Ned Wood began a life long dream of ranching in 2009, and on Friday, July 24, 2015, he now leads a thriving family business that has endured and will improve the lives of hundreds of his cows, calves and yearlings that graze the approximately 4,000 acres of drought stricken range land in the 6,255 acre East Bay Regional Park District’s Briones Regional Park (http://www.ebparks.org/parks/briones) in Contra Costa County, CA. In 2013, the drought began to dry a vast majority of the man-made ponds and more would no longer hold drinkable water for his cattle. His decision to cull some of his cattle was incentive enough to seek new ideas and solutions. He went to the USDA NRCS Service Center in Concord, CA for help and received it from District Conservationist Hilary Phillips. The USDA solution, in collaboration with the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), was to tap into a well resource on recently acquired EBRPD property at the edge of the park. The remote location made use of photovoltaic “solar” panels to power well pumps that draw ground water from hundreds of feet below the surface. “The current drought has been hard on the land, hard on the cattle and challenging on the financial health of our family business,” says Ned Wood, on the grass lands of expressing sentiments shared by hundreds of California ranchers. Wood, a rancher in the Bay area just east of San Francisco, has unique local conditions that compound the challenging drought conditions. “Where my family and I ranch in the Bay Area, much of the rangeland has public access and requires the land to be managed differently than private lands,” Wood says. To accommodate this unique intermingling of ranching and public recreating, Wood has developed lines of cattle unlike most in the country. “They have to be well-suited not only for our geographic region but they also need to have the disposition to graze while cohabitating with small children, bicyclists and dogs off-leash.” The drought has forced Wood to make the difficult decision to cull some of these uniquely adapted animals. But there has been one positive adaptation that the drought has facilitated: It was a catalyst to get Wood to visit a local conservation office to see if there was some way to better utilize the rolling land under his care. “I approached USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2014 to look at ways to improve the grazing capacity on one of our larger public leases,” said Wood. Rangelands and livestock are healthier when animals are distributed fairly evenly across the landscape with vegetation and grazing animals in balance. Under drought conditions and with the limited numbers of ponds and drainages on the parcel, animals stayed close to the few places with water, stressing those areas while not grazing elsewhere. The result is poorer conditions for the animals and the land. The NRCS, the East Bay Regional Park District and Ned joined efforts to map out the best places to put in small solar-powered wells to allow water to be pumped, stored and distributed across the remote sections of the land. This would even out grazing pressure across the landscape. Hillary Phillips, district conservationist for NRCS in Concord, California, helped Ned sign up for the 2014 drought relief program—funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)—to help with the cost of the project. “The new water development provided immediately relief for the areas of the landscape that were getting more intensive grazing pressure due to those locations having the only available water,” Wood says. “In a time when most ranchers (including myself) are dealing with operational uncertainties and hardships due to water shortages, I am actually much more optimistic today. I’ve experienced first-hand what a project like this can achieve.” New drought relief EQIP funding for 2015 has just been made available in California. Farmers and ranchers are encouraged to visit their local NRCS offices to assess opportunities for their land. East Bay Regional Park District, Briones Regional Park (http://www.ebparks.org/parks/briones) in Contra Costa County, Ca, has 6,255 acres that many animals and birds make their habitat, and forage on the grasslands or find shelter among the oaks and bays. Black-tailed deer, coyotes, squirrels, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and, commercial cattle ranching can be seen throughout the park. The land hosts a wide variety of grasses and wildflowers that benefit grazing cattle and local pollinators. To see more about the wildflowers go to: http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/files/EBRPD_files/photoguides/EBRPD_Briones_Wildflowers.pdf. Rolling, grassy hills and secluded, shady canyons, surrounded by the suburbs of Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Orinda, and Concord, Martinez and industrial areas, characterize the terrain. From Briones Peak, the highest point in the park, there are panoramic views of Mount Diablo and the Diablo Valley to the east, the Sacramento River and Delta to the north, the East Bay hills and Mt. Tamalpais to the west, and Las Trampas Regional Wilderness to the south. See, http://www.ebparks.org/Assets/_Nav_Categories/Parks/Maps/Briones+map.pdf. The entire park is a watershed that leads to man-made stock ponds for the livestock; Briones Reservoir and San Pablo Reservoir which provides local drinking water San Francisco East Bay Area; and the San Francisco Bay.
Additionally, some of the stock ponds are home the endangered California tiger salamander and Ned Wood has been working with East Bay Regional Park District to ensure certain stock ponds are maintained at a sustainable level of cloudy water with high turbidity, livestock activity in the ponds to create the proper mud; and other factors to help this salamander’s breeding habitat.
USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.