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Willits bypass proposal sparks grazing issue

Issue Date: June 15, 2011
By Christine Souza
Mendocino County rancher John Ford checks a map of properties that would be designated wetlands as mitigation for the bypass project around the town of Willits.
Photo/Christine Souza

Mendocino County landowners have learned through meetings with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has eliminated grazing on most of the land managed for wetland mitigation as part of a Highway 101 bypass project around the town of Willits.

This comes as a surprise to Mendocino County ranchers John and Charline Ford of Willits, who say the sale of their land to Caltrans included the assurance that they would be able to lease back the land for grazing.

"This project was presented to us by Caltrans as including grazing. What upsets me about this is that it is not the same as what they presented to us last year," Ford said.

Ford indicated that they probably would not have sold their property if they knew there would be no grazing. Ford was particularly concerned, saying, "We didn't sign our documents (to sell the property) until early December, and at a recent meeting Caltrans said that they knew there was going to be a substantial reduction in grazing as early as November."

"I'm not trying to refuse the freeway, I'm saying live up to your part of the bargain; I've lived up to mine," Ford said.

While the California Water Board and the California Department of Fish and Game were in favor of grazing the land last spring, Dave Kelley, Willits Bypass project manager for Caltrans, said by November he learned that the Army Corps would not issue Caltrans a (Clean Water Act) Section 404 permit for the construction of the bypass until the mitigation plan eliminated grazing on the majority of the mitigation property.

"The simplest explanation I have is they (Corps) determined the hydrology and soils exist for wetlands, but the vegetation is degraded and they've determined that is because of grazing," Kelley said. "They want a more diverse vegetative development to happen."

Caltrans' proposed highway project includes 65 wetland acres, including 45 acres of permanent wetlands and 20 acres of temporary wetlands. To offset the loss in wetlands and other acreage, Caltrans must enhance more acres in the region with newly-created wetlands.

"In the area, there are very few creation opportunities available. Any place that we've identified that would be suitable for creation was determined to already be a low-quality wetland by the Corps. We can't get credit for creating wetlands on wetland, so we're going into a mix of mitigation that includes 24 acres of creation and a significant amount of property that we're going to be enhancing," Kelley said.

Caltrans purchased $16 million worth of migitation properties—about 1,800 acres—most of which are grazed. About 700 acres are to now be set aside for Bakers Meadowfoam, a rare plant species in California, although there will be grazing on those properties, Kelley added. About 1,000 additional acres from the purchases will not be grazed in the future.

Jane Hicks, Regulatory division chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Francisco District, said Caltrans purchased properties without first consulting the Army Corps.

"Caltrans has purchased properties that are mostly wetlands for their wetland mitigation and that's a problem for the Corps because we need to replace wetlands with new wetlands," said Hicks. "What we asked Caltrans to do is get us involved while they are looking at properties so that we can tell them if there are wetlands on them already, or what the potential would be for wetland establishment on those properties. That did not happen in this project; they went out and bought properties that were already wetlands and so how do we give them wetland creation or establishment credit on properties that are existing wetlands?"

As for the 1,000 acres that cannot be grazed, Dan Martel, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetland specialist, said the figure represents a patchwork of parcels in varying states that may or may not qualify for new wetland creation credit.

"When you start adding things up... about 780 acres are available for credit and then there's some additional acres involved that don't get credit for various reasons. Because they are intermingled in the parcels and not really opportunities for creation or other enhancements, they basically get put into the package as preservation," Martel said.

The only way to improve the parcels, Martel said, is to "allow the vegetation to begin to succeed to an unmanaged state."

California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Jack Rice said the structure of the mitigation requirements has changed considerably.

"Until the Corps changed its mind late last year, grazing was an integral part of the mitigation plan which is acceptable to Farm Bureau because the impacts to agriculture were minimal since the land, while managed to improve wetland function, also included agricultural production," Rice said. "It is generally recognized that properly-managed grazing benefits wetlands."

The decision by the Army Corps to rule out grazing is a concern for ranchers in Mendocino and elsewhere, Rice said.

"The decision that grazing is incompatible with healthy wetlands is contrary to existing science which indicates that properly managed grazing is actually advantageous to wetland health," Rice said. "It is important that we recognize that properly managed grazing is compatible with, and in some cases essential to, healthy wetlands."

Mendocino County Resource Conservation District Executive Director Jan Olave said it was clear that grazing would be allowed since the beginning of the process.

"Last December, the Army Corps kind of took a left turn and here we have the minimization or elimination of grazing; it raised some red flags," Olave said. "It was understood right from the beginning that it (grazing) would be used as a tool."

If the Army Corps eliminates grazing from the project, Rice said, this significantly changes the environmental impacts of the project, particularly to agricultural land.

"As the project stood last year, the impact to ag land was more or less limited to the actual footprint of the freeway. Once they removed grazing from the equation, you are converting 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land," Rice said. "The environmental review documents must address those impacts."

Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Jones said the Farm Bureau is concerned with the lack of science produced by the Army Corps to limit or deny grazing on the proposed wetlands.

"Our major concerns are: what is the science behind this that is demonstrating that grazing is not able to be used as a management tool on these properties, and if this moves forward, this will be used as 'case law' for other situations involving grazing and use of agricultural land?" she said.

Elisa Noble, California Farm Bureau Federation director of livestock, public lands and natural resources, said it is not clear why the Corps is requiring such a large reduction in grazing on the Sec. 404 mitigation ground that Caltrans purchased from local farmers.

"It appears that the Army Corps is being both overly broad and ambiguous in their requirements for Caltrans to obtain the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit necessary to build the Willits Bypass," Noble said. "Unfortunately, we have seen this pattern with other projects in the Army Corps' Sacramento and San Francisco districts, which oversee Central and Northern California. At the federal level, the Army Corps is being similarly zealous with the recent release of their 'Draft Guidance on Identifying Waters Protected by the Clean Water Act,' which CFBF believes will significantly expand the geographical jurisdiction of lands that will be subject to the Clean Water Act."

Another issue is that much of the land slated for conversion is currently protected by the Williamson Act and cannot be taken out of agricultural production while under contract, Rice said.

"It looks like we're going to be all right with the Williamson Act because we're a public agency buying this and we're not destroying the ground," Kelley said.

Anna Cox, who operates a goat dairy and cheese plant and grows hay in Willits, did not sell her property to Caltrans, but is surrounded on three sides by mitigation properties and still remains concerned about the threat of eminent domain.

"We have a passion for farming and we love the land and our animals," Cox said. "I don't know what is going to happen to the land and who is going to manage it."

Andy Mackey, co-manager of Mendocino Farmers Market and a participant in the local food movement, said removing the ability to graze the property would be devastating.

"If you look at John Ford's land it is beautiful; it is a perfect system. Grazing is essential to preserving the land," Mackey said. "A lot of environmental people associate grazing with being bad for the land and that is a common misconception. To see what John is doing, it is a model."

Caltrans hopes to complete construction of a new segment of Route 101 that will bypass the City of Willits, by 2016 at a cost of $165 million.

"It (Willits) is quite a choke point in the interregional transportation, so this bypasses that community," Kelley said. "The best scenario would be to start in 2012 and finish in 2016."

Once Caltrans finalizes its mitigation and monitoring plan and it is approved by the Army Corps, the federal agency intends to hold a public meeting in Willits. Kelley said he expects this meeting to happen in late July or early August and at that time, the public will be provided an opportunity to comment on the plan.

For more information about Caltrans' Willits bypass project, go to www.dot.ca.gov/dist1/d1projects/willits/.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@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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