First signer to Mokelumne River Safe Harbor agreement
Al Donner (916) 414-6566
The Lange family has grown premium wine grapes along the lower Mokelumne River for more than 60 years. Now in its fourth generation, this family-owned 1,800-acre farm is managed by Brad and his twin brother Randall. The Lange Twins, as they are known in the industry, sell grapes to wineries such as Mondavi and E&J Gallo. Their operation epitomizes California's strong agricultural heartland.
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But there is more to the Lange operation than successful farming. With their headquarters just one levee-width distant from the Mokelumne River, Brad and his twin brother Randall are very connected to the river and its cycle of life.
As a boy Brad gained a deep love and respect for the life that the river brought to the dry Central Valley . It was never called “environmental education,” but in today's lexicon that is precisely what it would be termed. As he learned about farming, Brad learned simultaneously about the wood ducks that live on the river, the owls and bats that contributed to its ecosystem. He came to see the beauty and value of the majestic valley oaks enduring above the stream beds and elderberry bushes beneath them. He never noticed a valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a showy orange and black insect with arching long antennae, that lives most of its life in the elderberry bushes. But the beetle now is a Federally-protected threatened species, confined to a few areas along Central Valley streams where elderberry bushes, their only host, still grow.
As boys, they saw the remaining old oaks growing on the rim of the vineyards drop their acorns. Many acorns sprouted, but soon shriveled in the summer heat. Soon Brad and his family were dragging a five-gallon bucket of water out to help the oak seedlings survive their first years. Most of the seedlings didn't survive – Brad figures that 48 out of every 50 died. But those that did survive with the Langes' care now have grown to more than 30 feet in height, spreading a graceful green canopy along vineyard perimeters.
Brad's understanding of the riparian ecosystem grew over the years. He learned that the complex web of life growing out of the river's waters has both beauty and value. And he continued to nurture the riparian habitat in ways that were compatible with the need to make a living on the farm. He began building boxes on poles along the river for wood ducks, owls, jays and other birds to nest in. Materials were scrounged or purchased as the business allowed. Last year the state was dismantling bat boxes, big metal structures with tiny openings on tall steel poles that had been set up temporarily for a highway construction project. Brad mounted one as an experiment on the Mokelumne bank. Now bats are calling it home, devouring insects by the thousands.
Twelve years ago Brad looked at Gill Creek, a seasonal watercourse winding through the vineyards to the river. It was barren except for a few ancient oaks. Brad decided that Gill Creek could regain some of the natural life with a little help. He began planting native species along the watercourse – oaks, buckeye, quail bush, elderberry and wild rose, even plugs of native grasses. It was one man's vision and experiment. Today, walking along the rim of Gill Creek, visitors appreciate how successful an experiment it has been.
Native plant life has taken hold; young oaks rise nearly 30 feet; buckeye and elderberry are more than head high, thickets of delicate pink wild rose shoulder high line the farm paths that wind between the creek and the vineyards. And with the vegetation native wildlife has returned. For nearly a mile, Gill Creek is alive with quail, songbirds, even an occasional osprey. It is a successful experiment in giving native species a start in reclaiming an area that lies on the edge of human use, then letting nature refine and define the habitat. A few years ago he shifted to a lower portion of Gill Creek. There he formed an alliance with local high schools, and students came out to plant native species between two vineyards.
Two years ago, Brad moved to another area, the 6-acre Sand Point vineyard on Mokelumne River bottom land between two levees. It was one of their last areas to be planted in vineyards and didn't produce their best grapes. So Brad and Randall made the decision to give it back to nature. With some of their own money and some from the CALFED Bay-Delta Authority, the parcel was replanted with native species, oaks and others. They put in a drip system to get the plants through the first few years before they could survive on their own.
But nature runs on its own clock. When last winter produced a record spring rainfall, the river filled and many normally dry areas flooded. The Sand Point land became a huge pond that only now is draining. Brad checks it regularly. He is pleased when some of the bare stems emerging from the water break tiny green shoots that tell him they will keep growing in his design to restore more riparian habitat along the Mokelumne. Where plants didn't survive, he already is making plans to replant as time and resources allow. Different agencies and interests provide small amounts of help where they can, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Elderberry bushes are a key species along the river and an important part of Brad's efforts. But they also have a nagging concern. Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the beetle is protected, and it is against the law to kill them. Brad doesn't intentionally kill them, but certainly some could die inadvertently in the normal course of farm operations, which technically violates the ESA.
So Brad and others – Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission, San Joaquin County Resource Conservation District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Environmental Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- have negotiated a landmark agreement that will protect the Langes and other landowners along the lower Mokelumne River from violating the law. Called a Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA), it makes landowners who help restore the riparian habitat along the Mokelumne partners with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the habitat restoration.
Landowners who sign the voluntary agreement—Brad Lange will be the first—are guaranteed protection if they harm the beetle. They are encouraged, but not required, to undertake riparian restoration on their own land, confident that if they do improve the habitat they are protected. For the Langes, it will encourage them to continue enhancing more than 300 acres of slough and riparian habitat on their property.
The Service believes that the SHA will encourage landowners to become willing partners in restoration work, which will help the beetle. As restoration takes hold, it could bring back populations of such species as the beetle to the point where they can be taken off the ESA life-support system entirely. But far more species than the beetle will benefit. Many other plant and animal species in the riparian zone will thrive as a result of the habitat restoration. Some may benefit to the point where they never will need protection under the ESA. And people who experience the enriched habitat will appreciate what these landowners have done voluntarily, in cooperation with others who want to help enhance habitat. Improving the beetle's habitat does generate benefits for society as a whole.