If there is to be a future for working lands in California, that future is the effective shepherding of our working lands to maximize economic value and the variety of ecosystem services upon which we all depend. – Joseph McIntyre, Ag Innovations President
Last month, over 70 leaders from diverse sectors came together to co-create recommendations on the enhancement of California’s working lands – its farms, ranches and forests. The day-long Summit built on a decade-long history of the California Roundtable on Agriculture & the Environment (CRAE), a statewide forum convened by Ag Innovations where leaders come together to talk about what matters and how to solve key problems at the intersection of agriculture and the environment. As noted by Secretary Karen Ross of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the power of CRAE is the ability of a group of volunteers to come together to make subtle changes in their practices to influence the system holistically and achieve a better economy and healthier environment. Like CRAE, this Summit was designed to inspire collective change by building shared understanding of a complex challenge, strengthening relationships for better thinking and collaboration, and developing shared priorities and recommendations for action.
But why talk about working lands at the moment when California is experiencing its worst drought in recent memory? Working lands provide the food, fiber and fuel that support us. They provide essential ecosystem services including groundwater recharge, flood protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic and cultural services. Moving forward, our working lands will be asked to work even harder in order to respond to key challenges like climate change, population growth and large-scale land-use alterations.
Presentations by 12 exceptional speakers introduced a broad range of perspectives on working lands (including forests and urban landscapes), innovations in land use planning and governance, and the latest market mechanisms and financial tools influencing California’s working landscape. Dialogue and group activities enabled participants to get to know one another and explore critical challenges and opportunities.
Key questions explored throughout the day included:
What actions and programs can increase ecosystem service benefits and make them more visible to the public? Secretary John Laird of the California Natural Resources Agency and Professor Louise Jackson of UC Davis stressed that we are rapidly losing precious agricultural land and biodiversity. A fast, effective response to address pressures confronting working lands requires different levels of government work together more collaboratively and better align mitigation strategies with the conservation priorities identified by local communities.
What are working lands exactly? Examples of rangelands on the edge of the Bay Area, Sierra Nevada forests and new urban developments in San Francisco were presented by Karen Sweet (California Rangeland Conservation Coalition), Jim Branham (Sierra Nevada Conservancy) and Brian Jencek (HOK). They challenged participants to rethink common definitions of working lands and consider a broader array of ecosystem services. Our working lands provide a multitude of recreational, cultural, and generative benefits and can be used to protect our communities, promote public health and wellness, and improve environmental outcomes. To support this wide range of benefits, it is vital that decision-makers and the general public have a closer connection to and deeper understanding of the potential and dynamics of our working lands.
What innovations in how we support working lands are we seeing in the public sector? With this expanded perspective of working lands, participants learned how land use planning and economic development practitioners are influencing the realities on the ground. Land use planning perspectives ranged from local (Open Space Authority of Santa Clara Valley), to California-wide (Strategic Growth Council), and global (Global Footprint Network). Effective planning for this new context of working lands requires the integration of useful metrics, generous funding, and room for experimentation. Some great experiments are already receiving financial support, such as the Healthy Lands, Healthy Economies ecosystem services evaluation project focused on Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Sonoma Counties, and the Sustainable Ag Lands Conservation Program, which incentivizes multiple sectors to work together on innovative solutions.
How might market approaches help? The day ended with a provocative conversation about the increasing influence of private capital on the scope and management of California agricultural lands. Government can’t respond to these challenges alone – the business case for conservation must be made. Investors – from large institutions to local individuals – see a tremendous market opportunity in merging sustainable food production efforts with other public goals like carbon sequestration and improved water security. Though private investment projects are already underway, further collaboration is needed to integrate public and private perspectives and co-create beneficial projects in service to California and beyond.
The CRAE Summit was a day of rich dialogue that inspired new thinking and connections for all who attended. Ag Innovations is grateful to our hosts at UC Davis, our sponsors and speakers for making it such a generative event! Stay tuned for an overview of key Summit outcomes.