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Conservation and Controversy: Agricultural Landscapes of Marin County CA

By Brenda Barrett January 26, 2020
Farming Landscape Marin County CA

The San Francisco Bay Area has an extraordinarily rich and diverse food system that is an integral part of the region’s economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and regional identity. A recent white paper estimated the annual value of the food economy to be around $113 billion, employing close to half a million people, around 13 percent of the region’s workforce.  While Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is only one part of this system, it is nationally known for the quality of its food products. However, not so long ago, the county’s agriculture lands and open space were threatened by rampant development

The powerful book Farming on the Edge: Saving Family Farms in Marin County by John Hart (University of California Berkeley 1991) recounts the early efforts to save the region from over-development. In his foreword to the book, Wendell Berry writes that the success of these open space initiatives “Brings tears to your eyes.” He notes that the landscape would not have been saved if the conservationists and the country people had not made common cause.  And he concludes that his one wish for the future is that there would be more conversation about the value of locally produced food. He opines that “Securest guarantee of the long-term good health of both farmland and city is, I believe, locally produced food.”

Cowgirl Creamery stand at the Tomales Store Point Reyes Station

Written more than thirty years ago, Berry’s dearest wish has indeed come true. Today Marin County’s locally and organically grown products are prominently featured in all the regional farm markets and restaurants. Food tourism is big business. Brands like Cow Girl Creamery are nationally known and the cheeses are so desirable that they have been acquired by international corporations.

Two strategies helped preserve the farmland. First, was the local government’s recognition of the need to act by adopting plans and appropriate zoning for agricultural conservation. Second, was the establishment of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, one of the earliest land trusts to focus on working lands in the country. Today the trust holds easements on 86 family farms and ranches protecting 54,209 acres. 

Ranch Point Reyes National Seashore

However, the future of one portion of the agricultural lands in Marin is still uncertain – the lands known as the Pastoral Zone of Point Reyes National Seashore. The back story of these now 13 farms and ranches in the northern section of the park is a long and winding tale.  Originally, the idea behind creating a system of National Seashores was to secure access to the coastline near large population centers for the scenic and recreational enjoyment of the public.

This was the goal when Point Reyes was designated in 1962. The existing ranching and agricultural uses of the land within the park boundaries, uses that dated back over 150 years, were not seen as incompatible with the establishment of the park. In the following decades, the National Park Service re-prioritized its attention to include a much greater focus on natural resource protection. The agency and many environmental activists began to raise concerns about the impact of farming and ranching practices on these resources. The debate only intensified following the controversial cancellation of a lease for harvesting oysters in Drake Estuary and the re-introduction of a now expanding Tule Elk herd into the park. Congress has weighed in on the side of continued ranching  and a number of environmental groups on the side of re-wilding.

The debate was framed as cattle or elk?

Tule Elk in the Pastoral Zone Point Reyes National Seashore

Over the years, the National Park Service response to this contentious issue has been to undertake more planning and environmental assessments. A final decision on the future of working lands within park boundaries now projected to be issued in the Spring of 2020. The preferred alternative from these plans seems to be a continuation of use for landowners with many caveats and proposed new measures for environmental protection, elk conservation etc… Seems sensible, but perhaps a more vigorous endorsement of the cultural value of the dairying and ranching with the park is what is really needed. In Farming on the Edge, Jon Hart writes that if agriculture is to survive in West Marin Point then Point Reyes cannot be be excluded – “Point Reyes, after all, had been the heartland, the first and famous dairy district, with the foggiest fog, the greenest grass and the most hospitable terrain”.

Cowgirl Creamery

Today, as when the above was written in 1991, the dairies on Point Reyes constitute a significant percentage of the milk production in the county. Of the county’s 23 dairies, 8 are within the park. This is not just a historic use, but an important part of the regional food web and what makes the region culturally significant. The Marin Agricultural Land Trust supports the importance of these properties for food production. In addition the organization makes the case for their environmental value as a managed coastal grassland for habitat for endangered species, for sequestering carbon, storing water, supporting pollinators and keeping invasive plant species in check

 In conclusion, perhaps we need to revisit Wendell Berry’s 1991 wishes and words of wisdom about the value of a local agricultural economy. “Such an economy would make practical and economic connections between the people of the farms and the people of the city. These connections are necessary, and they imply further connections of mind and spirit.” Decades later one of the founders of Cowgirl Creamery Sue Conley agrees, “The ranches have contributed significantly to the sustainable food scene” in the area. It’s a great model to have working farms in a national seashore, connecting consumers with farmers. There’s a consciousness that comes from being around nature and farming that’s really important to urban life.” 

Unfortunately, this vision of what our parks and protected areas should be striving for is not yet in the tradition of the US National Park Service. Our current model gives a thumbs up to scenery, recreation, natural resource protection, and even historic properties, but there is no provision for living and working landscapes such as they have in Europe and other parks across the globe. Now we just need the National Park Service to add this to the values for which our parks were created.

Note:  For an in depth discussion of the challenges the National Park Service has faced and still faces today, see the excellent book by Laura Watts The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore University of California Press 2016.

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San Antonio Missions: Learning from the World Heritage Experience

By Brenda Barrett February 21, 2016

Mission San Jose San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Credit: Dan Stern

Mission San Jose
San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Credit: Dan Stern

On October 17, 2015 dignitaries from around the country gathered to celebrate the inscription of the San Antonio Missions as the 23rd World Heritage Site in the Untied States (US) and the first in Texas. The San Antonio Missions are a group of five frontier mission complexes situated along an over seven mile stretch of the San Antonio River. Inscribed under Work Heritage Criterion ii the missions are described as “ an example of the interweaving of the cultures of the Spanish and the Coahuiltecan and other indigenous peoples, illustrated in a variety of elements, including the integration of the indigenous settlements towards the central plaza, the decorative elements of the churches which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous natural designs, and the post-secularization evidence which remains in several of the missions and illustrates the loyalty to the shared values beyond missionary rule. The substantial remains of the water distribution systems are yet another expression of this interchange between indigenous peoples, missionaries, and colonizers that contributed to a fundamental and permanent change in the cultures and values of those involved.”

Behind the well-deserved World Heritage hoopla and the carefully crafted statement of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value, there is more than a decade of hard work. As interested in World Heritage recognition grows in the country and around the globe, what can we learn from the hard won experience of the San Antonio Missions? A few lesson for existing and aspiring World Heritage properties are:

Think long term – While the first official step is gaining a spot on the state parties tentative list; this is preceded by many prerequisites. For example n the US cultural properties must first be designated as a National Historic Landmark. All this takes a good deal of time. The San Antonio Missions were officially proposed for the World Heritage Tentative list in a 2006 Federal Register listing.

Seek Out champions –The International Office of the National Park Service (NPS) manages the development of the tentative list and in partnership the State Department determines, which sites will be proffered to the world body ICOMOS for consideration. There is no question that determined champions are critical. In the case of the missions the number of advocates was along one starting with the nationally respected San Antonio Conservation Societ . Also important were the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park’s  friends groups Los Compadres. Finally, unified political support at the city, county, state and national support was invaluable.

 Gain expert support – Only properties that meet the World Heritage criteria for Outstanding Universal Value can be considered for inscription. The NPS and the park leadership contributed their expertise behind the effort to nominate the missions. They helped convene an experts meeting 2012 to help frame the argument for World Heritage designation. They also hired an professional in preparing the dossier for presentation to the World Heritage Committee.

Anticipate the Management Plan – Just as challenging in many ways as making the case for Outstanding Universal Value is developing a credible management plan for the resource. Particular difficult is to develop a buffer to zone to protect the property. While this might be easier in a discrete historic sites, the missions located in a complex urban and rural with multiple property owners. What made the management plan for the resource credible was all the historic preservation land use controls that had been implemented for the region over the last several decades.

Be prepared to spend money – A World Heritage nomination is a pricey document. While the San Antonio supporter raised several hundred thousand dollars, they estimate that over half a million in in kind services were contributed to the effort. These included a NPS expert staff position In addition, much of lead writer and historian’s time was donated as well a, student interns and untold volunteer hours from the friends group and the Conservation Society helped reduce the costs.

After designation the real work begins! – After a site is listed what is next? In San Antonio a community where tourism is economic development; the promotional opportunities of the designation are very important. However, the community is also using the designation to deepen their connection to the past and the heritage of its diverse citizens. To learn more about ongoing programing on the World Heritage at the missions, visit the excellent San Antonio Missions Word Heritage *Our Heritage web site. 

Many thanks to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park staff Susan Snow who serves as the site’s World Heritage Coordinator and  to Tom Costanos, Volunteer and Partnership Coordinator, both of whom gave generously of their time. All the wise words were from them, any errors are mine!

 

 

 

 

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Fabos Conference: Building a Movement

By Brenda Barrett April 30, 2013

Landscape architects, regional planners, academics, and students from over 20 countries gathered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the Fabos Conference on Landscape and Greenway Planning (April 11-12, 2013). The conference theme was Pathways to Sustainability, but what really brought them together was Julius Gy. Fabos now Emeritus Professor in Landscape Architecture Department. Over his long and distinguished career, he has written the book Greenways: The Beginning of an International Movement (Elsevier, 1996) as well as hundreds of articles on the greenway movement, but even more importantly he attracted students from all over the world. His students went forth and implemented these ideas in Portugal, India, China, and beyond. The Fabos conference is held every three years alternating between the United States and Europe – the 2010 conference was held in Budapest. The goal is bring together experts who are influencing landscape planning, policy making and greenway planning from the local to international level.  The event was all of that and more with the celebratory vibe of a 25th anniversary class reunion.

Another landscape scale movement, the heritage areas, held a brief retrospective at the Fabos Conference.  The heritage area idea was founded in many of same impulses as the early greenway approach. Glenn Eugester, retired NPS, traces their evolution to related strategies to coordinate natural resource conservation, historic preservation, land use and economic development on a regional scale. Moderated by U Mass- Amherst Professor Ethan Carr, the panel provided a backward glance on the origins of the heritage area movement. Paul Bray and David Sampson traced the important legacy of both the greenway and heritage programs in the state of New York. Eleanor Mahoney reviewed the significant contribution National Heritage Areas have played in preserving industrial history and the landscapes of American labor.  I summarized what we can learn from evaluations of twelve of the early National Heritage Areas about successful regional scale management over a period of fifteen to twenty years. The four papers from this panel are available in the Research and Writing section of the Living Landscape Observer.

Next year the National Heritage Area idea will turn thirty and it is time for reflection and taking stock.  Until the Fabos Conference, I never thought that much about the nexus between academia and changing the world.  Paul Bray summed it up “I was impressed with the success Julius Fabos has had in scattering the seeds for greenways in many nations.” The heritage area movement needs their own Johnny Appleseed to nurture the idea, write the book, and engage the next generation of practitioners.

Read all the conference proceedings here.

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Newly Released Report on Landscape Conservation finds that Size Matters

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2012

It is all the rage these days to convey information with “big” numbers and the just released report by the Regional Plan Association (RPA) is no exception. The report “Landscapes: Improving Conservation Practice in the Northeast Megaregion” uses state of the art mapping and statistics to look at large landscape conservation initiatives in the densely developed 13 states of the Northeast.

These initiatives seek to protect vital natural and cultural resources in a region of over 72 million people. While they vary in scale and in organizational structure, they share a whole systems approach that is both multi-jurisdictional and multi-objective. The new report makes recommendations for improving these large conservation efforts that stretch across city and state boundaries including how to address governance questions, ensure adequate financial resources, and create tools for measuring the impact of these regional efforts.

So let’s go back to the numbers.  The number of large landscape projects launched in the last couple of decades in the Northeastern United States as reported by the Regional Plan Association 165, the number of designated National Heritage Areas 49, the number of areas that want to become National Heritage Areas – even in this congressional environment – more than 12, and the number of Conservation Landscapes Initiatives underway right now in Pennsylvania 7.   The number of large landscape projects across the nation, well that is anyone’s guess!

To assist this new movement, the Regional Plan Association is  funding a peer exchange program in the fall of 2012 for qualified, non-profit organizations. The program will pair emerging landscape initiatives with more established projects in a series of workshops across the Northeast. Landscape scale conservation also will be the topic of a  conference scheduled for June 2012 in New York City.

So, by whatever trend-spotting metric you prefer, large landscapes is a growing field. Across the nation, the idea of working on a regional scale by engaging a multiplicity of partners and funding sources is being proposed and, in many cases, acted upon. But, while the program frameworks are different, the critical ingredients are often similar and so are the challenges. In the current political climate, the value of any project that does not deliver direct benefit on the ground (and even some that do!) can expect to be challenged. How to fund the infrastructure of partnerships and how to measure believable outcomes on a large landscape scale is the big question? And if your landscape project has not been asked this question yet, it is coming your way.

 

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