Tag Archives: Environment

How not to build consensus




At the Ranch Plan Workshop last night in Point Reyes Station sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and other groups, Nita and Will Vail told the story of how their family ranching operation on Santa Rosa Island was ended about 7 years before their lease with the NPS expired.  Their tale followed the talk by Tim Setnicka, given on October 23, in which Tim portrayed the NPS as bringing in various State and Federal agencies to harass the Vail ranch with environmental quality demands (water quality, species protection). Nita and Will did not repeat these details, but instead looked forward in time and recommended to the audience of local ranchers and others that, to improve the ranches’ position in the park planning, we need to:

1. Find a leader to bring people together.

2. Identify the objectives of the NPS in the Seashore and try to show that ranching can help to meet some of them.  These are sensible suggestions.


Their talk was then followed by a Q&A period. Corey Goodman denounced Neil Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association for suing the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. and hastening their demise.  He also demanded that Neil, in the audience, take an oath that his organization would not sue the ranchers in the Seashore or the NPS to restrict ranching operations.  Corey and an attorney who had represented the Oyster Co. in their efforts to extend their lease had suggested that environmental groups take such an oath in their op ed piece in the Light on November 11.  Neil said that Corey was being “ridiculous.”  Many in the audience urged Neil to respond to this out of order challenge from Goodman.  Neil then spoke briefly, stating that his organization supported ranching in the park. This was only the warm up, however.  Phyllis Faber then spoke, saying that Neil “had always been an A-hole,” referring I presume, to the Oyster Co. struggle.  Neil did not respond to this provocation.  From all this, it seemed to me that the meeting was a set-up to defame Mr. Desai.


I have extensive experience in meetings with opposing interest groups concerning urban transportation lawsuits in which I was an expert for the environmental side, and have never seen such counterproductive and insulting behavior.  This display of emotional outbursts by two leading citizens can only damage the reputation of the ranchers in the park and the Chamber.  It is obvious that damning your opponents, especially in public, will not lead to consensus on issues being contested.  The meeting was televised and will be on local radio, too, as well as in the local papers.


I suggest that future meetings on this issue be chaired by someone with experience and that the rules be agreed on at the start.  Speakers who will not be positive should be cut off and invited to leave.  Otherwise, meetings degenerate and are not productive.


Referring to the Vail’s recommendations, the ranchers clearly need better leadership and they also need to get over the last war and focus on the NPS’ objectives in the upcoming Ranch Plan.


Robert A. Johnston, Emeritus Professor, U.C.

Goodman and Prows speak out after Nita Vail meeting




Last week, in the Point Reyes Light (reprinted here), we asked Neal Desai of the National Park Conservation Association and Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin to ‘take the pledge’, to promise to the community that “neither I nor any organization I am a part of will ever participate in legal action to eliminate or restrict the ranches on Point Reyes.” We asked because in the late 1990’s, Mr. Desai and his organization (NPCA) successfully sued the National Park Service based on the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act to get rid of the Vails’ ranch on Santa Rosa Island (aka Cowboy Island).


This past Tuesday evening, Nita Vail spoke to the community, and cautioned us that what happened at Cowboy Island could happen here. Mr. Desai was in the audience. During the Q&A period, one of us (CG) asked Mr. Desai to take the pledge. His answer, which should be a wake up call to the community, was to say that such a request was “ridiculous.” That single word makes the many words from Mr. Desai and Ms. Trainer in support of agriculture just that — hollow words.


Corey Goodman, Marshall

Peter Prows, Attorney and partner with Briscoe Ivester & Bazel LLP of San Francisco, the firm who represented the Lunny family. He writes this as a personal statement


The Refuge for Realists


Cap and Trade or Dividend is an old idea, an old Republican policy, and I am told an updated version of this Trojan horse, presented as a great gift by Peter Barnes, is creaking on its wheels as it rolls into West Marin from the darkest corners of 20th century economic philosophy for us townsfolk to gawk at. Cap and Trade solves thorny problems for the timorous thinker. First, you don’t have to blame corporations. It isn’t their essential activity that is destructive to nature, and must be stopped. It is that markets have not been created to account for their behavior and “price-in” their destructiveness. Once they pay the right price for carbon, they will correct their behavior.
And who is going to enforce this new market? Well, the same politicians who are presently beholden to the corporations who pollute. Cap and Trade asks the corporations and the government to go into a room together and solve the problem. Of course, because the intellectuals refuse to take a stand directly against the corporations themselves, attempting only to modify corporate behavior over time, the politicians don’t even have the basis of resisting them. As Paul Fenn put it, “It is like putting the tobacco companies in charge of the strategy to stop people from smoking.”
Where these Cap and Trade schemes have been tried, various tricks are used, often built into the markets themselves, to allow polluters to evade the cap – to not reduce carbon emissions. These markets have failed repeatedly in practice. But how is it supposed to work in theory? Well polluting corporations, like power plant owners, have the amount that they pollute grandfathered into the scheme. Then starting from year one the cap gets lower, polluters must emit less carbon, until say 2050 when carbon emissions will be at a level that, based on the enormity of the problem, they need to be today. It is a proposal on a timeline so long that only people who believe in cryogenics won’t find themselves utterly dismayed.
That last bit, sadly, isn’t entirely a joke. Hedge fund founder and Googleian Ray Kurzweil eats 150 pills a day in a bid to live until technology will make him immortal. The grand old man of the convenient fantasy California-style Stewart Brand has his own Long Now foundation, which asks us to look forward to the year 10,000 and start planning on that basis. No wonder he is so untroubled by the half-life of nuclear waste. Not to be outdone, Peter Schwartz, business partner of Brand, both longtime consultants to Shell Oil amongst others, once told an audience in San Francisco that he wasn’t concerned about climate change because through the advances of bio-technology his son would live forever, giving him ample time to deal with the problem. Does it bother anybody that our intellectuals sound like a group thirteen year-old boys in a tree house trying to write a Star Trek script?
Cap and Trade does not even rise to the level of tragedy because either foolishly or shamelessly it serves the powerful interests that are destroying the world.  It is no compensation to be paid $5,000 a year by polluters in exchange for the loss of our future as a species. Even with this addendum of a dividend scheme, where will this money be spent in the climate change conditions that Cap and Trade cannot halt?

These ideas, like Cap and Trade, flowed from people like Friedrich von Hayek and Ronald Coase (who ultimately disavowed it) through Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, though the locals who tout them seem not to know it. They are predicated on a worldview that believes there is no such thing as a society, that only when we make a market out of the whole earth, including the air we breathe, can our problems be solved. In an effort to be “realistic”, Barnes and the serious men have become, perhaps unwittingly, dominated by the ascendant ideology of our time: Neo-liberalism. Though they probably think they are just helping the Democratic Party – thought to be a force for good – the Party leadership beginning with Bill Clinton has moved in earnest to adopt the economic policies of the right as well. I am reminded of the line from a terrible early 80’s fantasy film, “It used to be just another snake cult, but now, it’s everywhere!”

Remember that these thinkers talk to some extent about the forces that govern our world, but not about the structures that holds all of these interests in place. Those underlying structures they think of as a natural and immutable ecology of power in which we need to find the right balance between participants – a balance, for instance, between the interests of the coal industry and the people whose water and air are poisoned. This false ecological view of the world causes blind spots in their vision, narrowed further by fears they confuse for wisdom. Many of them, of course, are simultaneously rich, distracted and unevenly educated, and the combination of these cardinal West Marin qualities often compels these men and women to speak, with great confidence, opinions that are useless, trivial or demented (sadly for those dependent upon their patronage, the service population in its various forms are often compelled to listen to them).
What are these fears that pervert the minds of our intellectuals? The first and most obvious is the fear of the empire itself. Take the craven leaders of our institutions of higher learning; although universities usually allow each department a token radical, they too are increasingly entranced by “free market” ideas and are endlessly constructing new buildings that require wealthy, often corporate, donors and federal funding. To jeopardize either patron would be fatal to the growing university bubble, and their chancellors dare not alienate them. Energy corporations, like BP and PG&E, are notorious (or should be) for constraining the debate on politics and policy within universities in favor of technological research–which when it comes close to showing promise–is often defunded.
And older fears possess our thinkers when writing about changing the world for the better, based in memories of the political upheavals of the 1930’s. Remember FDR was a compromise; he was going to protect businessmen from those they more deeply feared like Huey Long. But the ultimate and to some inevitable danger of political unrest is represented by figures like Stalin and Hitler who remain bidden or unbidden in our political memory. If, like those two, a leader says he has the formula for a new and better society, to achieve our dreams of freedom and prosperity, what then will he do to those who oppose it, or whom the leader has designated as the enemies of the dream?
The consequence of these persistent half-remembered memories is an unwillingness to speak out in opposition to either corporations or the government. These are the “realists”, and their sober and stable managerial approach to crisis explains the poverty of the solutions they present to climate change or the “Great Recession.” Writers like Peter Barnes refuse to directly confront the sources of climate change or declining living standards in America for fear, I believe, of arousing political ideas. Ideas that say you can change the world by disallowing through law the abuse of the planet or its people, and that simultaneously our governments can provide investment in infrastructure to replace the burning of fuel, etc. Such direct actions are considered, “unserious” or “unrealistic”, because if we identify corporations as the culprits of global and domestic decline, the realists fear we will march toward Communism. If we identify the government as the cause of failure, we will unwittingly bring to power fascists and a greater tyranny. And let’s pull away the curtain for a moment, lurking in the shadows is the god that the portfolio men really fear, the capricious Index, like the NYSE, to whom they must make endless sacrifices in an effort raise share prices ever higher, because without those particular dividend payments, survival in West Marin is truly unimaginable.

West Marin is nestled in the center of American empire, not at some rural margin. That is why what we think, and still more to know who we truly are, is very important. Some of us believe we are really out in the country and receive the terrible events on TV or the Internet as fragments from a distant world. Our lives feel stagnant as climate change, war, government spying and declining prosperity demand serious collective answers to the question of how we and our children will survive.

Unfortunately for us, our local intellectuals are proposing answers to the big crises of our time, which in their pursuit of the “real” are ironically more utopian than any Bolshevik dream. The realist says, “Ask the polluters not to pollute, ask them instead to pay the poor.”


20,000 Salmon into the Sea

Salmon in California have evolved to follow the seasonal rhythms of wet and dry periods as they migrate between their natal streams and the ocean, and then back again. The fall rains that swell Lagunitas Creek and herald the return of adult salmon to Marin County also encourage young coho salmon to begin their downstream journey to the ocean. In normal years, winter is the time when many of these young salmon migrate from headwater tributaries down to lower Lagunitas Creek, where they transform into silver smolts in preparation for the ocean phase of their life cycle. These smolts wait in the lower creek until April and May before entering the ocean, just in time to take advantage of the spring plankton bloom.

Dry period yields more coho fry.

Years 2013 and 2014 have not been normal, however. Fall rains were infrequent and light, and January was the driest on record. The drought caused a significant delay in salmon spawning and resulted in a much smaller coho run than expected. The extended dry period did, ironically, seem to benefit the young salmon preparing to emigrate to the ocean. Many coho fry were unable to migrate downstream until the rain finally arrived in February, which meant that they weren’t packed together in lower Lagunitas Creek. The habitat in the lower creek can’t support very many young salmon through the winter, which appears to be one of the principal factors limiting the size of the entire coho salmon population. This year, salmon fry spent the winter spread throughout the watershed, and likely spent little time crowded in the lower watershed.

More salmon possible in 2015

The result was the largest emigration of salmon smolts yet seen in Lagunitas Creek. Biologists with the Watershed Stewards Project, the Marin Municipal Water District, the National Park Service, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network counted coho smolts every day between late March and early June as they migrated past traps on Lagunitas, Olema, and San Geronimo Creeks. In typical years the lower watershed doesn’t appear to be able to support more than approximately 11,000 juvenile coho salmon through the winter. This year nearly 20,000 coho smolts emigrated to the ocean. What does this mean for the future of coho salmon in Marin County? In the short term, if food is abundant in the ocean we could see 2,000 adult coho return to Lagunitas Creek in 2015 (the most in more than half a century). On the other hand, this year’s smolts were fairly small and may not survive well. Over the longer term, while we can’t recreate this year and prevent coho from migrating to the lower watershed, we can provide more habitat there.

A grant currently being considered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would fund the construction of five projects in lower Lagunitas Creek to expand side channels and floodplains for coho salmon winter habitat. Hopefully this grant will be funded and the projects will achieve their goals. As with the seasonal migrations of salmon, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Eric Ettlinger is an aquatic ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District


An Update on the Marin Carbon Project

Excerpts from an interview with John Wick, Nicasio rancher and co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project, conducted by Bing Gong, co-host of KWMR Post Carbon Radio.  The audio of the full hour interview is archived at: wmpostcarbon.com  

Bing Gong: John, can you tell us about the Marin Carbon Project and how it got started?

John Wick: When my wife Peggy and I bought our land in 1998, we were environmentalists and “leave-it-alone-wilderness enthusiasts.” We were very confident that if we got rid of cattle and stopped the grazing, we could create a beautiful piece of wilderness. Then, over the next three years, we watched chaos on our landscape. We lost the ability to walk across our grass fields because of the weeds that came in. We started to recognize we had produced something different than what our vision was.

We were fortunate to meet Dr. Jeff Creque, who is a rangeland ecologist. He advised us to introduce grazing as a strategic event for the benefit of the ecosystem, and therefore to promote our native grasses and ground-nesting bird habitat. We did a lot of reading at his suggestion, including the book Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin.  We also studied Allan Savory’s book on Holistic Management and followed the Savory method very carefully, going through every patch of grass on the ranch and designing a beneficial grazing event for each one. Then, we found a herd of cattle that did not have de-wormers in them, because the last thing we wanted to do was to dump toxic piles of cow poop on our soil system. Working with the Lunny family’s herd starting in 2005, we reintroduced grazing into our system, and over the next couple of years we noticed an amazing change with the landscape. We started seeing whole fields of native perennial grasses without planting a seed. Grasses need to be grazed, and we had demonstrated that by not grazing them, the grass plants grew tall, then died and dried, smothering future grass growth and causing our whole system to start collapsing.

BG: Is this similar to the Midwest where the buffalo grazed the prairies?

JW: Yes, historically, these massive herds moving through the landscape had a significant impact. Our living systems co-evolved with that massive disturbance and learned how to thrive under it. Having watched our landscape transform into a healthy native perennial grassland system full of wildlife, we actually created the wilderness we were looking for. We did it by introducing grazing as a strategic management event in the system.  Based on that success we were able to entertain bigger thoughts. Dr. Creque, with his concern about the climate, kept referring to grass plants as “little straws” that suck CO2 from the atmosphere.

BG: That’s photosynthesis, right?  The plant takes in carbon dioxide from the air, and turns it into sugars and carbohydrates, and gives off oxygen, which we all need to breathe.

JW: Yes, it’s the carbon cycle.  There is a finite amount of carbon on earth, and it’s in one of five carbon pools at any one time. In the atmosphere, it’s in the form of CO2. When atmospheric carbon enters the biosphere through photosynthesis, it’s transformed into carbohydrates, and in the form of roots it enters the pedosphere, the soil system. As the result of natural processes, it then becomes soil carbon in one of three states in that system.  The first state is still in the roots and bodies of soil microorganisms—that’s the labile pool, which we expect to respire back to the atmosphere. As a result of processes in the soil, however, some of that carbon becomes “the occluded light fraction” because it is physically trapped inside the “crumbs” in good soil structure. This is carbon that will stay around for 100 years or more, unless plowed. Below that, or mixed in with it, is a more permanent form of soil carbon called “the heavy fraction.” This is carbon that is now chemically bonded to soil structure, and it’s not available to microorganisms to eat or burn up. This carbon will be there for millennia, unless plowed. Carbon in the heavy fraction and in the occluded light fraction holds more water. Therefore, soil that is carbon-rich holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, which pulls more carbon into the soil, which holds more water, which promotes more plant growth, and it goes on and on.

Below the Pedosphere is the lithosphere. Here carbon is found in the form of diamonds, coal, natural gas, and crude oil. The fifth carbon pool is the hydrosphere, or oceans. Carbon found here is in the form of carbonic acid.

In 2007, Peggy and I went to Darren Doherty’s rainwater harvesting seminar in Two Rock. Darren stated that increasing soil organic matter just 1.5 % in all the cropland on earth could stop global warming within 10 years. Dr. Creque, who has been the manager at the McEvoy Ranch for a decade, has increased soil organic matter at the McEvoy olive plantation from 2 to 4% through grazing management and compost application. If that happened on crop lands, what about rangelands? It turns out rangeland systems are the largest single cover type on earth, and they account for over half of human occupation. So if rangeland is the largest system on earth that is currently under management, perhaps a change in management could enhance carbon flow into the soil system. On such a vast area, a very small change would have a big effect. And that was the beginning of the Marin Carbon Project.

Dr. Jeff Creque and I went over to UC Berkeley and met with Dr. Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist. She is one of the world’s foremost soil carbon sequestration experts. We asked her whether management could add carbon in rangeland systems. She replied that there was not a lot of peer-reviewed research, and that she doubted it. The Marin Carbon Project was willing to organize an effort to fund her to find out.  Dr. Silver warned, “You may not like what I find.” We responded, “This is important and we need to know.”  Based on that, she was willing to spend her time doing the rigorous controlled experiments required to answer the question, Can management enhance soil carbon?

BG: So what you did was start with your land as a baseline, to see the results of that particular type of strategic grazing?

JW: Baselines are very important, as are controls. You always need a treatment plot next to something that you didn’t treat so you can see the difference. Without a control you can’t confidently say that your treatment made a difference, because you don’t know what would have happened otherwise. What’s really neat about Marin County is that we have this great history of cooperation between the Resource Conservation District (RCD), MALT, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and land managers. We tapped into this and identified 35 baseline sites in Marin and Sonoma that were typical of land under management. These were dairy pastures and beef pastures, and this group of agencies facilitated access for Dr. Silver and her lab to go onto the land and take soil samples.

We found a range of carbon in existing lands in Marin and Sonoma from 30 to 150 tons of carbon per hectare (2.47 acres). When Dr. Silver saw the results, she asked, “What is the history of the high carbon sites?” As it turned out, all of the high carbon sites had a history of dairy manure application. Further analysis showed that the carbon in the occluded light fraction and in the heavy fraction was just a few decades old.  This was big news to everyone. Previously, researchers assumed that it took thousands of years for carbon from the atmosphere to enter the heavy fraction.

That was exciting to us. We had found a pathway: the topical application of an organic amendment on soil had ended up enhancing soil carbon at depth. Based on that, we designed a controlled experiment on my ranch and in the Sierra Foothills Research Extension Center, which is a UC-owned 5,000 acre research ranch. We went from a coastal prairie system, which is my ranch, all the way to the Sierra foothills. And we duplicated the experiment on both sites. In December, 2008, we dusted the test plots with a half inch of compost. Unlike manure, compost is a biologically stable carbon-nitrogen complex. Adding a carbon source like straw to manure, and getting it up to temperature with thermophilic bacteria by providing air and moisture, produces a wonderful soil amendment. That’s what we put on our research plots. We then introduced grazing the following May because we wanted to see the effect of organic amendments on grazed rangelands, since they are the largest cover type on earth. At the end of that first water year, we ended up with a ton more carbon per hectare (not including the carbon added as compost). That additional ton of carbon came from the air through the plants and ended up in the soil in the occluded fraction. This was very exciting news. We are now on our fifth year of the experiment, and have measured an additional ton of carbon per hectare per year without adding any more compost. It works!

BG: Tell me a little bit more about the grazing. I know the land is intensively grazed but they don’t chew it down to the nub, and how that affected the growth of the biomass.

JW: There is a continuum of grazing. At one end, there’s no grazing, which is under-grazing. At the other end there is over-grazing. Somewhere in the middle is optimal grazing that is good for the health of the animal, good for the health of the soil, and good for the health of the vegetation. That’s what we try to target. In this experiment, we grazed all the plots to the recommended 750 pounds per acre residual vegetation and the composted plots gained carbon. But what was surprising was that the control plots (with no compost) lost carbon. So grazing alone did not sequester carbon during the first four years of measurements.

But grazing on composted plots did sequester carbon, and the only explanation I can offer is that the earth is in a degraded state and business as usual doesn’t work anymore. The analogy would be if you have a broken machine and you keep using it, it actually makes it worst until you reach a point of catastrophic failure. Our systems are currently broken. We’ve lost enough carbon from them now that they don’t rebound on their own. By simply adding a little bit of carbon back into it, it’s like oiling dry machine parts. It will start moving again, and that’s what we saw, and this was the most exciting thing: we’ve ignited a state change. The whole system is responding from that one-time event. And now, it’s producing 50% more forage, and holds 26,000 more liters of water per hectare per year. This is significant! We’ve ignited a state change in the opposite direction of the usual curve.

BG: So you just composted that first year, and not subsequent years?

JW: Yes.  A single application of ½ inch of compost was all it took to ignite a state change on grazed rangeland.  Our research has identified a mechanism. We have a treatment, which is putting on compost, and we have a soil system, which is grazed rangeland. And now the question is – what will happen if we compost cropland, or if we compost your lawn? There are more lawns in America than cornfields.  What’s exciting is that we’ve established one complete chain of carbon cycle management that’s big enough at scale to reverse global warming. Now how do we get to scale? Is there enough compost? All these questions are exciting and great opportunities, and we’re working hard to address them.

BG: Amazing! What are your plans now that you know the results of being able to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into the ground? How are you going to get the word out to other ranchers and farmers?

JW: One of our constraints in terms of these projects was to work with existing infrastructure where appropriate, and everything we do has to be replicable, scaleable, and broadly applicable. The RCD has a national distribution system in place, so as we perfect programs here in Marin County, we’re doing it in a way that’s replicable in terms of developing procedures and protocols that anyone else can use in their system.

BG: Has Dr. Whendee Silver published reports on your research findings?

JW: A peer-reviewed paper about this research was published in Ecological Applications, a journal published by the Ecological Society of America. The full Life-Cycle Assessment of the carbon accounting has been peer-reviewed and it’s just been accepted for publication in Ecosystems Magazine. We’ve had a full financial viability study done, and it was favorable. And we’ve actually completed the protocol for this particular practice soon to be submitted to the National Carbon Registry as a methodology approved by the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, which would feed into AB32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, or local air district CEQA programs.

The Marin Planning Department understands the significance of the research, and the Board of Supervisors has granted us the money to bring the protocol to Marin’s planning process. Once we complete our work here, anybody who is doing a project who needs to mitigate emissions, and anyone who just wants to do the right thing, can look at managing their own soil to sequester carbon. This is the best possible outcome.

BG: The other added benefit is that the ranchers will have more forage.

JW: Absolutely. Also, by doing this kind of carbon management in your system, say for a lawn in a residential area, you could stop using fertilizers and reduce your water use. In gardens, it’s the same thing. It’s just a good mechanism that we should start promoting and everyone should start using

In addition to the protocol, we needed to see what these practices look like on actual working landscapes. Two years ago, we had the very good fortune of the Giacomini Dairy, the Taylor Dairy, and the Lafranchi Dairy allowing us to place research plots in the middle of their systems.  Based on those results, we are now going to scale. We are organizing three 100-acre demo projects on ranches in Marin. And we were given a $100,000 grant from the founder of Twitter and his foundation, for the planning of this expanded research and demonstration.

BG: Who should be interested in the Marin Carbon Project, and what is the message?

JW: The message is, there is every reason to be confident that we can stop and reverse global warming. That’s a great message.

BG: And we’re hitting those dangerous tipping points of runaway climate change.

JW: But the good news is our research shows the opposite possibility, where the system is exciting itself and moving in the other direction.

BG: Now we have to worry about an Ice Age.

JW: I hope so.