California's family farms could be key to saving the state's native salmon

Two ranches set out to see if agriculture and conservation can co-exist facing a water-scarce future.

Published March 5, 2019 4:00AM (EST)

FILE - In this July 22, 2015 file photo, low water levels are seen at Lake Shasta near Redding, Calif. (Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight via AP, File) (AP)
FILE - In this July 22, 2015 file photo, low water levels are seen at Lake Shasta near Redding, Calif. (Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight via AP, File) (AP)

This post originally appeared on Grist.

It’s October and the land is thirsty. Shasta Big Springs Ranch is nestled below hillsides studded with scrubby stunted juniper trees. Snow-capped Mount Shasta towers above, dominating the skyline from nearly anywhere here in Northern California’s Siskiyou County. An ice-cold creek gurgles up from lava tube springs deep underground and cuts through the pastures of what was once a verdant ranch.

Now, Shasta Big Springs Ranch is dry, except for a ribbon of silvery thistles along the riverbank. Big Springs used to be a source of water for salmon habitat and agricultural irrigation. Today, it’s a source and symbol of the polarizing divide between farmers and conservationists facing an increasingly water-scarce future.

Farmer and long-time neighbor, Dan Chase, remembers playing near Big Springs as a kid. “It was the most beautiful ranch you can imagine anywhere ever,” he said.

Back then, some 30 years ago, the property exemplified the pastoral dreams of most farmers and ranchers here — fine fat cattle, deer, majestic cranes dancing through irrigated meadows, and an old homestead raising the next generation of hard-working farm kids under its eaves. After school, Chase and his friends would go down to the bridge that crossed the river to fish.

“The river was chock full of salmon,” Chase said. “You don’t find that now.”

Water is what makes this land so special. Hundreds of thousands of threatened red coho and hook-jawed chinook salmon used to swim here, nearly 200 miles from where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean, to clear tributaries in Siskiyou County fed by icy springs and thawing snow.

Fish in this mineral-rich oasis grow nearly twice as fast and gain three times as much weight as those in nearby streams. But by the 2000s, their numbers had dwindled to just a few dozen adults each year. Since size largely determines whether juvenile fish survive, conservation organizations have been interested in this particular property, which includes the entire 2.2-mile length of the Big Springs Creek and 7.5-miles of the Shasta River, for decades.

This is the “Holy Grail for salmon, the cradle for coho,” said Chris Babcock, a biologist at The Nature Conservancy.

Local farmers have long eyed the ranch too, drawn to the area for its abundant water, at least compared to the rest of California. Unlike neighboring properties, Shasta Big Springs comes with “senior” water rights – the right to use water even during droughts, when other farms with more junior rights go dry. In California, agriculture needs irrigation to be productive through the dry growing season — summer and fall — and its primary source, mountain snowmelt, is rapidly decreasing. There is simply not enough water in California to go around for urban and rural communities, conservation, and irrigation-intensive farming.

Chase had hoped to eventually buy the property, thinking that $3 million would be enough to acquire the 4,136-acre parcel from his aging neighbor. For 25 years, he had farmed hay and a couple hundred cows next to the Shasta Big Springs Ranch, and he hoped to expand his business. *But Chase underestimated the land’s appraised value. In 2009, the land sold to The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental nonprofit for over $14 million —  a price Chase says he could never have matched.

The Nature Conservancy’s goal for the project was to prove that conservation and agriculture could coexist. “We will retain agriculture and ranch production,” an employee of the organization assured community members who feared that outsiders like the government and environmentalists were trying to force farmers off their land. The Nature Conservancy did continue to lease its irrigated pastures, which Babcock described as “green as Ireland,” to local ranchers. Cattle could graze on the Shasta Big Springs as before, though now with several stipulations, like fencing off the river from cows (a commonly used technique for ranchers to keep in compliance with water quality standards), the organization said.

How the green fields of Shasta Big Springs Ranch ultimately dried up, and the unintended consequences that marked various efforts to conserve the property, reflect the challenges of our warmer, drier future. Diverse stakeholders are all competing for increasingly limited water. This ranch is among the last remaining places in the lower 48 states where any real numbers of wild salmon still spawn. It’s also home to a tight-knit rural community that relies on agriculture for livelihood and a sense of identity.

But even as droughts increase in duration and intensity, putting farming on the front lines of more extreme and unpredictable weather, talking about climate change remains taboo. Here, the philosophy remains that hard work wins respect, and it’s not anyone’s business, especially the government’s, what you do with your land or water.

Under new management

Old timers here have a saying: “The worst-run ranch is better than the best-run subdivision.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon, the fall air is crisp, and Chase is driving across his ranch, checking irrigation pipes for leaks. “I farm because I love the land, I love producing crops and cattle. I love growing my boys here,” says Chase, whose sons, ages 19 and 22, are already full-time farmers. “It’s for future generations that we have to manage and not deplete our resources.”

Family farmers like Chase — who still steward much of our open space — are often blamed for the decline of local salmon populations, making conservation a sensitive subject. The dominant conservation narrative faults cattle for wallowing and defecating in once-pristine rivers and eating riparian plants that shade and cool the water. But farming practices vary, and farmers like Chase are also keenly aware that the land must be managed with the long-term in mind.

“We’re not as ignorant as we’re played off to be,” Chase said. “I didn’t graduate high school, but we’ve been working hard at this education a long time.”

Even before The Nature Conservancy acquired Shasta Big Springs Ranch, the nonprofit had approached the Chases with the offer of a conservation easement, a mutual legal agreement between a landowner and an entity like a land trust to protect the land from development and ensure it remains in agricultural use, albeit with some environmental restrictions.

Over many cups of coffee, Nature Conservancy staff tried to convince the Chases that a potential easement would be in both their best interests, as the family would receive financial benefits for their conservation efforts. But this is a community where outsiders are often welcomed but rarely fully trusted. Chase says his family didn’t want to be told how to manage their farm. The fine print of the proposed easement detailed specific water conservation practices, like how many inches of grass needed to be left on the field to reduce evaporation. He feared that a conservation easement with the nonprofit would lead to even more supervision. Though the easement would be held by The Nature Conservancy, a private institution, Chase was concerned that it would “set up one more stronghold of government amongst us.”

And in some ways, that fear was soon realized.

The timing of The Nature Conservancy’s purchase of the Shasta Big Springs Ranch in early 2009 was unfortunate. In the midst of the Great Recession, the organization has used its private funds for the $14 million project. In 2010, it got the opportunity to recoup some of its investment in a deal that would involve the ranch’s valuable “senior” water rights.

Of the half a dozen types of water rights in California, senior rights are the most prized. Unlike older riparian rights, they can be bought and sold independently from the land, a key feature in their inception during the Goldrush clamor over property and water rights in the mid 19th century.

*The Nature Conservancy ultimately struck a deal with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, agreeing to a conservation easement that would give the department control over 19,000 gallons of water per second for $10 million, recouping more than two-thirds of the ranch’s initial cost. It was a risky move that prompted swift backlash from local farmers. California Fish and Wildlife wasn’t invested in the organization’s vision of shared land and water use between ranchers and salmon. They had different plans for their newly acquired water — to leave the vast majority of it in the river.

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

In 2012 The Nature Conservancy applied for a change in Shasta Big Springs water rights, looking to gain the flexibility to leave some of the water “in-stream” for the fish instead of only for agricultural use. While the petition was pending, the organization promoted the project as a success: “We’ve illustrated that restored salmon habitat can be achieved in only a short period of time while continuing to run 500 head of cattle on the property,” said the organization in a since-deleted web post from 2012. While waiting for approval, the nonprofit hosted events on the ranch and installing a “salmon cam” to allow the public to watch 30,000 Chinook spawn, a record in recent years.

But The Nature Conservancy’s vision of salmon-filled streams winding through green pastures of fat cattle was short lived. *The state water resources board eventually approved the group’s request, making the decree in Siskiyou County superior court. At that point, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife gained the ability to keep all the water in the river — and they chose to stop irrigating the majority of the land.

That was at the height of the most severe drought in California in more than 1,000 years. Ranchland was drying up. Nature Conservancy scientists urged Fish and Wildlife to continue irrigating pastures when the fish didn’t need all the water. But Fish and Wildlife now had control and decided to only allow a small fraction of Shasta Big Springs’ water to be diverted for agriculture.

With only 1,500 acres of the land (around 33 percent) set aside for irrigation, the green pastures at the ranch dried up. Local ranchers’ warnings were correct: You can’t grow cows without grass, and you can’t grow grass year round in a desert without water. Although for a few years it had seemed like the project had the potential to become, as the one of The Nature Conservancy’s partners put it, “an applicable model for the restoration of much of the West,” the ultimate sale of the ranch’s water rights made it hard for many locals to see the venture as anything but a tragedy.

Chase feels that there have been other unintended consequences of the state’s decision to ensure most of the water at Big Springs flows from its source beneath the ranch straight to the ocean without diversion. Although not substantiated by science, he points to rumors of drying wells in the community (more likely culprits include upstream over-pumping). When Chase saw a Nature Conservancy pamphlet with glossy photographs of sleek fish and happy cows on green pastures, he grimaced. “It makes me question anything they print.” Chase recalled, saying, “It’s 100 percent false! There’s no wildlife out there. You’d be lucky to find a grasshopper.”

Nature Conservancy biologist Chris Babcock says the organization did not intend to make it harder for family farms to survive. “We’re trying to find a sweet spot between agricultural livelihoods and environmental needs,” said Babcock. Sitting in the old ranch house where he lived and worked on the property as its caretaker for several years, he acknowledged that this project “has blackened our reputation in the eye of the community.”

The Nature Conservancy’s official statement on the fate of the ranch is markedly more positive. “We’re proud of our work in Siskiyou County,” Amy Campbell, instream flow project director at The Nature Conservancy, told Grist. The organization says the Shasta Big Springs project informed their decision to focus on conservation projects developed “in partnership with farmers and ranchers across the state.”

But some farmers in the area remain bitter and wary of conservation efforts.

When I asked Chase if he would consider a conservation easement in the future, he didn’t mince words. “For no amount of money ever will anyone purchase an easement on any of our property for any reason,” he said, his eyes wide and voice raised as he leaned forward. “Over my dead body.”

In 2016, The Nature Conservancy announced plans to sell Shasta Big Springs Ranch. But without its water, which California Fish and Wildlife still owns, the land isn’t of much use for agriculture. And the fish don’t seem to be doing much better, either — though salmon still spawn at Big Springs, their numbers continue to fluctuate wildly from year to year. It seems that in this ecosystem so changed by people, the salmon need some local stewardship to thrive.

Looking out his living room window one afternoon, Chase reflected on the evolution of the land he once hoped to buy. “It used to be a beautiful working ranch and it went from life to death,” he said. Outside, his family’s three matching white pickup trucks were parked between the house and the ranch, perfectly placed to block his view.

“To be honest …” he paused, “I rarely take the road past that ranch anymore.”

Farming water

Just over the foothills in the next valley over from Shasta Big Springs, another effort is taking root and thriving: homegrown conservation.

From the air, the Shasta and Scott Rivers look like two parallel snakes winding north through cow pastures and alfalfa fields before meeting in the Klamath River. For 30 years, owner Gareth Plank has raised grass-fed organic beef along the Scott River — one of the other places in California where salmon still consistently spawn. And that’s no accident. On his ranch, Plank stewards not only cows, but also the entire ecosystem — including water, grass, and wildlife.

In 2001, a drought forced some of Plank’s neighbors to sell cattle they could no longer feed, or get out of farming entirely. Family farms aren’t just drying up, they’re dying out. Government regulations and policies often hasten this trend by favoring corporate farms, which are better able to navigate government bureaucracies and have more money to invest and compete for land with development and conservation projects. Caught in a current of farm consolidation, many family farmers are struggling to hold onto their land and livelihoods for the next generation.

Many of his neighbors went into debt buying one “quick fix” after another. Plank said the drought and its impact on the community was his “wake-up call.” You can pop in a new well, or you can steward your land to hold water, Plank explained. “I used to farm cows, then I farmed grass, now I farm water.”

Farming water is both a way of thinking about the land and a set of practices with the goal of producing food, in this case, beef, with as little water as possible.

Plank employs many of the land management practices that The Nature Conservancy tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Chase to adopt. Cattle on Scott River Ranch follow the greenest grass like the wild herds of elk that used to roam Northern California.

Every day of the year, snow or shine, Plank yodels to his cows to move pastures. “Looooweee,” His baritone echoes off the Marble Mountains that rise above the ranch, and the last few cows not already in line quickly join rank. “It’s like a recess bell,” he said with a smile.

Left on the field to decompose, cow manure mixes with grass to improve the soil’s texture and keep it cool for the hard-working microorganisms within. “The big thing is to increase organic matter,” Plank said, because more organic matter helps the soil hold onto more moisture from snowmelt in the spring. Acting like a giant sponge, this soil supports green grass long into the dry summer.

Plank not only stewards his pastures, but also the wider landscape. While other farmers kill beavers and straighten river channels to speedily deliver water, Plank brought beavers back to his land and lets the river meander slowly to recharge groundwater. While many neighbors remove weeds and riverbank vegetation, Plank replants riparian corridors and pollinator habitat along the river. Where some clear trees to make more orderly pastures, Plank has restored native oaks for bird habitat and as shade for his cows. He also clears sandbars and fallen trees after big storms, and fills the streambed with pebbles just the right size for salmon to spawn in.

These efforts are different from the preservation approach — fencing the river and keeping all the water in it — employed at the Shasta Big Springs Ranch. In Plank’s active conservation model, the land steward is part of the ecosystem, integral to its overall health.

Since he started “farming water” in 2001, Plank has been able to increase his herd from 60 to 300 cows on the same land, while reducing water use and cost — electricity to run water pumps is one of the biggest expenses for many farmers and ranchers. It used to cost him $10,000 a month to irrigate his 4,000 acres. “Where I graze properly, I use 60 percent less water,” Plank said.

Plank’s efforts are promising for both their cost-savings and conservation. During the most recent state drought, not only did Plank’s pastures remain productive enough to support his herd, but as a result of Plank’s management efforts, the Scott River cools by 4 degrees F as it flows the two miles across his ranch. Around 95 percent of the nearly 3,000 coho salmon that returned to the Scott River to spawn in 2014 (more than three times the previous return) did so here.

That same summer, as rivers across the basin stopped flowing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relocated over 30,000 additional juvenile coho to the Scott River and issued Scott River Ranch an exemption from the Endangered Species Act, in recognition of his habitat improvement efforts. As a result, if a cow accidentally steps on a salmon, Plank won’t be liable for related fines.

The Scott River remains “the most productive coho stream in California,” according to the nonprofit California Trout. When I spoke to Plank last he told me that the river was splashing. “These fish hatched on this ranch during the last drought,” Plank said. “Today, they’re returning.”

So how did such similar conservation efforts go so right at Scott River Ranch and so wrong at Shasta Big Springs Ranch?

The secret to success

“Change is very disturbing for people who have husbanded the land for a hundred years,” even when heralded by locals, Plank said. At first, Plank says his conservation efforts were “comic relief for the neighbors.” But no one in the local farming community can deny that Plank’s pastures on his side of the fence are, in fact, greener (and cheaper to maintain than before).

Plank has seen farmers like Chase become disenchanted with conservation efforts that lack the support of their communities. “If you’re now managing for fish instead of cattle, you can lose infrastructure ranchers rely on,” Plank said.

In other words, if there are 30 ranches and one disappears, you might lose the hardware store. Without that, another farm or two might go under, and then the feed store will close. That’s how the fabric of rural life can unwind.

For all the stakeholders involved in Siskiyou County, there’s a consensus that in order to be successful, conservation efforts must be interwoven with local values. For most family farmers, Plank explained, saving money is more compelling than saving fish. But “farming water” also touches on deep-seated rural ideals of self-efficacy, independence, and private property rights. Management practices like the ones Plank uses increase the soil’s ability to hold water, keeping more of your water on your land.

In 2010 Scott River Ranch became one of the first ranches in Siskiyou County to acquire a conservation easement. This one is from a local organization, the Siskiyou Land Trust, and comes with few specific stipulations, but protects the land from development in perpetuity.

The future weighs on Plank’s mind these days. He spent his career ranching because he loves his cows and being outside where wild and tame meet. In his early 60s, he’s about the average age for a U.S. farmer. But he feels that his ranching career has already peaked, and he’s ready to pass his ranch to the next generation.

Plank wants his daughter to ranch; it would be the greatest validation of his dream. It’s not just the farm that needs looking after, the fish and the water need a steward, too — something that Plank and outsider-wary farmers like Chase agree on.

Shasta Big Springs Ranch up the river and over the hills from Scott River Ranch is still in limbo — the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to buy the land as a state wildlife area, but the county remains strongly opposed.

These two properties, similar in many ways, seem destined for very different futures. At the core of that difference is nothing to do with the land, fish, or water — it’s the disconnect between perceived outsiders, albeit with good intentions, and the farmers who grow their food, a schism mirrored in the fraught relationship between well-meaning conservation organizations and the local communities who distrust them.

By Margiana Petersen-Rockney

Margiana Petersen-Rockney is a former farmer and current PhD student researching dynamics of agricultural change.

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