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Executive order aims to conserve land, biodiversity

Issue Date: October 14, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

A new California Biodiversity Collaborative will help determine how to carry out an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom aimed at conserving 30% of California's land and marine areas by 2030—and agricultural organizations said they would participate to assure the collaborative recognizes stewardship efforts carried out on the state's farms and ranches.

Under Newsom's executive order, issued last week, state agencies will "deploy a number of strategies to store carbon in the state's natural and working lands and remove it from the atmosphere." The state Department of Natural Resources will assemble the biodiversity collaborative with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Environmental Protection Agency and other state agencies.

The collaborative will bring together additional governmental agencies, business and community leaders, indigenous tribes and others to explore ways to protect the state's biodiversity—the definition of which, for the order's purposes, has not yet been established. The order directs the collaborative to come up with strategies to address biodiversity, economic sustainability and food security by Feb. 1, 2022.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said although he's skeptical of executive orders for lawmaking purposes, "we look forward to early and robust discussions about the real work needed to protect California's working lands."

"Farming and ranching represent the oldest and best green economy in the world, always focused on sustainability and adaptability," Johansson said. "Growing plants pulls carbon out of the air, and California farmers do that better than anyone—all while conserving water, energy, soil and wildlife habitat, and reducing emissions from equipment, vehicles and livestock."

Taylor Roschen, a CFBF policy advocate, said the practical effect of the order on California farmers, ranchers and other agricultural professionals depends on how the agencies and the stakeholders, including Farm Bureau, "discuss what programs and practices we use and whether or not that fits into how they define biodiversity."

Defining the term is one of the jobs of the collaborative.

"If they define it from the soil level, such as microorganisms, we may be able to get credit for participation in programs like the Williamson Act or agricultural easements that preserve agricultural lands, halt higher-density uses on those lands and maintain soil habitat for diverse microorganisms," Roschen said.

Or, she said, "biodiversity" could be defined differently, requiring overt on-farm management practices, in which case many current agricultural-lands programs might not qualify.

"They've said that the job of that collaborative is to establish a baseline, look at the impacts of climate change, inventory the efforts that are taking place and track them, and then advance what they've termed as multi-benefit projects," Roschen said.

That means Farm Bureau, other agricultural groups and individual farmers and ranchers will need to describe what they do on a regular basis to benefit biodiversity, she said, and to have the agencies acknowledge and give credit to agriculture for those efforts. Roschen said farmers and ranchers already take a multitude of actions that fit with the state's goals.

"A simple practice such as crop rotation restores the microorganisms of the soil and allows the biodiversity to thrive," she said. "Rice has long been providing habitat for wintering birds that are on the Pacific Flyway."

Grazing practices help control nonnative or invasive species, she added, while planting cover crops and pollinator habitat can help regenerate or attract beneficial species.

"Windbreaks control for erosion and maintain that healthy topsoil and biodiversity," Roschen said. "Really, every commodity seems to have more than a couple of different practices."

Roschen said her goal is "to make sure we are an active participant on that collaborative" in order to "share the good things we're doing and to provide guidance to the agencies on where they should make investments, not where they should require additional regulations."

Johansson said new regulations would be counterproductive.

"Working lands only work when people are allowed to work them," Johansson said. "We must remember the need to produce affordable food for people and maintain a regulatory environment that allows new businesses to start and existing businesses to grow. Actions stemming from this executive order should not intensify the existing regulatory environment that ignores the economic diversity of agriculture, and should not favor preservation over the use of renewable resources for public benefit."

The California Cattlemen's Association said cattle graze 38 million acres of working lands in California and will have a role in helping the state achieve its objectives.

"Livestock grazing and conservation are not mutually exclusive," CCA Executive Vice President Billy Gatlin said in a statement. "California cannot reach its conservation goals without working with ranchers to conserve rangelands and expand grazing in our state."

Roschen said public agencies need to be open to hearing from private landowners and those who work public lands, noting that the order requires CDFA to put together a group of agricultural stakeholders to identify "farmer- and rancher-led solutions."

"Agriculture is inherently conservation-minded," Roschen said. "All operations are. My hope is that they'll take that under consideration and listen earnestly to what farmers, ranchers, dairymen and foresters all have to say before they determine what's going to be the course of action."

The governor's executive order pursues goals outlined in a bill that failed in the state Legislature this year, Assembly Bill 3030 by Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose. CFBF led a coalition of working-lands organizations opposed to the bill because the measure did not consider the biodiversity benefits of the Williamson Act land-conservation law, the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program and agricultural easements, among other things.

The order can be read at www.gov.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/10.07.2020-EO-N-82-20-.pdf.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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