The purpose of this dissertation is to explore, in two particular cases, the full range of what might happen if grazing were removed from public land, and to examine what this means for the role public lands play in local land use and conservation. This dissertation uses in-depth interviews of ranchers, managers, and experts to look at these issues and focuses on the interconnection between private grazing lands and public grazing permits in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area as a case study, with a comparison to a case study in the central Sierra Nevada foothills.
Both the US Forest Service and the three local agencies involved in this research have the ability to affect private land use on a large scale. In both study areas, participants depend heavily on public land leases, and consider them valuable to the sustainability of ranch operations. Evidence suggests that a change in public land grazing access could push some lessees out of business, which may result in the sale of private base ranches for development, with consequences for land conservation and wildlife habitat. Instead, public policy could encourage the persistence of ranching, with its attendant ecosystem service benefits.
The ranchers in these two study areas are in their fifties and sixties, are predominantly male, are mostly cow/calf producers, have diverse operation sizes (acres and animal numbers), and have long histories in their areas or on their ranches. They are also akin to other ranchers across the West who love their work and lifestyle, live with low profit expectations from ranching, and generally have family members who work off-ranch.
Private leasing is very important to participant ranchers in both study areas with the majority of participants using at least one private lease in addition to their public lease. Bay Area participant operations are on average 80% leased on an acre basis. Yet the private leases in both regions are reported to be threatened by land use intensification or sale for development. Half the average Bay Area operation's annual forage acres are owned by the public and both groups attribute almost half of their livestock income to the use of a public lease. In addition to the public lease acreage and income contributions to lessee operations, lack of other alternatives is another motivator for public land use in these case studies. Because of development pressures, public leases are also seen as more stable. The public land cattle grazing lessees in both areas appear to have been using the public lands for a very long time, in some cases longer than the agencies have owned the lands or had a grazing program. Most participants in this study have family who started their operations in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and their herd sizes and private operational acres appear to be larger than other local studies and state averages. Agency choices in lessees could end up shaping the local community and landscape.
In the Bay Area, lessee-associated private leased and owned lands are frequently adjacent to a public open space reserve or to their public lease and are acting as buffers and corridors for the public lands. Over 294,000 acres of private land are likely connected to the USFS permittees in the central Sierra and in Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties the 29 study participants are connected to at least 17%, and likely even more, of the private rangelands within the two counties. If they lose their public lease or permit entirely, 35% of the central Sierra participants and 56% of the Alameda and Contra Costa ranch landowners would likely have to sell at least some land to compensate. These rates of proposed land sale due to public lease loss are higher than any other study has found across the West. The evidence also suggests that a change in public land grazing access could push some lessees out of business, even though they currently have heirs to take over, and future plans to expand their businesses.