As our client Jeff Russell, owner of Teton Waters Ranch, has oft told us, grassland is not just grass. This statement turns out to be true on a number of levels.

In the most literal way, grasslands are comprised of varieties of species that include grasses, legumes, sedges and forbs. Anyone familiar with California’s rolling yellow hills is also lover of the noble, gnarled oaks that intermittently punctuate fields of yellow. They will have less generous feelings toward the star-thistle and poison oak that mixes in.

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"30 year old boys" © Alexandra Hammond

More broadly, grasslands are an under-protected ecosystem that have until recently, been overlooked by environmentalists. By definition, most temperate grasslands are ecosystems created by human impacts. In Northern California, our hills are covered with a mix of native and non-native species and are a landscape created and maintained by grazing cattle.

But it turns out that our impure wildlands are working hard to protect our environment. Properly managed grasslands keep erosion to a minimum, sequester significant amounts of carbon, and are home to many threatened and endangered species, including the independent human rancher.

Now, environmentalists and ranchers are building unexpected alliances based on a common goal of preserving open space and clean water. Joint Powers Agencies like the Yolo Natural Heritage Program are working to develop natural communities conservation plans that include wilderness areas along with working farms and ranches. Plans like these give farmers economic incentives to maintain sustainable practices and help regions plan for smart growth. Further down the watershed, rivers, marshes and bays run clear when grasslands are preserved upstream.

As a native of the foothills between the Bay and Sacramento, now naturalized exotic in foggy San Francisco, I hail this recognition of the landscape dearest to my heart and foremost in my mind.

Golden State grasslands
by Jon Christensen
San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2011

Those emerald green hills of spring and summer’s golden waves of windswept beauty? Turns out they’re an impure product of human history. But in the Bay Area, ranchers and environmentalists are coming “full circle,” in the words of rancher Scott Stone, to fully embrace this paradox and work together to ensure that these “working landscapes” continue to work.