Head 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out! 

Are the cattle grazing in the regional parks creating a profound, environmental mess as activists contend, or are they a living symbol of the grand -- and fading -- tradition of ranching in the hills?

Greg Schneider is not afraid of a little cow dung. In fact, he's pretty brave even when confronted with clumps that are squishy and smelly and likely to ooze over the tops of hiking boots. He's been known to stick his foot right into a cow pie to photograph it. Schneider has learned that to wage a war against cattle grazing on public lands, he has to get up close and personal.

Schneider is the first to admit he's not a trained biologist or ecologist; he's an engineer who just happens to have spent nearly every morning for the past eight years hiking a cluster of land parcels in the hills above Danville collectively known as the Sycamore Valley Open Space. Recently, Sycamore Valley became part of the 55,000 acres of public land that the East Bay Regional Park District leases to ranchers. Shortly after the arrival of the cattle, Schneider says, his favorite lands were drastically transformed. "It looks like it's been nuked!" he complains.

On an early morning hike, it's easy to see why Schneider is so upset. After parking at the edge of a subdivision studded with big new houses, Schneider heads off on a fire trail along a creek. To one side lies ungrazed land not owned by the park district. A deer shelters in a fold of the hills, shaded by the spreading branches of an oak. Knee-high grasses and shrubs are broken by swaths of empty land that were plowed to create firebreaks. But soon after crossing the creek and passing through a gate that marks the border of the parkland, the scenery begins to change. Schneider points to the lush green creek bed, a haven for several species of grasses and, he says, the endangered red-legged frog. The creek is now fenced off -- a result of Schneider and other environmentalists pressuring the district and threatening to sue if cows trampled the endangered frog -- but the hawk-eyed Schneider has found cows in the stream anyway. "The fence is not maintained well enough," he complains.

Farther up the hill, Schneider points out the deep pockmarks made by cow hooves, and the rows upon rows of packed-dirt cattle trails that have terraced the hillside. Along the fire trail and streambeds, whole chunks of earth have been torn off by thousand-pound cows rushing to join the herd. "This is normally a narrow, ephemeral stream," Schneider says, pointing to a shallow, flattened bed of exposed dirt. "But when the cows trample it, they widen the streambed, and that disrupts the flow." He leads to the gnarled stump of what was once, he says, a full-grown coyote bush -- mowed down by a hungry bovine. "There's something grossly wrong here," he says.

Perhaps, but if you travel farther east, to the district's outlying parks along the Altamont Pass or the Sunol Grade, you'll see a dramatically different view of the impact of cattle in the East Bay. There you'll find golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, scanning the neatly cropped grasses for any of the hundreds of ground squirrels who prefer the kind of low vegetation achieved by grazing. Tiny burrowing owls and the endangered San Joaquin kit fox (an adorable twelve-inch-tall creature) also depend on a habitat of low grasses. Over the years ranchers have built numerous stock ponds and spring boxes on these lands, providing year-round water not just for cattle but also for the red-legged frog and the tiger salamander.

"You go up to the worst-looking, muddiest pond, and there tend to be tons of frogs and salamanders," says Steve Bobzien, the district's ecological services coordinator. He points out a small puddle that, at this late time in the season, is all that remains of a broad, flat, muddy pond. Sure enough, three or four frogs plop under water, reemerging minutes later to see if the coast is clear. "There have been some cases in other districts where cattle have had an impact -- maybe they stepped on a frog," Bobzien concedes. "But we haven't seen that on our parklands. The negative impacts are so minimal that they're almost negligible, and instead you have to look at the fact that hundreds and hundreds of frogs are benefiting from grazing."

It's hard to reconcile the differences between these two snapshots of the park district's hotly debated cattle grazing policy. Environmentalists say cattle degrade the natural environment, displacing native species of flora and fauna; park officials counter that grazing was part of the landscape even before the European introduction of cattle and is part of the natural process. Removing all grazing now would disrupt the current ecological balance -- and leave the parks vulnerable to uncontrolled fire. Then there are the area's ranchers, who say their way of life is already being threatened by disappearing open space.


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