The Vina Plains constitute one of the most unique landscapes in California’s Sacramento Valley. Covering some 150 square miles northeast of Chico, the land has an austere, yet compelling, beauty. Thin, nutrient-poor soils lie atop an impervious layer of clay. Generally devoid of trees, it is an area of broad open vistas, swept by the wind. The rains are generally brief and undependable, falling in a short winter period, followed by eight to nine months of drought. Thus the land is unsuitable for farming. Yet the winter rains produce a brief, vivid prairie carpet of native grasses and wildflowers. The only sustainable form of agriculture on the plains is cattle ranching.
The Roney Ranch, homesteaded in the late 1850s, is still in the family five generations later. Wally Roney continues to run a productive cattle ranch–no small achievement, for although the grasslands look verdant after the winter rains, the thin soils hold only the rainfall and can quickly dry out. The relatively sparse flora is easily over-grazed.
Today these grasslands are sought by environmentalists, government wildlife agencies, and land managers. The Vina Plains are the heart of an unusual vernal pool ecosystem. Soil depressions fill with winter rains, holding water above the impervious clay, until summer’s heat evaporates it. Over thousands of years, unique plants and animals evolved in association with these ephemeral oases. The pools sustain unusual flora and fauna, including striking successions of brilliantly colored wildflowers and unusual grasses and a soup of invertebrates, including tiny fairy shrimp and tadpole shrimp.
Many of these pools have disappeared after industrial and residential development. Thus, some of the uncommon endemic species are also disappearing, and they have been listed as threatened or endangered. But through careful grazing methods and an innovative selective breeding program, the Roneys maintain one of the richest vernal pool habitats in this part of the state.
The Roneys prevent over-grazing by monitoring the condition of the ranch and by moving their cattle throughout the year–off the grasslands and into the foothills in the spring, onto mountain meadows in the summer, and back to the grasslands in the late fall. They cross-bred their cattle with African stock to produce cattle that are grazers and browsers, reducing their impact on native grasses and flowers, and not dependent on riparian areas, reducing their impact on riparian and wetland habitats.
The Roneys demonstrate the genuine land ethic that comes from long-term secure ownership of land, and that accompanies their working ranch. Their interest in maintaining the land, the vernal pools, and the native wildflowers and grasses is not altruistic: their business and their livelihood depend on it. The nearby Vina Plains Preserve, set aside by The Nature Conservancy to save this rare plant community, has taken a hands-off approach to conservation and demonstrates a marked contrast: there is no longer a vernal splendor there.
R.J. Smith is a senior scholar with the Center for Private Conservation, a project of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].