History of fire and drought shapes the ecology of California, past and future

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

ESA’s 99th
Annual Meeting

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org

 

Fire season has arrived in California with vengeance in this third year of extended drought for the state. A series of large fires east of Redding and Fresno, in Yosemite, and on the Oregon border prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency on Sunday, August 3rd.

As force of destruction and renewal, fire has a long and intimate history with the ecology of California. Ecological scientists will discuss aspects of that history in detail at the upcoming 99th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America on August 10 – 15th, 2014.

“Big fires today are not outside the range of historical variation in size,” said Jon Keeley, an ecologist based in Three Rivers, Cal., with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, and a Fellow of the Ecological Society.

Keeley will present research on the “association of megafires and extreme droughts in California” at the Annual Meeting as part of a symposium on understanding and adapting to extreme weather and climate events.

He will synthesize his research on the history of wildfire across the entire state, contrasting historical versus contemporary and forested versus non-forested patterns of wildfire incidence. He and his colleagues reviewed Forest Service records dating to 1910, as well as a wealth of newspaper clippings, compiled by a Works Progress Administration archival project, that stretch back to the middle of the last century.

Understanding historical fire trends, Keeley said, means recognizing that when we talk about wildfire in California we are talking about two very different fire regimes in two different ecosystems: the mountain forests and the lower elevation chaparral, oak woodlands, and grasslands.

A controlled burn of central marine chaparral conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Ord, Cal., on October 14, 2013.Credit, U.S. Army.

A controlled burn of central marine chaparral conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Ord, Cal., on October 14, 2013. Credit, U.S. Army.

The chaparral shrublands of southern California, and similar sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin, are not adapted to the kind of frequent fire typical of the mountain conifer forests in California. Fires in the lower elevation ecosystems are always crown fires, which kill most of the vegetation. In the millennia before humans arrived, these ecosystems burned at intervals of 100 to 130 years.

These lower elevation ecosystems experienced unprecedented fire frequency in the last century, with fire returning to the same area every 10 to 20 years, altering the ecology of the landscape.

“In Southern California, lower elevation ecosystems have burned more frequently than ever before. I think it’s partly climate, but also people starting fires during bad conditions,” Keeley said. Bad conditions include extended droughts and dry fall days when the Santa Ana winds blow through the canyons.

In high elevation conifer forests, spring temperatures and drought are strongly correlated with fire, and Keeley thinks climate change and management choices are likely playing a role in current trends. But in the hotter, drier valleys and foothills cloaked in grass, oak, and chaparral, human behavior dominates. Through arson or accident, in southern California, over 95% of fires are started by people, according to Cal Fire.

“Climate change is certainly important on some landscapes. But at lower elevation, we should not be thinking just about climate change,” said Keeley. “We should be thinking about all global change.” Land use change and population growth create more opportunities for fires to start.

The high frequency of fire has instigated a persistent switch from chaparral to grass in some areas. Frequent fire favors quick germination and spread of forbs and grasses. Most grasslands in California are not native.

Since the more recent arrival of immigrants from Europe and Asia, several of the exotic grasses they brought with them from the Old World have been quick to capitalize on the opportunities presented by fires to spread invasively throughout roughly a quarter of chaparral country. To Keeley, this means that prescribed fires in lower elevation ecosystems now have entirely different consequences for the regional ecology than they did when native Californian peoples set fires to manipulate resources.

“When the Native Americans did it, they did not affect native species so much, because native perennial bunchgrass and other herbaceous species grew in,” said Keeley. “Once the aliens got here, it completely changed.”

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Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting, August 10-15th, 2014, in Sacramento, Cal.

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Symposium 5-4 -The association of megafires and extreme droughts in California
In: Extreme Weather and Climate Events: Understanding and Adapting to Ecosystem Responses
Tuesday, August 12, 2014: 9:40 AM
Speaker: Jon E. Keeley, Western Ecological Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Three Rivers, Cal.

Organized oral session 5-2-A history of megafires and extreme droughts in California
In: Shrubland Resilience and Recovery After Disturbance
Monday, August 11, 2014: 1:50 PM
Speaker: Jon E. Keeley, Western Ecological Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Three Rivers, Cal.

More fire ecology at the upcoming meeting:  http://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#fire

 

Organized oral session 6-6: What do changing climate suggest about future fire frequency in California
In: Ecological drought in California forests: linking climate science and resource management
Monday, August 11, 2014: 3:20 PM, rm 307
Speaker: Mark W. Schwartz , Environmental Science & Policy, University of California, Davis, Davis, Cal.

More drought ecology at the upcoming meeting: http://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#drought

 

Additional Resources:

  • Jon E. Keeley and Paul H. Zedler (2009). Large, high-intensity fire events in southern California shrublands: debunking the fine-grain age patch model. Ecological Applications 19:69–94. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/08-0281.1
  • Safford, Hugh D.; Van de Water, Kip M. (2014). Using Fire Return Interval Departure (FRID) Analysis to Map Spatial and Temporal Changes in Fire Frequency on National Forest Lands in California. Res. Pap. PSW-RP-266. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 59 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_rp266/
  • Online Special Issue: Prescribed burning in fire-prone landscapes. (2014). Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11 (August). http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/11/s1

 

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

The Rim Fire one year later: a natural experiment in fire ecology and management

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

99th Annual Meeting
The Ecological Society of America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 31, 2014
Contact:
Ecological Society of America: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org
U.S. Forest Service: Jon Heil (707) 562-9004, jheil@fs.fed.us

 

The enormous conflagration known as the Rim Fire was in full fury, raging swiftly from crown to crown among mature trees, when it entered the backcountry of Yosemite National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada in late August 2013. But inside the park, the battle began to turn, enacting a case study in the way management decisions and drought can combine to fuel large, severe fires.

“When the Rim Fire hit the park, it eventually encountered lands where fire had been used as a management tool, rather than immediately suppressed,” said Hugh Safford, a regional ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service based out of Vallejo, Cal. “When the Rim Fire hit these areas, the amount and continuity of forest fuel became a limiting factor,” he said. “There just wasn’t enough fuel in the system to keep it going.”

Safford will lead a group of visiting ecologists on a two-day excursion into the Rim Fire’s path this August during the Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting  to view the effects of the fire on adjacent landscapes that have been managed very differently over the last century.

Fire ecology is a hot topic at this year’s meeting, which will bring 3,500 environmental scientists to Sacramento on August 10-15th to discuss the most recent advances in ecological research, education, and policy.

Day one of the field trip will take visitors to sites in the Stanislaus National Forest, and day two to the National Park.

“The minute you leave the park, you’re on lands that get used by a lot of people for a lot of things,” Safford said. “The Forest Service is dealing with places that have had a lot of human impact and occupants.”

The Rim Fire: a natural experiment

Rim Fire, California 2013. Mike McMillan, USFS.

Fire Line. The Rim Fire blazes in tree crowns of the Stanislaus National Forest, California, in late August, 2013. Credit, Mike McMillan/ U.S. Forest Service.

The Rim Fire is in a sense a natural experiment. Yosemite, set aside in 1864, is mostly old growth forest, in which lightning-ignited fires have often been allowed to burn since the 1970s. The National Forest is a working landscape that includes private lands, major highways, dams, power lines, and communities, which the Forest Service protects by suppressing wildfire.

“I’m not suggesting one’s right and one’s wrong, but it presents an interesting contrast,” Safford said, “It’s a good case study to look at the effects of large, severe fires on watersheds subject to different management regimes.”

The fir, cedar, and pine forests of the high Sierra are adapted to frequent fires ignited by lightning.  Fire scars on older trees, including the 2000-year-old giant sequoias record a history of low intensity fires recurring every 10 to 20 years. Fires that burned at low intensity through the understory tended to kill few of the mature trees, on the order of 5 to 10 percent. Recent studies have found that wildfires in the mixed conifer forests of the Sierra often run out of fuel and go out when they encounter sections of forest that have already burned within the last decade.

Though it smoldered on into October, by September 3rd, 2013, the Forest Service was reporting that the Rim Fire was 70 percent contained. Most of the acreage burned in the first week. The blaze that began as an alarming, out-of-control monster became just another big fire that managers were using to do ecological work.

Ignited by a hunter’s illegal campfire near the Rim of the World Vista in Stanislaus National Forest on August 17th, the fire ultimately burned for three months, consuming 257,314 acres of trees and $127 million taxpayer dollars. Smoke from the fire prompted air quality warnings from the Bay Area to Reno, Nev. It was the largest recorded fire in the Sierra Nevada.

A trend toward mega-fires

In the past few decades, ecologists have noted a trend toward intense “mega-fires” in the mountain forests of the western states. Recent record-breaking fires in Arizona and New Mexico join the  2013 Rim Fire, the 250,000-acre Carlton Complex fire currently burning in eastern Washington State, and the even larger Buzzard Complex fire in Oregon.

According to Safford, increased fuel on National Forest lands resulting from the long-term lack of fire is one of the principal drivers of recent increases in the size and severity of wildfires, trends which appear to be absent in the National Parks.

“The Rim Fire is not random occurrence. It’s part of a trend in big fires, and a real wake up call,” Scott Stephens agreed. Stephens, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, authored a recent review on the characteristics and challenges of mega-fires with fellow fire specialists from Australia, Canada, Spain, and China, as well as the western U.S. in the March 2014 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Large fires are a problem facing many of the world’s temperate and boreal forests. As was the case with the Rim Fire, mega-fires are often driven by a combination of drought, heat, wind, fuel from fire suppression, budget cuts, and encroaching development, Stephens said.

These big fires are more expensive to contain and to recover from than the more frequent but less destructive fires that used to characterize the Sierra’s mixed conifer forests, and they are dangerous for firefighters. They char enormous swaths of land, leaving large areas of up to 30,000 acres with no mature trees to seed a new generation.

“Most of the trees died in the Rim Fire. Not just the little guys. We’re looking at multiple patches of high severity fire that are of thousands of acres in size,” said Safford. “Where are the seeds going to come from? The landscape will be dominated by brush for a long time.”

Prelude to a habitat regime change

Very large, intense fires can take out entire habitat ranges, and, in combination with the pressures of land use change and development, leave nowhere for animals to retreat and await regrowth (while at the same time benefitting species that thrive in snag fields). Forest is slow to return, topsoil erodes, and quick-spreading opportunistic exotics capitalize on the disturbance.

In concert with warming climate, which is increasing water stress on forest species, there is potential for a permanent change in habitat type, from forest to brush or to grassland.

“After severe fire, mixed conifer forests in the Sierra Nevada are replaced by chaparral stands. When chaparral burns, it burns hot, and with the increasing frequencies of severe fire that are predicted, we expect to see progressively more forest converting to brush and not returning. With continued high fire frequencies, brush can convert to grassland as well,” said Safford. “We’re seeing that type of thing happening in southern California already, mostly in chaparral lands that are turning to fields of exotic grass.”

Questions of forest management are really questions about our priorities for the function and appearance of our landscapes—juggling priorities to protect property and respiratory health, esthetics, habitat, carbon sequestration, and water availability.

Given the difficulty of managing fire in proximity to homes and businesses, the Forest Service is considering mechanically thinning forests where it can, but these initiatives remain small in proportion to the huge fuel reduction backlog, and are currently expensive compared to controlled burning. Safford thinks it is an effort that all stakeholders should prioritize.

“We need to think about our grandkids,” said Stephens. “When I think about climate change, I look at the opportunities to do more to change the structure of the forest before big fires hit, and create the conditions so that when it does burn, we can have a party.” In 50 years, he said, opportunities are going to get squashed between the management history of the forests and an increasingly warm, dry climate. “If we begin the transformation now, we give future managers options.”

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Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting, August 10-15th, 2014, in Sacramento, Cal.

Main * Program * Press Information * App

FT 18: The 2013 Rim Fire – Forest Management Influencing Fire Ecology
Friday, August 15, 2014: 7:00 AM-7:00 PM
Organizer: Hugh Safford, U.S. Forest Service, Region 5
Co-organizers: Eric Winford , Gus Smith , Jan van Wagtendonk , Kent van Wagtendonk , Becky L. Estes and Susan L. Ustin

More fire ecology at the upcoming meetinghttp://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#fire

 

Additional Resources:

Safford, Hugh D.; Van de Water, Kip M. (2014). Using Fire Return Interval Departure (FRID) Analysis to Map Spatial and Temporal Changes in Fire Frequency on National Forest Lands in California. Res. Pap. PSW-RP-266. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 59 p. http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_rp266/

Scott L Stephens, Neil Burrows, Alexander Buyantuyev, Robert W Gray, Robert E Keane, Rick Kubian, Shirong Liu, Francisco Seijo, Lifu Shu, Kevin G Tolhurst, and Jan W van Wagtendonk (2014). Temperate and boreal forest mega-fires: characteristics and challengesFrontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 115–122. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120332

Online Special Issue: Prescribed burning in fire-prone landscapes. (2014). Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11 (August). http://www.esajournals.org/toc/fron/11/s1

 

Journalists and public information officers can gain access to full texts of all ESA publications by contacting the public affairs office. Email Liza Lester, llester@esa.org.

 

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

The control of nature: stewardship of fire ecology by native Californian cultures

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

99th Annual Meeting
The Ecological Society of America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, July 25, 2014
Contact:
Ecological Society of America: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org
U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Station: Sherri Eng (510) 559-6327; sleng@fs.fed.us

 

Before the colonial era, 100,000s of people lived on the land now called California, and many of their cultures manipulated fire to control the availability of plants they used for food, fuel, tools, and ritual. Contemporary tribes continue to use fire to maintain desired habitat and natural resources.

Frank Lake, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Station, will lead a field trip to the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge during the Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting in Sacramento, Cal., this August. Visitors  will learn about plant and animal species of cultural importance to local tribes. Don Hankins, a faculty associate at California State University at Chico and a member of the Miwok people, will co-lead the trip, which will end with a visit to California State Indian Museum.

Lake will also host a special session on a “sense of place,” sponsored by the Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of the Ecological Society, that will bring representatives of local tribes into the Annual Meeting to share their cultural and professional experiences working on tribal natural resources issues.

“The fascinating thing about the Sacramento Valley and the Miwok lands where we are taking the field trip is that it was a fire and flood system,” said Lake. “To maintain the blue and valley oak, you need an anthropogenic fire system.”

Lake, raised among the Yurok and Karuk tribes in the Klamath River area of northernmost California, began his career with an interest in fisheries, but soon realized he would need to understand fire to restore salmon. Fire exerts a powerful effect on ecosystems, including the quality and quantity of water available in watersheds, in part by reducing the density of vegetation.

“Those trees that have grown up since fire suppression are like straws sucking up the groundwater,” Lake said.

The convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers was historically one of the largest salmon bearing runs on the West Coast, Lake said, and the Miwok, Patwin and Yokut tribal peoples who lived in the area saw and understood how fire was involved.

California native cultures burned patches of forest in deliberate sequence to diversify the resources available within their region. The first year after a fire brought sprouts for forage and basketry. In 3 to 5 years, shrubs produced a wealth of berries. Mature trees remained for the acorn harvest, but burning also made way for the next generation of trees, to ensure a consistent future crop. Opening the landscape improved game and travel, and created sacred spaces.

“They were aware of the succession, so they staggered burns by 5 to 10 years to create mosaics of forest in different stages, which added a lot of diversity for a short proximity area of the same forest type,” Lake said. “Complex tribal knowledge of that pattern across the landscape gave them access to different seral stages of soil and vegetation when tribes made their seasonal rounds.”

In oak woodlands, burning killed mold and pests like the filbert weevil and filbert moth harbored by the duff and litter on the ground. People strategically burned in the fall, after the first rain, to hit a vulnerable time in the life cycle of the pests, and maximize the next acorn crop. Lake thinks that understanding tribal use of these forest environments has context for and relevance to contemporary management and restoration of endangered ecosystems and tribal cultures.

“Working closely with tribes, the government can meet its trust responsibility and have accountability to tribes, and also fulfill the public trust of protection of life, property, and resources,” Lake said. “By aligning tribal values with public values you can get a win-win, reduce fire along wildlife-urban interfaces, and make landscapes more resilient.”


Ecological Society of America’s 99th Annual Meeting, August 10-15th, 2014, in Sacramento, Cal.

Main * Program * Press Information * App

 

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.   Oct. 2010. Photo, Justine Belson/ USFWS.

Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Elk Grove, Cal. Credit, Justine Belson/ USFWS.

FT 4: Tribal Land and Resource Management in the Sacramento Valley-Delta: Fire and Culture
Saturday, August 9, 2014: 9:00 AM-5:00 PM
Organizer: Frank K. Lake, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station
Co-organizer: Don Hankins, California State University, Chico

SS 10: Sense of Place
Monday, August 11, 2014: 10:15 AM-11:30 AM
Organizer: Frank K. Lake
Co-organizer: Ronald A. Trosper
Tribes represented include: Pomo, Coastal Miwok, Plains Miwok, and Miwok.

More fire ecology at the upcoming meeting: http://esa.org/am/info/press/topics/#fire

 


The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

 

To subscribe to ESA press releases, contact Liza Lester at llester@esa.org.

California State Senator Darrell Steinberg named as ESA Regional Policy Award winner

ESA2014 Sacramento logo

99th Annual Meeting
The Ecological Society of America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Contact: Alison Mize (703) 625-3628; alison@esa.org

 

On Sunday, August 10, 2014, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) will present its seventh annual Regional Policy Award to California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg during the Society’s 99th Annual Meeting conference in Sacramento, CA. The ESA award recognizes an elected or appointed local policymaker who has an outstanding record of informing policy decisions with ecological science.

“Darrell Steinberg exemplifies leadership in promoting sustainability” said ESA President Jill Baron.  “As the California Senate President Pro Tem he championed bills to foster renewable energy, clean water and parks. He sets a high standard for policymakers everywhere.”

Elected to the California Assembly in 1998 and to the Senate in 2006, Steinberg ascended to Senate leader in late 2008. During his time in the state Senate, Steinberg authored SB 375, the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger), which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles through transit-oriented urban growth. This year, he spearheaded a framework of permanent funding for mass transit, sustainable community development and transit-oriented affordable housing using the state’s Cap and Trade revenue, and also formulated a drought relief bill that prioritizes projects focusing on water conservation. In addition, Steinberg successfully passed legislation to modernize the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Despite the deniers who bury their heads in the sand and ignore global warming, the crisis of climate change is a very real threat. It’s a threat we need to meet head-on by embracing new concepts of where we live and work, how we get there, and how we create sustainable industries and communities,” said Senate Leader . “I’m humbled by this honor, and confident that those who follow in our Legislature will continue to carry the mantle of California’s leadership in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

ESA President Baron will present the 2014 ESA Regional Policy Award at the start of theOpening Plenary on Sunday, August 10 at 5 PM in the Memorial Auditorium of the Sacramento Convention Center.Kip Lipper, Steinberg’s Chief Counsel for Energy and Environment, will accept the award on his behalf.

Learn more about the August 10 – 15, 2014 ESA Annual Meeting.


 

The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.

Zeal to ensure clean leafy greens takes bite out of riverside habitat in California

Perceived food safety risk from wildlife drives expensive and unnecessary habitat destruction around farm fields

 

Media Advisory

For release: Monday, May 6th, 2013, 12:01 am EDT
Contact: Liza Lester (202) 833-8773 x 211; llester@esa.org

 

 

Field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Farm-field buffers: vegetation loss likely due to food safety measures. From Figure 3 of the paper.

Meticulous attention to food safety is a good thing. As consumers, we like to hear that produce growers and distributers go above and beyond food safety mandates to ensure that healthy fresh fruits and vegetables do not carry bacteria or viruses that can make us sick.

But in California’s Salinas Valley, some more vigorous interventions are cutting into the last corners of wildlife habitat and potentially threatening water quality, without evidence of food safety benefits. These policies create tensions between wildlife preservation and food safety where none need exist, say scientists for The Nature Conservancy, writing in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study will be published online ahead of print on Monday, May 6th, 2013.

“Farming practices for food safety that target wildlife are damaging valuable ecological systems despite low risk from these animals,” said lead author Sasha Gennet.

Check the back of your bag of spinach or prepackaged salad greens, and you’ll probably find that they came from the Salinas Valley. Salad is big business in California.

In the aftermath of a deadly 2006 Escherichia coli serotype O157:H7 outbreak traced to California spinach, growers and distributers of leafy greens came together to create the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Agreement (LGMA) on best practices for the industry, enforced by third-party auditors and inspectors. The LGMA established standards for farm work hygiene, produce processing and transport, and proximity to livestock. About 99 percent of California leafy greens now come from participating farms.

But produce farmers in the Salinas Valley report pressure from some powerful buyers to take additional precautions not mandated by government or industry standards. These buyers insist that swathes of bare ground wider than a football field is long separate the leafy greens from rivers, wetlands and other wildlife habitat.  

Other precautions include treating irrigation water with chemicals toxic to fish and amphibians, and setting poisoned bait for rodents.

“The California Leafy Green Hander agreement is transparent, flexible and science-based,” said Gennet. “Going above and beyond it just creates costs for farmers and doesn’t improve safety.”

It also creates costs for wildlife. Although scant evidence exists of risk of food-borne disease spread by wildlife, the risk of rejection of produce by major buyers is too much for most growers to bear, say Gennet and her co-authors. They measured changes in wetlands and riverside habitat in the Salinas Valley between 2005 and 2009, finding 13.3 percent converted to bare ground, crops or otherwise diminished. Widespread introduction of fencing blocked wildlife corridors. Low barriers even kept out the frogs.

Unlike the LGMA standards, individual corporate requirements for farm produce are generally not transparent to the public. But in surveys, farmers report pressure from auditors to implement fences and bare ground buffers around spinach, lettuce, and other leafy greens.

Such pressures have set back years of collaboration between growers and environmental advocates to make farm edges slim sanctuaries for wildlife, as well as buffers between agricultural fields and waterways. Fallow strips along streams and rivers provide corridors for migrating animals and birds.

“This is an area that is already 95 percent altered – the habitat that remains is critical,” said Gennet. “Removing 13 percent of what is already heavily-impacted habitat and cutting off wildlife corridors is a significant loss.”

The Salinas River and its tributaries are an important rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major migration route for neotropical songbirds, and home to raptors and shorebirds. The waterways are also corridors for deer and other big animals moving between the high country of the Diablo Range and coastal Big Sur mountains that flank the valley.

Wetlands and buffers of trees, grasses, and shrubs help to keep runoff from fields out of the waterways, slowing erosion of soil and blooms of algae downstream. An overabundance of fertilizer has created problems for domestic drinking water as well as the ecosystems of the Salinas River watershed and its outlet, Monterey Bay.

“California has a big problem with concentrated nutrients in waterways, and there is a lot of pressure on growers to reduce those inputs – so to the extent that riverside wildlife habitat could be a benefit all around, a coordinated approach to agricultural management and policy makes the most sense,” said Gennet.

“The policies that these distributors are forming are very narrow,” said Lisa Schulte Moore, an agricultural ecologist at Iowa State University who is not affiliated with the Nature Conservancy study. Nervous distributers are looking at specific risks in isolation, she said, and not asking “does the food system create a healthy human environment?”

Schulte Moore works with Iowa farmers to incorporate native grassland habitat alongside corn and soy fields. Her experiments look for native grass mixtures that don’t tend to invade the crops and are highly attractive to beneficial native insects, including the natural enemies of agricultural pests. “If we design the systems right there could be substantial benefits to the agricultural system as a whole,” she said.

The key word, Gennet says, is “co-management.” As a community, we need to approach food health, wildlife health, and water health in the Salinas Valley as parts of an integrated system. She would like to see California growers, buyers, and consumers rely on standards like the LGMA. “We think it’s been a good process, using the newest science and trying to take a constructive approach.  If everybody stuck to those standards, that would be a good outcome,” said Gennet.

 

Farm practices for food safety: an emerging threat to floodplain and riparian ecosystems. (2013) Sasha Gennet, Jeanette Howard, Jeff Langholz, Kathryn Andrews, Mark D Reynolds, and Scott A Morrison. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (e-View 05/06/2013; print publication June 2013) doi:10.1890/120243

 

 

 

Outside source:

Lisa Schulte Moore

Associate Professor of Landscape Ecology, Iowa State University

515-294-7339

lschulte@iastate.edu

http://www.nrem.iastate.edu/landscape/

 

 


The Ecological Society of America is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge. ESA is committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 10,000 member Society publishes five journals, convenes an annual scientific conference, and broadly shares ecological information through policy and media outreach and education initiatives. Visit the ESA website at http://www.esa.org.