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Cattle ranching, ranch economies, and conservation


The Williamson Act enables local governments and private landowners in California to restrict specific land parcels to agricultural or open space use. Landowners receive property tax assessments lower than market value, which enables them to continue ranching or farming, and simultaneously preserves the land for conservation. Local governments receive a stipend from the state to help them recover lost property tax revenues. However, the state has reduced funding to this historic program, and concern is growing that the program may not be renewed in the future.

UC Davis graduate students Sarah Myhre, Dale Manning, Dan Swezey, Will Wetzel, and Iara Lacher surveyed 700 members of the California Cattlemen’s Association on the impact of the Williamson Act on ranchers and ranch economies, preservation of open space, and implications of the loss of agricultural land on conservation. All are students in the 2009-2010 cohort of the NSF-funded Responding to Rapid Environmental Change IGERT (REACH) at UC Davis, working with faculty members Jay Stachowicz and Kenneth Tate.

The students found that of the 365 ranchers who returned surveys, 23% were likely or very likely to end ranch operations if they lost the Williamson Act. In addition, 72% considered the Williamson Act to be extremely important to their operation. Only 42% of surveyed ranchers made a profit in 2009, with over 70% of these making less than $10,000.

The students also obtained geographical data from California counties that participate in the Williamson Act. They used GIS to compare these data to habitat data from the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition. They found that 43% of Williamson Act parcels lie in land designated as critical conservation habitat. As a result, land sold by ranchers for non-agricultural uses may negatively impact conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Specifically, the loss of Williamson Act funding at the state level would put critical habitat across California at risk for development. Without the support of the Williamson Act, 42% of surveyed ranchers said they would sell some or all of their rangeland. In addition, 56% of ranchers predict their sold land will be developed for nonagricultural uses. Thus, rangeland ecosystems, rural heritage and ranching economies may suffer significant losses if the Williamson Act is abolished.

Address Goals

Funding for the Williamson Act remains in jeopardy because of the California budget. As a result, the students’ research has received considerable attention in trade publications and other media outlets.

In September 2010, the students hosted a workshop that brought together scientists from agencies and non-profits, government representatives, and landowners to discuss their perspectives on the Williamson Act and its impact on conservation and ranching in California. Speakers included Lynn Huntsinger (UC Berkeley). John Gamper (California Farm Bureau Federation), Brian Leahy (California Department of Conservation), Jaymee Marty (The Nature Conservancy), Ken Tate (UC Davis), as well as the students and a panel of ranchers, all of whom have ranched for generations.

The students also wrote a policy brief, available at:, and are preparing a manuscript for publication.