Looking Forward: Healthy Soils Program at Marks Ranch

During the Soberanes Fire in 2016 and most recently with the River Fire, Marks Ranch served as part of the incident command center. The impacts of equipment and personnel were significant. In our recovery efforts, we have partnered with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as part of the Healthy Soils Program run through the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Recognizing that the health of the Marine Sanctuary is tied directly to the health of the land, this program helps working ranches and farmlands improve soil health and promote its ability to sequester carbon that cause ocean acidification and warming.

To further the science around this initiative, the program implements healthy soil practices on private property while monitoring and evaluating their effectiveness for sequestering carbon in the soil, increasing groundwater infiltration, improving drought resilience, increasing native plant diversity, improving forage for cattle grazing, reducing runoff and many other possible benefits. Practice sites also serve as demonstration areas for ranchers, farmers and other land managers throughout California.

Starting in December 2020, Big Sur Land Trust’s three-year project will use both of these components. We will apply experimental treatments across a series of plots on the lower pasture of Marks Ranch. We will drill seed native bunch grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants). We will also add a thin layer of compost to some of the plots to encourage more carbon sequestration while potentially increasing plant vigor, diversity and more coverage. In a complementary vegetation study, UCSC Botany graduate student Justin Luong will monitor pre- and post-conditions to evaluate both the native and invasive species response to the various treatments in the Healthy Soils project.

As we gear up for our first round of implementation by the end of the year, our Director of Stewardship Patrick Riparetti explains, “We’ll compare the effects of the different practices to see what treatment combination best achieves our goals with the intention to then implement it on a larger scale in Marks Ranch. We’ll also be looking at what grows best in the palette of species we are planting – specifically species that have high forage value -rich grasses and forbs that cattle graze on. We’ll also be connecting with local ranchers so that they can learn more about our healthy soils initiative for climate change resilience.”