POLITICAL RANCHER

Twisted Mitigation for California Ranchers

 

Folks on their way to Fort Bragg or to see the giant Redwoods currently drive right through the tiny town of Willits, California. The Willits Bypass Project was designed to alleviate lines of traffic, but setting the wheels in motion is proving to be a legal headache.

Folks on their way to Fort Bragg or to see the giant Redwoods currently drive right through the tiny town of Willits, California. The Willits Bypass Project was designed to alleviate lines of traffic, but setting the wheels in motion is proving to be a legal headache.

By: Kayla Zilch

In the days of the famous outlaw Jesse James, farmers and ranchers fought a losing battle against the Transcontinental Railroad to keep their land and homes. Now it is almost 150 years later, but some of the same issues are still facing farmers and ranchers today, including the threat of eminent domain and an imbalance of power among government agencies.

An area facing those old issues with a new twist is the Little Lake Valley in Willits, California, where ranchers are struggling to keep grazing in the historic valley while simultaneously preserving wetland resources. The Little Lake Valley is the site for the Willits Bypass Project which has caused a battle for local land owners and ranchers against state departments and federal agencies.

Coined the “Gateway to the Redwoods,” Willits is about 140 miles north of San Francisco and is a popular route of travel for vacationers heading west to the ocean and Fort Bragg, California, and on north to tour the giant Redwoods. Because of the huge amount of traffic that travels through the heart of the small town, it is often congested and makes travel difficult for locals and vacationers passing through.

For the past 50 years, plans have been discussed to build a bypass around Willits to relieve the constant issues of traffic congestion. In 2007, plans finally started moving forwa rdon the Willits Bypass Proj ect. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) started purchasing land in the path and surrounding area of the proposed bypass. Approximately 2000 acres of property was purchased by Caltrans for the mitigation of around 65 acres of impact to wetlands. Several ranches were purchased for wetlands mitigation with the assurance that the ranchers or grazing lessees would still be able to continue grazing the property.

“I signed an agreement selling a portion of my property to Caltrans in December, 2010, under the conditions, stated in the contract, that I could lease it back to graze my cattle” said John Ford, a rancher and landowner in the area for over 20 years.

To begin construction of the Willits Bypass, Caltrans was required to obtain a Clean Water Act Secti on 404permit from the Army Corp of Engineers (COE); thus began a long period of turmoil for the ranchers of Little Lake Valley. The COE refused to grant Caltrans the needed permit unless it restricted grazing on the land managed for wetlands mitigation, under the reasoning that grazing has a negative effect on wetlands. This forced Caltrans to violate contracts with the local ranchers such as Ford and reduce grazing from 1,850 acres to roughly 1,400 acres. However, no one really knows how many acres will be grazed because the final grazing plan has not been made public.

Some parties, including rancher John Ford, suspected that Caltrans knew of the Army Corps intentions to regulate the mitigated property in September 2010. “If that information had been conveyed to me, the sale would have been different,” claims Ford. “Now if the grazing plan accommodates the Army Corp, I will be cut off from access to some areas and will lose nearly all of my summer pasture. The checkerboard pattern of grazing which is presented by the agencies limits access not only to Caltrans leases, but also to private leases.”

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed to establish regulatory procedures of United States waterways. Wetlands fall into the Clean Water Act under section 404 which requires permits to dredge or move any fill material into wetlands and is managed by the COE. However, wetlands are often grazed or farmed; so a Memorandum of Agreement dated May 3, 1990 in regards to section 404 of the Clean Water Act exempted agriculture operations from having to obtain a section 404 permit.

These cows are comfortably grazing on the wetlands where the Willits Bypass Project will eventually be built. In California alone, there are approximately 25,000 acres of razed wetlands.

These cows are comfortably grazing on the wetlands where the Willits Bypass Project will eventually be built. In California alone, there are approximately 25,000 acres of razed wetlands.

By standards of the Memorandum, the COE does not have the authority or power to restrict agricultural operations in the first place, and secondly, did not include scientific documentation backing the decision to eliminate grazing because of its effects on wetlands. In fact, science shows that grazing is essential in maintaining healthy, viable wetlands. A study by Jaymee Marty of The Nature Conservancy, “Effects of Cattle Grazing on Diversity in Ephemeral Wetlands,” showed that grazed areas had higher rates of native species, where native species in ungrazed areas of wetlands declined by 25 percent. Even the United States Fish and Wildlife service uses grazing as a “desirable management practice” for wetlands.

“The Mendocino County Farm Bureau is concerned about the precedent that the mitigation process for the Willits Bypass is setting and the potential effects it could have on agricultural operations throughout the state that may be involved with similar 404 permitting processes,” said Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones. “We are not against the project; we are against the impacts to agriculture.”

If the current Mitigation and Monitoring Plan is passed to restrict grazing on the mitigated properties for “Wetlands Protection,” the ground will lie fallow for the ten-year monitoring period. The twist is, after five years, even if the effects are negative on the ungrazed ground, the COE considers it abandoned and the property can never return to agriculture. So what does this mean for ranchers?

In California alone, there are approximately 125,000 acres of grazed wetlands. The Northern Plains (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Utah) area has 4 million acres of grazed wetlands. As populations continue to grow and urban areas sprawl, projects like the Willits Bypass are inevitable to accommodate growth along with similar mitigations. The COE extending its power over agriculture production in wetlands and wetlands mitigation contracts could potentially affect ranchers and landowners all over the United States who own or have agriculture operations on wetlands.

“It doesn’t seem right that one agency can flex its power to make a decision that impacts people’s livelihoods, the local economy and the environment without providing any science or research to document its decision and with no accountability for its actions,” said Ford.

Since 2010, several meetings have been held with the local ranchers and the community of Willits, assessing the situation and trying to reach a compromise; but the process is full of uncertainty and confusion among the involved parties. Currently a group of environmental interest groups have filed a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration, Caltrans and the COE which alleges that the defendants violated the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act in their permit approvals for the Willits Bypass. Depending on litigation and the many unknowns that still surround the grazing plan for the mitigated lands the future of the Little Lake Valley could still contain grazing if the COE is held to its

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