential to the conservation of our rural landscapes. Nearly all of the private rural lands will remain private. The alternative to active farms and ranches is usually parcel splitting and a trend toward exurban growth. Economic forces currently work against rural land conservation and maintenance of viable family farms.

Additional income is essential to maintain the economic viability of many family farms and ranches. Payments for good stewardship could play a significant function in ensuring the future of the agricultural industry and the ecological benefits it can provide. This approach could play a major role in halting the spread of metropolitan sprawl, by giving farmers and ranchers a viable alternative to selling to land speculators.

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Wildlife Habitat on Farm and Range Lands

The key landscape elements for wildlife in field crop dominated landscapes include, the presence of trees and shrubs alongside streams and sloughs, maintenance of reeds and other low vegetation along many of the drainage ditches, native grasses or other suitable vegetation around field borders, patches of wetlands, fallow land or woodlots, some fields lying fallow, and some areas of pasture lands. This basic landscape structure provides for a number of “farm friendly” animals, including various birds, snakes, amphibians and mammals. It also provides essential habitat for a variety of beneficial insects that help control agricultural pests.

In the Central Valley of California a habitat-studded cropland landscape provides for a large population of wintering hawks, for breeding Swainson’s hawks, white- tailed kites, western kingbirds, common king snakes, tree frogs and many others. Some individual crops play important roles for particular species or groups of species. In mid-winter, the rice fields of the Sacramento Valley harbor nearly all the Pacific Flyway shorebirds. These fields also provide critical habitat for waterfowl and for the federally listed giant garter snake.

Our private rangelands are one of the most important wildlife resource, and provide very large areas of rural land. But ranches need to remain economically viable if we are to keep this resource - otherwise they give way to rural residential development and metropolitan sprawl. There are various approaches to range management that provide for the conservation of wildlife habitat, and also improve forage so that over time the stocking levels can increase.

Furthermore, cows can act as agents of restoration in areas where there has been serious degradation from historic overgrazing (often the damage resulted in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries) or from lack of stewardship of leased lands. Vernal pool grasslands in California’s Central Valley provide a good example of the compatibility of native biodiversity and grazing. Remove the cows and the result is an influx of invasive exotic plants like medusa-head grass, which crowd out the existing natives

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Ecological Benefits from Rural Land Stewardship

The ways in which landowners manage their land have major impacts on biological diversity, ecosystem processes, water quality and soil maintenance. Farm practices on cropland, grazing practices on rangeland, and the setting aside of some acres from agricultural production are all key components of stewardship for ecological benefits. Riparian vegetation provides high quality wildlife habitat and reduces runoff pollution of waterways. Native grasses around field edges help to solve a major weed problem. Tailwater pond systems not only aid water quality but with proper design and use provide wildlife habitat. In late winter, most of the shorebirds wintering in California’s Central Valley forage in flooded rice fields. Well managed range land, and the different types of habitat it encompasses, provide for hundreds of wildlife species.

The provision of ecological benefits often costs landowners time and money, while acreage taken out of production reduces the yield of marketable agricultural products. Economic incentives for landowners who provide these ecological benefits can ensure that existing benefits continue and expand, and encourage additional landowners to change their practices.

Historically, the federal government has provided funding to assist landowners carrying out a growing array of conservation activities. In recent years, Congress has steadily broadened Department of Agriculture incentive programs, to encompass provision of wildlife habitat, buffers or filter strips along streams, and a variety of management practices.

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Articles in our Periodical Linkages

Linkages # 15, Fall 2003

Sustaining Agriculture : California and the World Agricultural Crisis


While subsidies of major US commodity crops hurt other countries’ farmers, California agriculture is impacted by imports of low priced fruits and vegetables.

Linkages # 14, Spring 2003

Sustaining Agriculture: The Farm Economy Crisis


Economic problems for California’s farmers and ranchers

Linkages # 13, Summer 2002

Linkages Between Rural Land Conservation and Smart Growth in Cities


Considers three categories of undeveloped land and their differing problems for conservation

Sustaining Agriculture : Farm Bill Programs


2002 Farm Bill impacts on conservation programs

Linkages # 12, Fall 2001

Ecological Benefits from Rural Land Stewardship


Overview article

Incentive Programs for Agricultural Land Stewardship


Basic Information on 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture programs

Providing for Nature in Cropland and Rangeland Landscapes


Biological values of farm and range lands and beneficial practices

Linkages #10 Fall 2000

Watershed Management - Linking Land and Water


Nature of watershed management and examples from Napa and Ventura counties

Needs of Nature - the Importance of Large Rural Landscapes


Why nature needs large undeveloped areas

Linkages #9 Winter 2000

Can our Rural Landscapes Survive the 21st Century?


Five major issues facing private rural lands

Conserving Wildlife Habitat in the Sierra Nevada Foothills: an Example of Conservation Strategies for Rural Landscapes


Issues, principles and a four- zone system

Some Landowner Incentives for Rural Land Protection


A potpourri of incentives

Review: Shaping the Sierra


Review of book by Tim Duane examining growth issues in the Sierra Foothills

Linkages #4 Spring 1997

Is Ventura County Getting Serious About Saving Farmland?


Reports and ballot measures

Linkages # 3, Fall 1996

What is the Future of the Sierra Nevada Foothills?


Growth pressures and impacts in the Sierra foothills

Sierra Foothill Biodiversity - from Peril to Conservation


Habitats, changes since beginning of European settlement and conservation strategies

Linkages #2, Spring 1996

Providing for Nature in the Central Valley


The biological conservation needed in the Central Valley

Key Protected Areas and Conservation Projects in the Central Valley

Linkages #1, Fall 1995

Wildlife Habitat and Clean Farming can be Compatible


A farmer looks at alternatives to bare dirt.

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Links to Useful Web Sites and on-line Reports

Bioregional Demographic Trends and Implications for Biodiversity (1997) Stewart WC. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Projections for growth by bioregion and examination of different types of county-scale development, with exurban growth a major issue in many areas.

Conservation Incentives Library [Helping Landowners Help Endangered Species] Environmental Defense Fund

Sustainable Ranching Research and Education Project: Ranching with Nature  University of California Cooperative Extension

Top Ten Watershed Lessons U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. Outline of each lessons plus examples.

Wetlands Landowners Incentives in California

California Association of Resource Conservation Districts

California Oak Foundation Non profit educational organization committed to preserving the state's oak forest ecosystem and its rural landscapes.

Community Alliance With Family Farmers (CAFF)

Great Valley Center A variety of reports on agricultural and other issues in California’s Central Valley

Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Yolo County Resource Conservation District Various items on wildlife friendly farming practices

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Books and Reports

Agricultural Easements : a New Tool for Farmland Protection. (2002) California Agriculture, 56 #1 Special issue with set of articles

Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West that Works. (1995) Dagget D. Gibbs-Smith Publishers Examples of state of the art rangeland management.

California Farmland and Urban Pressures : Statewide and Regional Perspectives (1999) Medvitz AG et. Al. Agriculture Issues Center, University of California Press. Examines trends and farmland conservation programs

Ecological Basis of Conservation : heterogeneity, Ecosystems and Biodiversity (1997) Pickett STA et al eds. Chapman and Hall. Current scientific understanding of key ecological issues and their relevance to conservation.

Farmland Protection Action Guide : 24 Strategies for California (2002) Institute for Local Self Government Key strategies for conserving agricultural lands, planning for agriculture, addressing the Ag-urban boundary.

Land Mosaics: the Ecology of Landscapes and Regions. (1995) Forman, RTT Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. Conceptual background, evidence and many examples of landscape scale ecology. Three chapters on issues of human interaction with the land.

Nature’s Services : Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems (1997) Daily G, ed. Island Press Overview of the science and benefits of ecosystem services provided by different habitat types.

Preserving Working Ranches in the West (1997) Rosan L
Examination of ways to conserve working ranches.

Restoring North America’s Birds: Lessons from Landscape Ecology. (2000) Askins RA. Yale University Press Factors influencing bird populations in nine US ecoregions and the current scientific understanding of human impacts on bird populations

Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management (2002) National Research Council, National Academy Press Wealth of information on the science of riparian area structure and function and on human impacts and management strategies

Saved by Development: Preserving Environmental Areas, Farmland and Historic Landmarks with Transfer of Development Rights. (1997) Preutz R Arje Press. Full details of TDRs and many examples from across the US.

Saving Nature’s Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. (1994) Noss R and Cooperrider A. Island Press Very readable examination of issues, conservation biology principles and needed actions

Shaping the Sierra (1999) Duane T, University of California
Nature and causes of Sierra Foothill growth

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