First-generation ranchers help preserve California rangelands

More than one half of California is rangeland that provides open space, healthy watersheds, carbon storage, food, fiber and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife.

The California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) has released the “Draft Pathways to 30x30 Report” as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) executive order to protect 30 percent of the state’s lands and coastal waters by 2030 to counter climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

According to CNRA, 24 percent of California’s lands and 16 percent of its coastal waters are already conserved. The draft report lays out a strategy to conserve an additional 6 million acres of land and half a million acres of coastal waters needed to reach 30 percent. 

To achieve the goal, the report identifies three objectives stated in Newsom’s executive order: “Protect California’s unique biodiversity, expand equitable access to nature and its benefits, and conserve places that help California achieve carbon neutrality and/or build climate resilience.”

The report states California is a “biodiversity hotspot” with “thousands of plants and animals” found only in the state. However, over the last two centuries, the state has lost 75 percent of its natural vegetation, including over 90 percent of California’s wetlands. 

The Biden administration released the "Year One Report: America the Beautiful", highlighting progress made toward President Joe Biden’s 30x30 initiative to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s oceans and lands by 2030.

Additionally, the report says blue oak woodlands, riparian zones and native grasslands now occupy a small fraction of their historic range. The report lays out broad objectives to counteract the loss by protecting areas adjacent to existing conserved areas, restoring degraded habitats and targeting areas with high species richness, endemism and species rarity.

According to CNRA, 30x30 provides an opportunity for outdoor access and recreation. It should target areas that offer a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities while protecting biodiversity and enhancing climate resilience. It should also preserve Tribal lands for cultural practices, management and hunting. 

To achieve California’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2045, the report suggests ecosystems such as forests, grasslands, wetlands and coastal habitats should be incorporated into the 30x30 plan as they “remove carbon from the atmosphere, safeguard important resources such as clean water, and can protect people and nature from the impacts of climate change such as flooding or extreme heat.” 

The conservation priorities are: conserving lands with potential for high carbon sequestration, increasing habitat connectivity, protecting lands that are likely to persist under climate change, and conserving lands and coastal waters that reduce risks from climate impacts and build climate resilience.

To achieve the three objectives, CNRA states implementation of 30x30 will build upon existing efforts, which are highlighted in the appendices. Additionally, it should provide an “objective, mappable and understandable definition of which lands and waters are considered conserved for 30x30.”

For California’s 30x30 goal, the definition of “conserved” is “land and coastal water areas that are durably protected and managed to support functional ecosystems, both intact and restored, and the species that rely on them.” According to CNRA, the definition is based on existing classifications and designations made by federal, state and local governments. 

The 30x30 measurement will be based on the California Protected Areas Database (CPAD) and the California Conservation Easement Database (CCED). The databases use the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) land classification, known as Gap Analysis Program (GAP) codes. GAP codes correspond to the degree of protection a particular area receives, with GAP code 1 signifying the strongest protection measures on conserved lands. 

CPAD and CCED will use GAP codes 1 and 2 for lands that are “conserved.” The report details the definitions of the two GAP codes as lands having “permanent protection from the conversion of natural land cover.” Code 1 lands go further, stating disturbance events of a natural type are allowed “to proceed without interference or are mimicked through management.” Lands under GAP code 1 are national parks, wilderness areas, ecological reserves and wild and scenic rivers. Code 2 lands maintain permanent protection while suppressing natural disturbances such as wildfires and insect outbreaks. The report considers national wildlife refuges, California state parks and national seashores as those under GAP code 2. 

Code 3 lands, which the report states do not qualify for conservation under the 30x30 plan, are lands “subject to extractive uses” such as logging or mining. Some examples are multiple-use national forests, Bureau of Land Management land and agricultural easements. 

Victoria Rodriguez, public policy advocate for California Cattlemen’s Foundation, told WLJ, “Though ‘agricultural easements’ are not included within those GAP codes that are classified as already conserved, it is important to note that the draft states that these GAP codes are not all-encompassing, and the draft goes on to identify working lands as one of many conservation areas throughout the state. Additionally, the draft notes in several locations that sustainably managed ranches are an important and existing conservation strategy.”

CNRA noted that “California’s vast array of landscapes all play important roles in biodiversity conservation, access and climate action,” and they will support the objectives over the long term. The report notes working lands that are managed for biodiversity conservation and climate resilience with wise water use, encouraging native plant diversity, providing habitat for wildlife, and implementing soil health practices are areas that will achieve this objective. 

Rodriguez noted other CNRA documents, such as the Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy, highlight grazing “as an important land management strategy that protects biodiversity, sequesters carbon, mitigates the risk and effects of catastrophic wildfire, restores native plants and grasses and increases the resilience of natural and working lands.” 

The report outlines several actions to achieve the 30x30 goal, including executing strategic land acquisitions, increasing voluntary conservation easements, accelerating regionally led conservation, restoring degraded landscapes and priority habitats, leveraging federal partnerships to advance conservation and aligning investments to maximize conservation benefits.

“The California Cattlemen’s Foundation appreciates the inclusion of voluntary conservation easements being counted towards 30x30 as mentioned above,” Rodriguez said. “We also appreciate CNRA’s desire to work with ranchers on these strategies and to recognize the conservation work that is already being done through sustainable land management practices on ranches and grazing land. Further, the Foundation recognizes and appreciates that CNRA has included grazing as an important tool for conservation and ecological restoration in other documents.”

According to CNRA, strategies to implement the 30x30 plan would be funded through federal, state and local resources; leveraging public-private partnerships; and applying 2021-22 California Budget Act commitments, including the $758 million for nature-based solutions, $600 million for coastal resilience projects, $645 million in habitat restoration and $105 million in wildlife corridors and fish passage projects.

A coalition of environmental organizations praised the release of the draft report, stating it is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse the biodiversity crisis, invest in equity, build climate resilience and enhance access to California’s natural spaces.” 

CNRA is currently taking public comments on the report through Jan. 28. The report can be viewed at californianature.ca.gov under the 30x30 tab. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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