Elk putting National Seashore ranches at risk-Part 2 November 28, 2013
By Ann Miller
As reported in the Citizen last week, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association (PRSRA) has stepped up pressure on park officials to take immediate action to remedy overgrazing and other elk problems they claim threatens the very survival of the ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). This week, PRNS officials respond to that article, plus answer additional questions on the issue.
As background, tule elk, native to California, had all but disappeared from the Point Reyes area by 1860. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), in cooperation with US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service (NPS), reintroduced tule elk to the 2,600 acre Tomales Point Wilderness in 1978. They are kept from roaming into the ranch areas, restricted by the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, Tomales Bay to the east, and a three-mile-long, ten-foot-high wildlife fence to the south.
In 1998, NPS officials moved 45 elk from that original herd to the Limantour Estero Wilderness area to “establish a free-roaming herd”. No fences were built to contain this new herd, although a formal Elk Management Plan was developed.
In 1999, two elk from this herd “showed up behind the barns on the C Ranch”, across Drakes Estero some six to eight miles away, “with tracking collars on their neck” according to C Ranch manager Ernie Spaletta. The NPS says they did not relocate this herd, rather they migrated out of the unfenced, free-roaming wilderness area on their own.
It is this third herd that is causing consternation among the ranchers in the Drakes Beach area of PRNS. Now 74 animals strong, according to the last official NPS count, they are now roaming around the B, C, and E ranch pastures in the Pastoral Zone with the cows.
Asking for help
Ranchers, in their September 23, 2013 letter to NPS Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, assert “The Drakes Beach herd is affecting ranchers in this area on a daily basis by damaging fences and other infrastructure allowing cattle to get into the wrong pastures, impacting forage and water resources, causing physical harm to livestock, and putting the ranchers’ organic certifications and overall livelihoods at serious risk. Despite the Seashore’s promises of commitment continually made to the PRNS ranching community that their sustainability is ensured, the current problems created by the elk guarantee an end to agriculture in the park.”
In that letter, the PRSRA quotes a March 2012 letter from Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey: “Their concern, and mine is the considerable damage and economic impact that grazing elk are having on their operations. Additionally the elk population is growing by 12% each year and migrating further onto agricultural leased property.”
David Press, NPS Wildlife Biologist for PRNS, and NPS Outreach Coordinator Melanie Gunn discussed rancher concerns, the 1998 Elk Management Plan, and other tule elk herd management issues during a recent Citizen interview at Park Headquarters.
Press stressed the 1998 Elk Management Plan specifically addressed the “reintroduction of a free-range herd in Limantour, but it did not anticipate the elk wandering into the Pastoral Zone, and the plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It only addresses what the park should do if elk migrate outside the park.”
New plan needed
Press said while ranchers have asked the NPS to move the elk back to the wilderness area, the PRNS Elk Management Plan does not allow for that, according to Department of Interior (DOI) attorneys. “So we need to develop a new Elk Management Plan to address the movement of elk from wilderness to pastoral ranching areas inside the park itself,” he said.
“PRNS wants to strengthen relationships with the ranchers,” Press continued. “We are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife. We are committed to preserving ag and finding the right balance with wildlife management.”
Gunn added emphasis to Press’ comments saying “NPS officials truly want to work closely with the ranchers to solve the problem, and continue to build on the historical NPS support of ranching in the park.” She said they are guided by a letter written by former DOI Secretary Ken Salazar in May 2012 to Senator Diane Feinstein, in response to the Senator’s request on behalf of the PRSRA that he review the NPS efforts to address the elk situation to “protect the rights and property of ranching leases.”
Gunn said the NPS continues today to follow Salazar’s lead in the agency’s commitment to the ranching community as stated in his response to Feinstein: “The NPS actively supports historic dairy and beef operations at Point Reyes and has made significant investments in ranching infrastructure. PRNS recognizes that beef and dairy ranches operate in a challenging economic environment and we take the concerns raised by the park ranchers seriously. The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment for Point Reyes did not contemplate, analyze, or assess the establishment of a tule elk herd in the pastoral ranching zone of the Park,” his letter continued.
The PRSRA has stated that 1) the ranchers simply want the NPS to follow the existing 1998 NPS Elk Management Plan that provides for relocating elk that cause damage to private property; and 2) the association disagrees with the NPS contention that the 1998 management plan does not apply to this herd of elk and that NPS hands are tied until a new Environmental Assessment (EA) which would contain a new Elk Management Plan must be completed before anything can be done.
Press, however, said the NPS interprets the plan differently. “The 1998 EA allowed for reintroduction of tule elk into a new area as a free range herd (the Limantour Wilderness herd noted above). It did not anticipate that the tule elk would wander or migrate into the Pastoral Zone, and so the 1998 plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It talks quite specifically, I think, about what the NPS must do if the tule elk leave the park and enter private property—not if they end up in areas of the park where they were not expected to roam.”
Ranchers point to several statements within the 1998 EA they believe gives the NPS authority to act, including “Under alternative A the Seashore will maintain the elk fence on Tomales Point and continue to separate elk from cattle.” They also point to the section of the EA titled “Relocation of Elk to Limantour” which states “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.”
“We too are concerned about elk impacts on ranching operations,” Press emphasized. “The statement that the park has not been doing anything to help the ranchers is just not accurate. We are preparing for the planning process, by meeting with ranchers and we have more field biologists spending time in the Pastoral Zone monitoring elk. The ranchers are saying we want you to move the elk back to the wilderness area, and it is their opinion that the 1998 Elk Management Plan allows for that.” However, Press pointed out “We contend that we cannot, because of our solicitors and DOI lawyers guidance that says ‘no the 1998 Elk Management Plan does not give you that authority.”
A new plan
Gunn interjected, “In fact, it would be going against NEPA law if we did that. As much as we would like to help solve the problem now, we don’t have the authority.” (As required by federal law and NPS management policies, management plans must be developed through a public process that conforms to the National Environmental Quality Act (NEPA). The NEPA process consists of an evaluation of the environmental effects of a federal undertaking including its alternatives.)
She said she was “Happy to announce today that we have finally secured the funding to do a new comprehensive dairy and ranching management plan which is also needed because of Secretary Salazar’s decision last November to extend the ranches’ special use permits to 20 years. The tule elk will be addressed in the new plan that covers the new lease terms.” (Special use permits are often referred to as “leases” that govern the ranching operations. In this instance, the NPS is the landlord and the ranchers are the tenant operators. Originally written for five years, and then extended to 10 years, the permits were issued to the original owners of ranches whose land was condemned by the government and then leased back to the original owners when PRNS was designated national park.)
Gunn and Press were then asked “How do you respond to people who say the elk should not have been reintroduced into the pastoral zone from the wilderness because doing so is a violation of California Coastal Act because the elk are displacing ag land and that is violation of the California Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) that says “federal agencies shall comply with the CZMA o the extent possible under federal law and that enforceable policies of the CZMA provide that lands suitable for agriculture shall not be converted to nonagricultural use unless continued or renewed agricultural use is not feasible?”
“The NPS is staying in ag, we support ag in the PRNS,” Gunn responded. “We are grateful we now have funding to begin the new 20-year planning process we’ve been talking about, that is going to get underway after the first of the year, that will focus on the future of ag in the park. And, actually some ranchers are not sure they want 20 year leases, so it could be for a period of up to 20 years.”
Not ‘if’ but ‘how’
She pointed out “There has been some talk about Drakes Bay Oyster Company leaving the park as the first sign that ranches will be pushed out of the park, and that is absolutely not true.” She continued, “The Secretary has confirmed that with his announcement of 20-year leases. This planning process is not about whether the ranches will stay in PRNS, but how they will stay. PRNS is a model for the country when it comes to ranches inside parks. This is a real opportunity to change the tone in the community about ranches and the park. We are looking forward to how we can strengthen relationships with ranchers in the park.”
Press added, “As another example of the fact we are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife in the park, I want to point out that when D Ranch closed during 2001, and reverted to park management, the main pastures remained in ag; they were divided up between the C Ranch and the E Ranch. We are committed to preserving ag in the park.”
The D Ranch reverted to NPS when Horick family heirs decided to exit the ranching business after their mother Vivian died. Most of the pasture area of the ranch was added to adjacent ranch leases: pasture acres were added to the adjacent Historic C Ranch lease, managed by Ernie and Nichola Spaletta, and to the Historic E Ranch managed by Tim Nunes. Press noted that the D Ranch farmstead buildings (house, barns, sheds), livestock watering ponds, and the land that runs down to Drakes Beach reverted to PRNS management, and is no longer permitted for grazing.”
Press and Gunn were also asked to respond to another prickly question: “What do you say to the ranchers who remind me that when they went back to Washington, D.C., they ‘agreed to lay down their swords and stop fighting condemnation of their land for the establishment of the new PRNS if the government would allow them to run the ranches as they always had done’—and there were NO elk involved when they made that agreement, and no EIS was done in advance of reintroducing elk onto their ranches?”
“It’s true, no EIS was done,” Press said, continuing “There is no current document around elk, and that’s an issue for us out there, too. Again, no one anticipated the elk would migrate out into the ranches.”
Elk movement tracked
One of the biggest challenges associated with managing elk, of course, is their impact on available forage for both wildlife and livestock, Gunn noted. A full time NPS range management specialist is assigned to work with the Seashore ranchers “as it is complicated to run a ranch on NPS property given NEPA rules.”
Press has employed the use of sophisticated GPS tracking devices to monitor where the elk are roaming. Two cows and two bulls were outfitted with tracking collars in the Drakes Bay area in October 2012 with three-hour data points. The computerized system generates an email to Press every three days, from which he can create a map of where the elk have been. That data, along with visual observations by biologists who are in that area two or three times per week, will be included in the preparation of the elk management plan component of the new 20-year management plan for the Pastoral Zone. Gunn said “We are generating valuable research data. Thus far, we have 650 surveys of elk movement completed since the fall of 2009.”
Getting back to the specific requests of the ranchers who have reported damages that are affecting their economic well being, Press noted two key complaints: damages to fences and forage consumption by elk. (The operating leases require ranchers to pay for the cost of fencing, building maintenance such as new roofs, ranch roadway maintenance, and general upkeep of the entire infrastructure on the properties.)
“We are exploring opportunities to provide additional pastures to affected ranchers, from areas now controlled by the park that are not part of the ranch leases, forage areas that are adjacent to affected ranches.” Gunn noted.
Press said they are working on fence damage concerns. NPS has installed “elk crossings” that allow elk to move across fence lines without tearing up the fences, as shown in the attached photo provided by the NPS. Press noted that they want to help with fence repair, and “some ranchers request we don’t repair their fences, and some do.”
Press also noted that in an attempt to alleviate pressure on ranch forage and water resources—especially in this recent drought year when many livestock watering ponds dried up—and to keep elk bunched up away from ranch pastures, PRNS has started an elk watering project at the D Ranch.
Two, 5,000 gallon water tanks have been set up outside the old barn on D Ranch and tapped into the Drakes Beach Visitor Center water system. Water is pumped up to the holding tanks so it can be “de-chlorinated” before it is piped out to two old livestock watering ponds and one spring area below the barns, keeping them full. “This project is designed to encourage the elk to stay on the NPS property at the D Ranch, instead of roaming onto leased pastures,” Press said.
According to Press, 60 cow elk are congregating around the D Ranch watering areas, and GPS monitoring shows a significant reduction in the use of neighboring ranch pastures, even though no supplemental feeding is provided.
Population control options are controversial to say the least, but the ramifications of doing nothing can have far reaching impacts on wildlife habitat as well as agricultural operations. According to CDFW reports, at the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve, where no cattle compete with the elk for forage, the elk were confined to a 953-acre enclosure, and no mechanisms for population control were used. As a result, the herd expanded to a point where the habitat was essentially destroyed and artificial feeding was necessary.
The hunting option to control population numbers has been controversial at all national parks. While most NPS policies do not allow hunting of native wildlife in official “national parks”, The Wildlife Society’s 2012 technical report titled “Ungulate Management in the National Parks of the US and Canada” notes the enabling legislation for the NPS authorizes hunting in some types of park units, such as national seashores and national preserves.
Press noted “hunting will not likely be an option for PRNS given the history of West Marin community advocates who are against all hunting. Controlled reduction of herd size will be addressed in our new management plan. We don’t have answers to that now, that is another reason why we need a new Elk Management Plan,” he concluded.
Currently there are 21 herds of tule elk in California, with numbers estimated at about 3,800 animals. PRNS is home to 708 animals or 19 percent of the state’s tule elk population, according to CDFW.
Interestingly, herd management plans for all of the other tule elk relocation areas in California include hunting. But they are managed by CDFW, with decidedly different policy mandates than the NPS. Last year, 12,537 applications were received for 125 hunting permits. The highest demand for permits was for hunting at Grizzly Island, where over 2500 hunters applied for two permits.
Ranchers are not pushing for a park hunt. They want all the elk in the Pastoral Zone to be relocated to either the existing fenced Tomales Point Wilderness herd, or they suggest the NPS could build a new fenced area that would prohibit movement onto Pastoral Zone pastures.
And, they want action now. As one rancher noted, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting another two years for another management plan—a plan we don’t think we need because NPS already has an elk management plan. The feed costs we are incurring now because elk eat the pasture our cows used to eat are going to run us out of business. We don’t have the option of cutting herd size to accommodate elk, we must maintain an economically viable cow herd size. The elk herd has been growing at 12 percent per year since we first asked the NPS to get the elk out in 2000. You figure those 70 or so elk out there right now are eating about what 70 cows would eat. We are in the Pastoral Zone, and no elk should be in that zone according to our original deal with the Government.”
Elk putting National Seashore ranches at risk – Part 1
By Ann Miller
Ranchers on Point Reyes are frustrated that National Seashore officials have taken no action to help them with tule elk issues threatening their ranches’ survival, despite a letter sent Sept. 13 to the park superintendent asking for immediate assistance.
Elk causing the problems are not those contained by a fence in the Tomales Point Wilderness Area on the former Pierce Point Ranch, where tule elk were translocated in 1978 as part of a congressional mandate to restore and conserve the magnificent wild animals that were nearly exterminated by hunting and development pressures from their historical ranges spanning from the Central Valley to the North Coast of California.
Rather, the roaming bandits causing economic hardship to local ranchers descended from a group of elk the park moved to a non-fenced area near Limantour Estero in 1998. According to the park service website, there is a sub-herd near D Ranch that evolved from those transplanted to Limantour Estero. They were not transplanted there, rather according to NPS, they were “observed to have traveled across Drakes Estero.”
Problem is, the elk didn’t get the memo about staying inside the “wilderness boundary.” As several current ranch managers are fond of telling, former B Ranch operator, the late Joseph Mendoza Sr, warned the park when they hatched the plan to move elk from Tomales Point to Limantour, that the elk won’t know where the wilderness boundary is located, and when their population explodes from lack of hunting or population control, they will roam all over, jumping regular cattle fencing at will to take advantage of rancher-maintained pasture and water on the ranches.
Sure enough, the old rancher who grew up on Historic B Ranch knew what he was talking about. From that starter herd of 33 elk moved to Limantour from Tomales Point, this new free-ranging herd numbered 94 in 2012 according to the National Park Service website.
In addition, two cow elk just showed up one day behind barns on Historic C Ranch, with tracking collars attached to their necks according to Ernie Spaletta, owner of the ranch. By 2012, the herd competing with his cows for pasture numbered 55, according to park data, with an estimated 74 roaming in that area today. This writer observed 60 cow elk in a herd behind the D Ranch barns, across the road from the C Ranch last month around mid-day, and eight bachelor bulls feeding with C Ranch Holstein heifers on their hay grounds across the road. Two big bulls were also observed loafing on the C Ranch along the main park road. The Tomales Point herd, meanwhile, had grown to 540 elk in 2012, according to NPS information.
The ranchers are asking for help. According to Margo Parks, spokesperson for the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association and Director of Government Relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association, “The ranchers simply want the NPS to follow existing NPS elk management plans that provide for relocating the elk.” Ranchers are willing to do their share, too. “The association has even offered to pay for the fencing, or the round up and transportation costs associated with relocating the offending elk,” Parks said.
Organic certification threat
Photographs accompanying this article taken on the C Ranch in late October tell the story: elk are roaming around day and night on ranches outside the designated wilderness and free-roaming wildlife areas, grazing on scarce grass on valuable pasture land, as well as helping themselves to expensive ($330/ton) organic hay when they comingle with the cows.
According to Margo Parks, “Since the elk are eating up the pasture, some affected ranches are in danger of losing their Organic Certification, as the rules require cows to be on pasture at least 120 days each year. Even if they could afford to buy expensive organic feed, they would still lose certification because pastures are decimated by the elk.”
Parks noted one rancher alone has shelled out over $30,000 in extra feed and vet bills due to free-roaming, free loading elk this tax year alone. In addition ranchers complain about many hours of labor fixing fence destroyed by elk herds on the move and irrigation pipes tossed about by playful bull elk, valuable time that could be spent managing the dairy – hauling manure, doing repair and maintenance to milk barns, haying, feeding, doing the artificial insemination of cows, milking the cows, marketing the milk, staying on top of feed and hay markets, and the myriad of other daily chores.
According to Parks, although estimates vary, 25 to 30 percent of all agricultural receipts, gross income, in Marin County come from the ranches in PRNS. Plus, she noted these ranches are “the heart of organic and local food for the entire Bay Area”, and dollars from the ranches turn over many times in the local community as ranch supplies are purchased and laborers spend money on essentials.
The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association is ready and willing to work with the park. According to Parks, “The ranchers association has even offered to pay for the fencing, or the round up and transportation costs associated with relocating the offending elk.”
Precedent exists for managing the elk/cattle land use conflicts on federal lands in many areas in the western United States where the issue has pitted wildlife conservationists against ranchers for generations.
In Grand Teton National Park, near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, elk hunting is used as a tool to manage herd size. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has issued special hunting permits to reduce herd size around Yellowstone National Park.
One example of a working group approach that solved the controversy is that of the Elkhorn Working Group for the Helena National Forest in Montana. Composed of ranchers, state wildlife officials and National Forest Service staff, the group worked together to determine how to resolve the conflicts so that all parties understood the problems of the entire area and jointly developed a solution. According to the US Forest Service range management scientists on that team, “We have a whole series of specific recommendations that are kind of technical, but the major findings were that you can still manage for those terrific elk herds and accommodate cattle grazing, and not impact the elk herds.”
Next week: Part 2: The National Seashore offers solutions
John Wick and the Marin Carbon Project
By Grace Rogers
It all started with a barn and a core of Nicasio Spirit. And now global is on the horizon.
I would actually need to embark on about 10 dissertation projects to adequately do justice to the Marin Carbon Project that John Wick and his wife, Peggy, have journeyed into, but I will try to touch on the part that was presented to our invaluable Marin Conservation League (MCL) tour on Friday, Oct. 11. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover MCL’s role starting before the advent of the Golden Gate Bridge in protecting Marin’s environmental resources. (Those wanting information on MCL history can contact them directly or visit conservationleague.org.)
The Marin Carbon Project seeks to play a major and pivotal role in reducing global warming through the process of soil carbon sequestration. The project is a collaboration whose members include Nicasio Native Grass Ranch, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin Organic, Marin Resource Conservation District, UC Berkeley, UC Cooperative Extension, US Department of Agriculture, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. It has also consulted globally.
Born in Milwaukee, John Wick is a true “Valley soul” having been raised in Woodacre. I have had several wonderful connections with the Wick family starting back when I first joined the San Geronimo Community Presbyterian Church, and his mother’s gentle spirit was evident nearly every Sunday. John’s brother, Bruce, has also been an important Valley presence, amongst other connections providing excellent contracting services for the church’s building projects.
John attended Drake High School and then San Francisco State University. This was probably a transition between education for the importance of being educated to education in the service of curiosity and purpose. One early purpose was the need for space to accommodate computer graphics output, and hence John and Peggy’s move to Nicasio and a piece of land that had a barn big enough.
They basically came to the areas as “leave-it-alone-wilderness enthusiasts” and stopped the cattle grazing expecting native wilderness to again have its day. However, soon the changes they noticed did not resemble their ideal at all but more a chaos of weeds. They began to do what they do so well – ask questions and get educated. While John and Peggy seemed to grasp that our globe is an integrated circuit, they increasingly understood through research and science how they could be a very important part in the health of that integrated circuit. This included John’s study of how human events can, often innocently, start both helpful and damaging outcomes.
A startling example of just such a human event was Thomas Jefferson’s perfection of the plow. It did seem like a good thing for a very long time. However, this began the years of re-arranging topsoil, critically, at a faster rate than had been reached by traditional tilling. This event apparently triggered an increase in atmospheric carbon not found in cores of ice formed at any time previously. A momentous year 1750 turned out to be!
Their quest for knowledge led them to Ph.D. Rangeland Ecologist Jeff Cereque who shared how the combination of grazing management and the application of compost had resulted in an increase in soil carbon. Their curiosity started going global. If the earth is covered by rangeland more than other systems, then perhaps their expanding understanding of rangeland management could actually dramatically increase the flow of carbon into soil globally.
John explained, “Its not about emissions, it is about soil management – soil carbon management.” It is about the carbon cycle. Going back to the chaos of weeds growing on their land, he and Peggy specifically wanted to get rid of the annual pest wooly distaff thistle so that native – think 300-500 years old – perennial grasses could thrive. Our native grasses have dramatically longer roots that lead to carbon sequestration from the air into the soil. Because their roots are longer they can deliver this carbon at a deeper level where its benefits are far stronger. Deep-rooted native plants are both better for our hills and for foraging animals like cattle – and for ourselves.
Simple? Well, both yes and no. “It does matter to a grass plant when it is eaten,” John said. When the cow breaks off the chocolate-to-the-cow top portion of the native perennial grasses on its way to the ruminating process, the grass goes into shock. A grass plant has this in common with most living things – it needs to recover from shock before it can get back to the serious business of its purpose on earth. It also matters if their dung is de-wormer free. Thus management of the cattle to a grazing area is also important. If there are cattle grazing too long in an area, the grass plants do not have adequate time to recover. This starts a complex sequence of events whereby the lower part of the plant is now the only part of the grass available for grazing animals. However, it does not serve their health as well, and perhaps more importantly the plants did not have adequate regenerative opportunities to get that sugar back into that top nutritious part of the plant for when the cow grazes on by. To help study this further, John and Peggy created a series of composted study plots on their land.
Enter cooperative ranching. The nearby Lunny family has a herd free of de-wormers that could benefit from the native grasses that John and Peggy’s study plots had been yielding. This is in no small way because John’s goals for their land need cattle grazing rhythm – not too much and not too little – that mimics our local history of having elk seasonally move through an area. The migrating grazing animal moves through leaving behind a field no longer being trampled and nibbled upon. Then the grasses are left to regenerate that most nutritious and desirable part of itself in readiness for another migration. Just such an arrangement exists between how John and Peggy manage their plots and how the Lunny’s manage their herds.
John and MCP’s efforts are demonstrating that the earth’s carbon cycle is central to soil health. Carbon, I had not realized, is far more complex than just the word itself, which I have been exposed to since elementary school. There is a fixed amount of carbon on Earth. This carbon is in one of five carbon pools at any moment, and is transformed as it moves between these pools. In the ocean carbon pool, the hydrosphere, it is carbonic acid. In the air carbon pool, the atmosphere, it is the familiar carbon dioxide. It is in all living things, the biosphere, where carbon is in the form of carbohydrates, which comes from plants through photosynthesis as they transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Then, some of this carbon enters the topsoil carbon pool, the pedosphere, as carbon in one of three carbon fractions.
Carbon is in the cells of all living matter – that means you and me as well as broccoli. This gets more complex than the scope of this article, and I refer you to the article on John in the April 25, 2013 edition of the West Marin Citizen. The important thing here is that there are soil carbon fractions that in the carbon cycle are critical for the health of the foraging animals and retain the most water. To quote John, “Soil that is carbon-rich holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, which pulls more carbon into the soil, which holds more water…” Well you get the idea!
After time, biosphere carbon enters the bottom-most carbon pool, the lithosphere. This is where we find such inedible treasures as diamonds – oh, and natural gas, crude oil and coal. But that ideal topsoil carbon pool, the pedosphere, however, is at just the right depth for our native grasses, and the plow that has, as it turns out, been disrupting this carbon cycle since 1750.
Reversing the cycle
John’s research supports that with this approach to surface area management – including avoided emissions from diverting waste from landfills – we can pull 68 tons of air-borne carbon per hectare (10,000 square meters) back into the soil over 30 years and thus realistically reverse global warming. Also integral in John’s carbon management explorations is understanding that composting rangeland just one time can start a cycle of increasing carbon sequestration without additional composting for at least 30 years, perhaps even 100! Current indications are that John’s carbon cycle land management techniques can yield up to 50 percent more forage and hold approximately 26,000 liters of water per hectare per year. This starts happening, now, within a year of application.
John and MCP’s research substantiates that this level of managing the carbon cycle is just the kind of event to reverse the disruption of the cycle inadvertently started by Thomas Jefferson’s plow. In other words, his efforts, and those of his many colleagues, to reverse global warming support that it is indeed possible and needn’t take centuries to accomplish. John and Peggy have been very thorough and careful in their research and dedication to this work along with some of the best minds in the field(s) of our earth’s health and its ability to continue to sustain us and interdependent life forms.
I particularly loved John’s description of cows, an animal that as a girl I was particularly taken with when I would confidentially enter their fields and gaze into their amazingly gentle eyes. Like children, they love and respond to boundaries and can be taught to eat their “spinach,” in this case wooly distaff, and which in a form edible to cows packs in more nutrition than alfalfa. Just train them to recognize and experience it as food, and they go for it in a big way. Don’t want to fence them in? Then define an invisible boundary by having a cattle horse walk rings around them and voila, they are “placed.”
It was curiosity and research that led to an idea about dealing with the wooly distaff plant – originally from Syria – and can become a thorny thistle menace to foraging animals. That idea was to “use it to death.” This is also another example of John’s approach to connect ethics with practicality to come up with a win-win solution. The base of their flower tastes a bit like an artichoke and can be eaten by people – John and Peggy have served them as appetizers. Once cattle recognize them as food they can prevent those 1500 seeds per annual plant from sprouting again with the next rain.
Disrupting the cycle
One last thing that I will address concerns the management of general waste, compost, and human waste. The health of our environment, from what plants ingest to what we eat, is impacted by how and what we ask this same environment to absorb. For instance, our pharmaceuticals, plastics, and chemicals can get into the cycle variously from us directly, giving it to animals, washing things down the drain, or spraying on fields; and they can all disrupt the effectiveness of the carbon cycle. Startling examples are elements in the coal tar dye used to make our jeans blue, chromium and cobalt. Kudos to Levi Strauss; they are working with the Fibershed Project whose natural indigo dyes are a safe source for blue pigments.
It brought to my mind how a seemingly innocent purchase could be affecting my own health. Thus in the interest of large-scale composting if there are too many problematic compounds getting in the compost we could be actually be doing more harm than good. And finally, the technology for composting and processing human waste into safe – yes they have the technology to verify this contained in a Fig Newton-sized, handheld chip – and sweet smelling compost that is free of dangerous pathogens is very much right here in the works, including 20 pilot homes in Bolinas.
Many questions remain and the thorough investigative process continues.
My hat is off to John and Peggy! They are doing it right starting with commitments of health to themselves, their land, their community and their world. And for those who know the 4-H Pledge, this is it! They are embracing careful research and consulting with a wide range of recognized specialists, many of whom just happen to be in the Bay Area. And it all started with a barn – along with their curiosity and their legacies of compassion for all living things on earth.
Acknowledgement: My appreciation to John Wick for his contributions in the content and review of this article.
Published November 2013