Partner Profile: Marin Resource Conservation District (RCD)

Jennifer Maude Carlin - MALT

By Jennifer Carlin, Deputy Director

February 4, 2022

When asked to describe what makes Marin County special, nearly everyone talks about the natural beauty of the landscape. The mild Mediterranean climate. The juxtaposition of bay, ocean, hills, and mountains. And the almost 85% of county land that has been protected from development.

Given Marin’s proximity to the densely populated Bay Area, its plentiful open spaces—including parks, watersheds, and agricultural land—are no accident. They are the result of concerted efforts by myriad organizations, one of which is MALT’s close partner, the Marin Resource Conservation District (RCD).

Marin RCD and MALT Share a Long Partnership

Established in 1959, the Marin RCD takes the lead on managing stewardship programs by providing information, technical assistance, and funding to help conserve and enhance the natural resources of Marin’s private and public land, including its soil, water, vegetation, and wildlife.

“It’s the position of the Marin RCD that the health of the county’s natural landscape is dependent on a robust agricultural economy and the active preservation of our agricultural heritage, which in turn depends on the diligent application of practices that improve the health of our natural resources,” said Marin RCD Executive Director Nancy Scolari, who has been with the organization for 23 years. “As a result, we often partner with MALT and other organizations on projects to improve the county’s working landscapes.”

Nancy has seen the partnership with MALT expand over the years, in response to changing needs.

“When I first joined the RCD, MALT had one dedicated person for stewardship – Lisa Bush,” she said. “I learned so much from her. She completed easement monitoring, residual dry matter sampling and advised on stewardship practices on MALT-protected ranches, and I used to go out with her and do some of that work. More recently, with MALT establishing an entire stewardship team, our organizations interact on nearly a daily basis.”

The emphasis of the stewardship has changed, as well, evolving from lots of sediment control work when Nancy first started with the Marin RCD, to water quality protection and improvement, to the carbon farming and carbon sequestration work that is a current focus. Nancy is a founding member of the Marin Carbon Project, of which MALT is also a member.

Working With Marin County Agriculturalists

Over the years, it has taken a bit of finesse for the Marin RCD to pursue its stewardship goals.

“For a long time, many of the ranchers and farmers viewed us as just another government agency that would come onto their property and tell them what they had to do or not do,” Nancy said. “But little by little, we gained their trust by proving that we offer projects that could help improve the efficiency of their agricultural operations. From there, we can more easily get participation in the projects that enhance the county’s natural landscape.”

The Marin RCD works with landowners at their request, voluntarily. The organization offers technical assistance and administers grants for conservation projects that focus on enhancing biodiversity, carbon farming, watershed conservation, riparian habitat restoration, and drought assistance.

When Marin RCD is awarded a grant for a project—such as a recent $1 million grant from the California Coastal Conservancy for carbon farming projects on West Marin ranches, for which MALT contributed $100,000—it sends out a solicitation to the agricultural community at large.

“We typically get 20 to 25 applications for each grant,” Nancy said. “Then we go through a ranking process and select the top ranches to receive funding for their projects.”

Impact That Can Be Seen and Measured

When asked to talk about any particularly successful projects over the years, Nancy said: “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing or one particular ranch, because what’s most satisfying to me is when I drive around West Marin and see all of the restored riparian areas. And I remember that there used to be zero trees. Now it’s like, oh, there’s that property, and that one, and that one, with trees and healthy-looking habitats.

“What’s important is the collective impact that’s being made across all of these ranches,” she said. “It’s sort of contagious. You work with one ranch, then some of their neighbors catch on. Instead of saving a single species on a particular ranch, you’re creating migratory corridors that expand across multiple ranches. I think that’s super cool.”

The projects undertaken by Marin RCD and its partners are measurable, too. For example, the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory is finding significant increases in bird populations on sites that Marin RCD has helped restore, compared to non-restored sites. Local agencies are seeing Coho salmon in streams where they were absent in previous years. And the Marin RCD reports being able to quantify the number of metric tons of carbon that are sequestered by implementing specific carbon farming projects.

Keeping Up With Evolving Challenges

There was a period of time when the Marin RCD worked primarily with ranches on stream restoration projects. Then they shifted to working with dairies, which involves a great deal of expensive infrastructure and capital improvement work at the dairy itself.

“Historically, dairies were situated next to creeks so they could flush all the cows’ manure into the creek to get rid of it,” Nancy said. “Dairy practices have evolved over time and now focus on keeping that manure from getting into the creek. It’s the opposite of what was originally intended, and it includes putting up a lot of curbs and diversions and new technologies that allow the manure to be processed safely, without entering the waterways.”

Another big push for the Marin RCD comes from the Marin Climate Action Plan. Agriculture represents 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in Marin County, and the agriculture chapter of the plan spells out mitigations that include manure management and carbon farming. “We’re really driven to meet the 2030 agriculture goals in the Marin Climate Action Plan,” Nancy said.

MALT is also committed to these goals, and the two organizations—along with the many other partners across the county and the state—play synergistic roles.

While the Marin RCD generally secures large-scale grants of public funds covering very specific activities, MALT is a non-profit organization relying primarily on private donations with more flexibility in how it uses its funds. MALT’s stewardship projects are much smaller in scale than the Marin RCD’s but they can fill niches not covered by the larger, more specific funding.

“We work together like a family, with everybody doing their part to lift up agriculture in Marin County,” Nancy said. “All the organizations have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s about optimizing our own superpowers so we can complement each other’s work. We all share the same goal of having a huge collective impact on Marin agriculture and the land itself.”

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