What to Know About MALT and Marin’s Measure A
November 29, 2021
Measure A, which levies a quarter-cent sales tax to support parks, open space, and agricultural lands across Marin County, was passed in 2012 with 74% support of county residents.
The vote to renew Measure A doesn’t happen until June 2022, but already there’s plenty of conversation—and, unfortunately, some misconceptions—about the measure, especially as it relates to the portion of the law that goes toward agricultural protection.
Here are some common questions and concerns we hear about Measure A and MALT.
What is MALT’s relationship with Measure A funds?
- MALT is eligible, with provisions such as raising matching funds, to apply for the 20% of Measure A funds allotted to farmland preservation, specifically for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements.
- According to Marin County Parks, the rest of Measure A funds are allotted to Marin County parks and open space [52%], cities and towns [15%], and land acquisition and easements by the county [13%].
What is an agricultural conservation easement?
- The agricultural conservation easement—pioneered by MALT’s founders 40 years ago—is a tool used to protect farmland and ranches from development and keep them in productive agricultural use forever.
- Every day in the United States 2,000 acres of productive agricultural land are developed and converted to non-agricultural use, according to the American Farmland Trust.
- Agricultural conservation easements protect farmland and ranchland by prohibiting non-agricultural residential and commercial development, subdivision, and other uses or practices that are detrimental to the land’s agricultural and natural resource values.
- Since MALT pioneered this farmland preservation tool in 1980, a number of organizations across the United States have followed suit and established their own agricultural conservation easement programs.
Are agricultural conservation easements just ways to put money in ranchers’ pockets?
- Not at all. Agricultural conservation easements are a powerful tool for stewarding land, especially as the detrimental effects of climate change are being felt both locally and globally.
- MALT agricultural conservation easements aren’t just handed out to anyone who requests one. They require that protected properties continue to operate as working farmland that provides sustainably grown food to Marin and Bay Area communities—while also safeguarding wildlife habitat and the ecological health of the region.
- When landowners sell a conservation easement they are signing away substantial property rights (development rights) in perpetuity in a market price transaction – giving up all potential future development value appreciation.
Why was MALT formed in the first place?
- Forty years ago, MALT co-founders Phyllis Faber, an environmental activist, and Ellen Straus, a rancher, banded with local agriculturists to protect the land, preserve West Marin’s agricultural community, and promote local food.
- To prevent Marin County from suffering the development woes occurring in other areas in the state with valuable land and beautiful vistas, the MALT founders and leaders came up with an innovative solution: the agricultural conservation easement.
How do agricultural conservation easements make a positive impact on agricultural lands?
- Before an agricultural conservation easement is granted, MALT asks the question, What is being protected? to assess both the agricultural and conservation values of the land.
- Landowners granted agricultural conservation easements must agree to steward the land in ways that ensure that ranching activities not only do not degrade the land, but that actively improve key conservation targets, such as reducing invasive species, rehabilitating riparian zones, and improving water quality and soil health. As such, all MALT easements now include MAU (Mandatory Agricultural Use) but also require Creek Conservation Area Management Plans that establish additional protections and recommend (sometimes require) improvements to identified riparian areas.
What is MALT’s role in the agricultural conservation easement process?
- MALT handles the complex process involved with the agricultural conservation easements, from evaluating agricultural property to ensure that owners meet the requirements for a conservation easement to funding the legal and administrative costs.
- For MALT, finalizing an agricultural conservation easement signals an important first step—but only the first step—in its mission to protect Marin’s agricultural land for agricultural use. MALT provides funds (through privately raised donations, not Measure A) and technical assistance to the agricultural properties it has under easement to promote climate-friendly stewardship practices.
- Another important aspect of MALT’s role in the agricultural conservation easement process is to monitor each protected property’s operations to ensure compliance with the requirements of the easement—which adds important accountability to agricultural management practices.
But why should public tax funds be used to purchase conservation easements for privately owned farms and ranches?
- This question gets to the heart of one major misconception about Measure A, MALT, and Marin agricultural lands in general: that agricultural conservation easements serve only private interests and do not serve the public good.
- Research by the California Rangeland Trust calculated the values and return on investment of its conservation easements on rangelands throughout the state. This research found that working rangelands produce “an abundance of ecosystem services” that are typically not factored into assessments of benefits to society at large, including:
- Carbon sequestration
- Watershed and riparian zone protection
- Erosion prevention
- Nutrient cycling
- Biological control of insect pests and invasive plants
- Reduction of fire-prone fuel sources
- Preservation of wildlife corridors
- Habitat diversity
- Aesthetics (i.e., viewscapes)
- When MALT was founded, the primary threat facing Marin agricultural lands was development. While development remains a threat, the new urgency to deal with the effects of climate change—from drought to wildfires—makes it more important than ever to manage ranchlands and farmlands using climate-friendly practices, which is easier for properties protected by MALT easements.
How much Marin County land is now covered by MALT’s agricultural conservation easements?
- MALT currently has 91 agricultural conservation easements protecting more than 54,000 acres in Marin County.
- Those 54,000+ acres represent a little more than half of the 100,000 acres of agricultural land in Marin that MALT has committed to protect with easements by 2040.
With that much agricultural land protected, doesn’t that mean that MALT has succeeded in its mission?
- Land in Marin is extremely valuable. The agricultural lands in West Marin include some of the most beautiful vistas in the state.
- Working farms and ranches require enormous amounts of hard work, for often meagre profits. As a result, unprotected agricultural lands in Marin are still vulnerable to development.
- And protection of land through easements is only the first, important step in MALT’s mission of preserving agricultural lands for agricultural use.
Why the need to devote Measure A funds to Farmland Protection?
- Once agricultural lands are protected from development, MALT and other agencies and entities can then work with landowners to ensure that their properties are stewarded not only for optimal agricultural use, but also to achieve broader environmental goals.
- Opening unprotected lands to development would fragment the landscape and hinder stewardship of the entire region, making it more difficult, for instance, to maintain the health of creeks and streams all the way to the ocean; control the spread of invasive plants; sequester carbon in the soil; and remove fire-prone vegetation.
Fire prevention is top of mind for everyone in Marin. Shouldn’t Measure A prioritize funding for fire prevention rather than agricultural easements?
- Again, it’s a misperception that fire prevention and protection of agricultural lands are somehow at odds, or that one has nothing to do with the other.
- Development and fragmentation create numerous threats to the landscape, including loss of habitat and biodiversity, increased erosion, and—as described by Lynn Huntsinger in the book Into the Wild: Vegetation, Alien Plants, and Familiar Fire at the Exurban Frontier—higher risk of catastrophic wildfires.
- Climate change is accelerating the risks of catastrophic wildfires as well as droughts, storms that can trigger flooding and cause damage to homes and property, and harm to native habitats.
- Stewarding agricultural land in Marin County with climate-beneficial practices is essential to addressing climate change and its effects, including greater fire risks.
- Fire protection across Marin County’s agricultural lands helps protect the entire county. Conversely, failing to address fire risks anywhere in the county increases the overall risk.
- In a very real sense, preservation of agricultural land that’s stewarded with climate-beneficial practices is a form of fire protection.
But how do agricultural lands help with fire protection?
- Well-managed rangelands reduce fire risk by reducing fuel loads. A key point here is well-managed rangelands.
- Livestock grazing reduces fuel loads—shortening grass height and preventing shrub encroachment—and excess fuel loads are what create massive wildfires.
- Well-managed rangelands and farmlands maintain healthy habitat structure and biodiversity, including wet, green riparian zones that can act to slow fire’s progress.
How much Measure A funding has MALT received to date?
- It’s important to note that MALT does not directly receive Measure A funding for the acquisition of easements. Instead, money is put into an escrow account and paid directly to the landowner for the purchase of an agricultural conservation easement.
- Another important point is that Measure A funding for easements is administered as matching grants—meaning that for every dollar of Measure A funding that MALT can direct toward the purchase of an agricultural conservation easement, it must raise a dollar in matching funds. As a result, Measure A funds account for only a portion of the costs of agricultural conservation easements.
- Since receiving its first Measure A grant in 2014, MALT has raised $14,973,477 from private and public sources in order to use $13,260,407 in matching Measure A funding.