Striding across a golden-brown hillside dotted with live oaks, Kent Reeves scans the ground. After a few minutes, he stops. Crouching down, he selects several short grass stalks, holding them between thumb and forefinger. This native needlegrass predates Spanish and other white colonials in California by at least a million years. The broad black brim of Reeves’s flat-topped gambler hat obscures his eyes as he peers closely and notes a hair-thin, jagged line across the tops of the four-inch-high green shoots.
“These have been chewed on,” Reeves declares. “It’s not a clean nip, and it’s angled—most likely a rabbit.”
Kent Reeves and Meredith Lawrence sit down with Alta Live.
Reeves’s 12-year-old border collie mix, Zero, nuzzles in close to his Wrangler-clad knee as Reeves studies the plant’s barren core. The cows grazing nearby have the run of this vast pasture, but they haven’t nibbled this particular plant recently. Without the stimulation of grazing, which signals to the plant the need for new growth, its heart is dying.
Still squatting, Reeves points out other needlegrasses. Their distinctive basil-green color and tight bunches make them easy to spot amid the honey-colored scatter of annual grasses and the dry, variegated-brown oak leaves that partially cover the ground here in the Sierra foothills. Reeves absentmindedly scratches Zero’s chin and contemplates the grass clusters. He’s quiet, listening to the land. Nearby, fuzzy green moss fills in bare patches as the earth tries to cover itself, as skin would with a scab. Reeves stands and continues walking, looking down often.
Even though they’re stunted, these needlegrasses signify hope and resilience to Reeves. California’s native, perennial grasses represent the past of the state—and, if Reeves has his way, the future, too. They’re hardy, highly nutritious, and drought resistant; they renew quickly after fire and live for hundreds of years; and they have roots that can plunge up to 20 feet into the earth, creating rich, healthy soil that is adept at storing carbon and water.
But they need help from an unlikely source: cows.
Cowboys and conservationists have long been at odds, but Reeves considers himself both. He lives in a four-season, off-the-grid travel trailer replete with solar panels and a composting toilet, and he likes to say that he’s so progressive, he makes Bernie Sanders look conservative. He’s also an avid cattle advocate who believes that grazing mammals are the key to restoring California’s native grasslands. In other words, ranchers can become part of a climate change solution.
Reeves is a cofounder of Rancher to Rancher (R2R), a network of California ranchers and ecologists devoted to the adoption of environmentally sustainable land-management practices. His peripatetic lifestyle frees him to work with ranchers all over the state. Together, they implement planned-grazing practices that incorporate cattle as essential, symbiotic components of an ecosystem designed for carbon and water storage, species restoration, and climate change mitigation.
In the eight years since its inception, R2R has gained support from agencies and nonprofits including both the U.S. and California fish and wildlife departments, the Soil Carbon Coalition, the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, and the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD). R2R collaborates with 22 ranches as far north as Modoc County and as far south as San Diego County and is working to include 15 more sites in its network.
“They’re trying to…empower ranchers to be able to feel confident in knowing the landscape that they know best,” says Kristen Murphy, agriculture program manager for the CARCD, a nonprofit organization that supports the state’s 95 resource conservation districts—the locally governed agencies that work with private and public landowners on resource conservation and management. Reeves’s efforts can drive conservation because R2R works alongside ranchers rather than dictating to them, as a government agency likely would, Murphy says.
Reeves has agreed to take me with him for three days to show me R2R’s work. On the road, I’ll sleep in the back of my family’s pickup truck, and he, having left his trailer behind, will bunk down in his truck bed. Reeves often jokes that he needs a bumper sticker that reads “Build Soil, Not Dams,” and he’s going to show me why.
The tour begins in the scrubby, chaparral-covered hills around his home base, near Sonora. We caravan south past short, wooden post-and-wire fences and eucalyptus groves on the 115-mile drive to the McKenzie Table Mountain Preserve, one of several parcels in the 6,441-acre Sierra Foothill Conservancy set aside with the stipulation that cattle be used to restore the land.
On the road, Reeves listens to books on tape. Lately, they’re about Indigenous land-management knowledge, which he is increasingly keen to acknowledge in his work and revive in California. Indigenous peoples managed the land first, he tells me often, and it’s time that they receive credit and equity. Going forward, it will be critical to recognize that what colonial Americans viewed as wild landscapes in the West were actually carefully tended, highly productive ecosystems, he notes.
As the effects of climate change proliferate, California needs solutions. Land development, manufacturing, agriculture, and wildfires continue to pollute our environment. Both trees and grasses sequester climate-warming carbon, but as destructive fires and drought ravage western forests, grasslands will become particularly essential to the fight, explains Benjamin Houlton, the dean of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell and the previous head of UC Davis’s John Muir Institute of the Environment. Native grasslands are far more drought resistant and fire resilient than trees; they also store carbon belowground, so even if they do burn, the carbon stays put (mostly).
American grasslands evolved alongside grazing herd mammals that ate and trampled them. For most of the past million years, bison, horses, antelope, and other ungulates flourished in astonishingly high numbers on American grasslands from Canada to Mexico. And for 13,000 of those years, Indigenous tribes lived in tandem with, and cultivated lands for, these creatures and their predators, so that they could hunt and eat the animals and use their by-products.
As recently as the early 19th century, 25 million to 30 million buffalo roamed the American West. Their herds, which could take up to a week to ride past, were kept in near-constant motion by predators. They would pound across the grasses, graze, and move on. But, as naturalist Dan Flores laments in American Serengeti, his ode to the Great Plains, manifest destiny and efforts to conquer the West nearly extinguished these herds. Indigenous land-management practices all but disappeared too.
California’s grasslands dwindled as European agricultural practices tilled them under and non-native perennial grasses replaced them, Reeves says. But these resilient native grasses, which persisted for millions of years, are still out there. In fact, if you start looking, they’re everywhere.
The McKenzie preserve lies nestled at the base of the basalt-topped Table Mountain ridge on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. Billy Freeman, the conservancy’s rangeland program manager, greets us at the gate and ushers us a quarter mile down a dirt road with grassy open spaces on either side punctuated by rocky outcrops and scrubby oaks. We park, and he shows us around.
“You know, with grazing, I think that the majority of Americans, they want to say…‘Is grazing beneficial, or is it bad?’ ” says Freeman. “And without realizing that it could be either, it all depends on how it’s managed.” Freeman oversees grazing conservation practices and experiments on the preserve.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the U.S. livestock industry accounts for 4 percent of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, while transportation, electricity, and industry contribute 77 percent. It’s difficult to find a reliable estimate of how much carbon could be stored in the soil of America’s grasslands, but on a global scale, carbon storage in healthy soil has the potential to offset up to 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Conserved grasslands also retain open space and protect it from land development and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with it. But the local environment has to function as a system to reach its full potential. “The key things that people are getting out of rangelands: water, clean water, clean air, climate regulation, all these things literally cannot be accomplished without the [grazing animals] component,” Freeman says.
At one of his test sites on the preserve, Freeman points to a lush tract of greening grasses. Cattle graze this site one day a year. Afterward, Freeman watches closely to see how the plants recover and respond. He’s constantly refining his approach to make sure that the cattle don’t harm vulnerable plants and trees and that they’re working symbiotically within the ecosystem.
Before Freeman put cattle on this section of the preserve, it hadn’t been grazed in 20 years; matted gray grass covered the soil so thickly that you could pull it up like a carpet, Freeman recalls. But in the course of a couple of hours, pressure from the cattle’s hooves cleared dead stalks and crushed them into the ground, where they could begin to decompose and become fertilizer; the dents from the hooves helped break up hard-packed soil, so water could seep into it; as the cattle grazed, they pruned back older stems, so new ones could grow, and they defecated nutrient-dense poop onto the freshly torn-up soil. Exposed to sunlight, new stems sprouted and began to thrive.
Cattle have also had a surprising effect on the seasonal stream running through this 2.5-acre test plot. Erosion has made its steep banks bare and vertical. When water hits the banks, the soil crumbles into the water as sediment. Cattle are often blamed for this kind of degradation, but Freeman points to the place where the cattle cross this watercourse. Those banks are rounded, sloping, and peppered with plants. Their roots will help hold that soil in place when the next storm flushes water down the stream.
At the end of my first day with Reeves, we park our trucks off the trailer turnaround at Freeman’s house. Our host grills steaks from the preserve’s grass-fed-beef operation. Coyotes yip from the surrounding hills; their calls and answers echo at each other. Sitting around the firepit in Freeman’s yard, Reeves and Freeman’s mother, who’s stopped by, swap stories of packing adventures and mishaps. Reeves has worked for pack stations off and on since the 1980s, leading strings of mules loaded with supplies for hikers, hunters, and researchers deep into the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada. Outside the ring of the fire’s warm light, stars prick the dark sky and the air is cold and crisp.
In the morning, Reeves brews up coffee in his blue French press and scrambles eggs in bacon fat on my camping stove, perched on my truck’s tailgate. He outlines how his many past jobs twine together in his current work. He holds a degree in wildlife management and, in addition to his stints as a packer, has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service; for Holistic Management International; and as a cowboy.
Reeves is dressed in layers for warmth: a blue-and-gold plaid flannel shirt under a brown wool vest and a tan hemp-canvas Patagonia jacket. He’s got his gambler hat on and a blue silk scarf tied wild rag–style around his neck. We eat and sip coffee as Reeves tells me how, on a 1995 trip to Kenya, he was standing in the middle of the Maasai Mara savanna when the wildebeest migration started. Thousands of animals thundered from the surrounding brush, trampling the grasses, tearing up the landscape, defecating, urinating, and chewing. It was the same ancient ritual of destruction for the purpose of regrowth that buffalo performed on American grasslands.
The morning sun warms us, and we pour the last of the coffee into travel mugs for the road.
I ’m following Reeves’s red Toyota Tundra in my navy-blue Toyota Tacoma as we cut across the Central Valley. We’re headed 130 miles west of the preserve to meet Joe Morris, who owns or leases 10,000-plus acres around San Juan Bautista for his holistically managed grass-fed-beef operation.
After about two hours, we leave the valley and wind over Pacheco Pass as it slices through the tawny, grassy slopes of the Diablo coastal range. I’m reminded of the Kate Wolf song “The Redtail Hawk.”
The redtail hawk writes songs across the sky
There’s music in the waters flowing by
And you can hear a song each time the wind sighs
In the golden rolling hills of California.
There’s music in these golden rolling hills, too. Intermittent rain showers hardly dim the bright sunshine illuminating softly curved ridges. On the crest of each hill beside the road, a few grass stalks glow gold against the sky for a moment before the road carries us upward and we rise above them. But something’s bothering me: Most of California’s grasses are now introduced annuals, and the natives are rare. What, then, makes these rolling hills golden, and were they always this way?
In San Juan Bautista, we approach Morris’s house through a tight tunnel of oak trees whose branches arch over the road. But as we turn into his driveway, the view opens up. We’re looking across the wide San Juan Valley to the verdant Santa Cruz Mountains. As we get out of our trucks, I ask Reeves about the hills. What we drove past are, as I suspected, most likely non-native oat and rye grasses. The golden-rolling-hills folklore does indeed refer to native grasses, their stalks notably more golden than the ones I drove past.
Morris, a founding member of R2R, runs out to meet us. Growing up, he visited his grandfather on the Baumgartner ranch, the 200-acre holding that surrounds his house, but his family’s ranching history goes back two more generations. Although ranchers sometimes worry about disrespecting family legacy, for Morris, improving on his grandfather’s ranch builds on that heritage.
“We have more information—different information than they had—and if we make decisions on that information and it shows benefits for the land, that’s a benefit of having that information,” he tells me later.
Morris started small—experimenting with an ecosystem-based approach on his grandfather’s land. Thirty years later, the fledgling experiment has blossomed into a full-scale success on which the rest of the ranch is modeled. Guided by a belief in the earth’s interconnectivity, he views his vast ranching efforts, his family, and his community as an intricate system that must be in sync to flourish and hopes that others will see his example and do the same.
Jumping in his Toyota Tacoma, Morris shows us to the barn where we’ll park our trucks and sleep that night. That evening, he and his wife, Julie, serve us burgers from the ranch on their deck overlooking the lights of the San Juan Valley.
The next morning, Reeves, Morris, and I are up with the sun, trying to beat the rain. Morris steers his Dodge Ram up a steep hillside at his ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He raises 600 head of cattle on this leased property.
For Morris, part of ranching is walking and driving the land, monitoring the soil, the plants, and species diversity. As the misty rain settles in, he’s down on his knees digging up a chunk of soil. It’s dark and moist, equal parts dirt and decomposing plant matter, and it crumbles easily between thumb and forefinger. That texture indicates it’s porous and thus able to absorb water. The rain turns the dirt road to mud, and Morris worries we’ll get stuck, so we head back to the home ranch.
There, we amble up a hillside pasture behind the house as Morris eagerly points to the oak trees in front of us. They’re roughly 75 years old, but when he took over the ranch in 1991, they were only knee-high. Constant grazing kept them low and stunted. Today, they’re 20 feet tall.
Overgrazing happens on the individual plant level, Morris says. Short-term trampling by herd animals excites soil microbes, which release nutrients faster and accelerate grass growth. However, protracted grazing degrades the soil, causing it to release its stored carbon into the atmosphere; keep herds away too long and the deteriorating plant health decreases its carbon and water storage capacity. It’s a delicate but essential balancing act.
Morris divides his ranches into small pastures and grazes cattle on each for a few days, two or three times a year. The rest of the time, the plants recover and grow hearty nutrients for the cows and healthy soil habitat for microorganisms, carbon, and water. It’s a trade-off: he spends time moving cattle, but doesn’t have to use herbicides and pesticides or worry too much about water capture.
Last April, Morris experimented by grazing tiny portions of this pasture for a few hours at a time, moving cattle multiple times a day. The hillside was already covered in a low-lying, dense tangle of native and annual grasses, but afterward, salt grass, a warm-season perennial, crept all the way up the hill, adding viable grazing months to the pasture’s rotation.
“And if you extend your season of growth, you extend the time period carbon can be moved into the soil, and that’s a win,” Morris says.
Reeves is ecstatic. Salt grass usually flourishes in very wet areas; its presence across the steep hillside tells him that the soil holds water well. “There’s a joy to come up here and see all this,” he says.
Further up the hill, Morris squats to slowly run his thumb and forefinger along a stout green needlegrass stem. This plant is thick and full, with no dead center. Its green stalks fan gently out, relaxing, as Morris calls it. The plant has recovered from being eaten and is ready for the grazing cycle to renew.
Walking back to the house, our steps are in sync over the spongy ground. Although it’s raining again, there’s no slick mud beneath our feet. The porous soil is covered in a dense layer of grass and easily soaks up the droplets.
Each ranch ecosystem is different, and tending it requires a deep-rooted understanding of its complexities. To nurture California’s landscapes, Reeves envisions a strong network of ranchers throughout the state, working together with reverence for the soil. His message: “Let’s learn about the land together.”•