This article originally appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of Wings Magazine
When he visited California in the late 1800s, John Muir encountered a remarkable sight: “At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow Compositae.” This profusion of wildflowers bloomed in the spring, spreading across the drying tule marshes as the Valley transitioned toward the parched conditions of summer. Even in the hottest season, green riparian corridors snaked across the landscape.
Were John Muir to visit today, he would find the Valley dramatically changed. The marshes are gone, the rivers are hemmed in by levees and no longer free to meander across the land, and the wildflowers have faded. In their place are orchards of almonds, olives, and citrus; fields of sunflowers, tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce, as well as cotton and rice paddies; and vineyards. At the margins, where the land begins to rise, cows graze—often on introduced grasses.
The Central Valley is a vast trough nestled between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Range to the west, and marked at its north and south ends by the cities of Redding and Bakersfield. It is drained by two major rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, both of which empty into San Francisco Bay. The Valley is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, growing a third of the food that is trucked across the country, and fully 60 percent of the world’s almond supply.
Urban areas have expanded across the region, and the Valley now supports a population of about six and a half million people. The growth of Sacramento and other cities has led to the loss of both agricultural land and native habitat. Where grizzly bears once roamed and condors soared, we now have a landscape from which much of the native biodiversity has been eradicated—a landscape that supports just a few species, and those are frequently non-native.
Given the scale of all these changes, some might see the Central Valley as a lost cause. Can an area that has been so altered by humans, that is so relied upon for food production, and that is such a target for urban and suburban development, be restored to provide for biodiversity? I think the answer is yes—at least in part.
Although much of the Central Valley has been impacted by development, there are still remnants of the landscape of old—vernal pools, riparian corridors, wildlife refuges, small natural areas, and even some places on farms, along roadsides, and in parks and gardens. These areas harbor native plants and many small animals that pollinate, provide pest control, and offer sustenance for birds and fish.
Outside of those locales, we can create habitat in a variety of urban and rural environments. Parks and other open spaces can be enhanced to expand the acreage of flowering meadows. Roadsides and powerline corridors cover tens of thousands of acres of land in the Central Valley, stretching across agricultural and urban landscapes; although these are not a substitute for wildlands, they can be turned into valuable habitat for wildlife, providing refuge and connecting remnant habitat patches. In many parts of the Valley, habitat will necessarily be restricted to the field edges, roadsides, and ditch banks, but hedgerows and flowering strips and meadows in these areas will increase the diversity and abundance of pollinators as well as of the predators and parasites of crop pests. Maximizing restoration and management of such linear habitat opportunities will be vital if we want to restore large areas of the Valley.
These linear habitats may be particularly important in aiding the dispersal of species as they adapt to climate change. Recent research shows that field borders, hedgerows, and roadsides can serve as corridors, allowing pollinators to move through the landscape whether in search of food or in pursuit of new places to live.
The Xerces Society has a field-tested model for providing habitat in disturbed landscapes. Indeed, our pollinator program actually began in the Central Valley, in Yolo County in 2006, as a pilot project with farmers, the University of California at Berkeley, Audubon California, and the Center for Land-Based Learning. The program has since expanded to all fifty U.S. states and various territories. Our staff members work with farmers to develop whole-farm pollinator conservation and restoration plans, outlining activities such as the planting of native hedgerows and managing tillage, pesticide use, and other farm practices. We have trained more than eighty thousand farmers, gardeners, conservationists, government agency staff, educators, and land managers to create, manage, and protect pollinator habitats.
Since its inception, our pollinator program’s work with farmers and the Natural Resources Conservation Service has led to the establishment of more than 420,000 acres of wildflower-rich pollinator habitat across the United States. This includes miles of hedgerows planted in the Central Valley in cooperation with farmers and other partners; hedgerows planted a decade ago have now developed into mature habitats that provide homes for bees, butterflies, birds, and other animals. Recent studies also show that in addition to generalist bees, these mature habitat areas support less-common bee species. This work shows that we can increase biodiversity in the landscape through specific restoration projects.
I believe that there are big opportunities to increase habitat conservation in and around crop fields in the Central Valley. Unlike farmers in Iowa and other regions who grow primarily corn and soybeans, farmers in the Central Valley grow a variety of crops that need insects to pollinate them. Whether they raise almonds, sunflowers, or melons, farmers with crops that benefit from insect pollination can help insulate themselves from declining numbers of honey bees by restoring and managing insecticide-free habitat, a kind of insurance policy for when honey bees are in short supply.
The habitat can bring an additional benefit—help with controlling crop pests—thanks to the number and diversity of predators and parasites that it also supports. As a result, even those who grow crops that do not need pollinators, such as grapes, can benefit. Moreover, farmers can get free technical assistance and often can receive cost-share funding to help defray the expense of these habitat plantings. The Xerces Society partners with the NRCS in California to provide training and technical assistance and to help farmers through the process of securing cost-share funding.
The Xerces Society has been at the forefront of finding new ways to incentivize the creation of habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects and to promote good pesticide practices by working with our corporate partners. We assisted Whole Foods Market in developing the Responsibly Grown (“good, better, best”) system under which farmers are rewarded for pollinator stewardship. We also launched a bee-specific product certification program this summer. Bee Better Certified™ will allow farmers and the companies that buy their produce to label their products as Bee Better Certified if they meet requisite standards for habitat management and pesticide stewardship.
Other companies are stepping up to enhance habitat and to limit pesticide use. General Mills is working to improve its supply chain by creating pesticide-free pollinator habitat throughout thousands of acres of its supplier farmlands. The company has already funded large projects in almond orchards and at the Muir Glen tomato-processing plant in the Central Valley; these sites not only provide high-quality habitat but are an influential demonstration of what can be done by farmers. Häagen-Dazs, White Wave, and others are working with Xerces to create habitat on supplier farms. This winter, Häagen-Dazs implemented a project that included nearly seven miles of flowering hedgerows within a single almond farm.
Grazing lands in and around the Valley can be managed with insects in mind, employing conservation plans that provide for the cattle and simultaneously maintain or expand native flowers that benefit a broad array of animals. In the long run, these lands will be better able to withstand drought as well.
Agricultural areas of the Central Valley are key to re-flowering this landscape, but if we are to be truly successful we need to work beyond farms. Parks, open-space areas, roadsides, powerline corridors, and land in the care of local, state, and federal agencies can all be managed in such a way as to benefit pollinators and foster biodiversity. A neat thing about invertebrate conservation is that it can be carried out at a broad range of scales, and even homeowners can be part of the picture. To truly re-flower the Valley we will need an “all hands on deck” approach.
At-risk bumble bees call the Central Valley home, as do many other habitat-specialist ground-nesting bees. Habitat improvements in the Valley will help increase their chances for survival just as it will for other rare and at-risk species. Scientists and agencies have identified the Central Valley as a vital component for the recovery of the western population of the monarch butterfly. Hundreds of thousands of monarchs overwinter along the California coast but cross the Valley as they disperse to the Intermountain West to breed and then again as they migrate back to overwintering sites in the fall. Providing habitat can allow this iconic species to safely traverse this heavily used landscape and once again to breed in large numbers in the Valley.
It may well be humans who will benefit the most from transforming the Valley because the value of these animals to pollination and pest control is a direct benefit to the farmers who grow our food and an indirect one to all of us who eat it. Beyond the value for bees and butterflies, these restored and better-maintained landscapes can provide a host of other benefits: improving water quality by limiting runoff in ditches and streams, decreasing dependence on water quantity with native plants that use less water than most nonnatives, protecting soil from erosion, building soils, trapping carbon, and providing places where humans can experience nature.
Will this effort be easy? No. Can it be done? Yes, I believe it can. California is a leader in the realms of climate change mitigation, clean energy, pollution reduction, and other important environmental issues. We can use this leadership to push for real change.
We need state and federal agencies as partners in this effort, as many of the last intact landscapes in the Valley are under their management. But ultimately, it is about what each of us can contribute. Homeowners can plant a pollinator or butterfly garden, farmers can improve habitat in and around their fields, managers of roadside and powerline rights-of-way can change how they mow or spray, and municipalities can step up to ensure that our open spaces are oases for animals. We can all limit the use of toxic pesticides. Together, we can accomplish this momentous task.
Insects are resilient, but in the face of large-scale habitat loss they need a helping hand. Providing habitat for them is often relatively easy compared to doing so for other animals, and habitat for insects underpins the food chain that supports vertebrate species. The landscape of Muir’s time is lost forever, but we could still see rivers of flowers flowing along roadsides, ditches, and streams, and through orchards and farms, allowing for biodiversity to thrive across the landscape. By focusing on the small animals that help drive ecosystems we can help them re-weave the fabric of life in the Central Valley.