MEET TIM KOOPMANN OF ALAMEDA COUNTY
From Tim Koopmann’s ranch in Alameda County, he has watched the city grow. A shadow on the green hills, urban expansion has scratched at his horizon for as long as he can remember.
The Koopmann family ranch is 50 miles from San Francisco, between Livermore and Fremont, right smack in the middle of one of California’s fastest-developing regions. Mr. Koopmann has been a fighter for these open spaces all his life, battling pressure from developers, declining cattle prices, drought, enormous tax penalties triggered by the deaths of his father and grandfather, and negative public opinions about cattle grazing.
A FIGHTER FOR GRAZING IN SAN FRANCISCO
“Most ranchers don’t want to make themselves a public figure,” Mr. Koopmann says. “They don’t want to talk, they just want to get their work done and have people leave them alone. I ended up kind of breaking the mold because I feel so strongly about the value of grazing.”
He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno before becoming an agriculture and industrial arts teacher in the small reservation town of McDermitt on the Oregon border. When his father’s health began to decline, Mr. Koopmann looked for a job closer to home. After three years as the ag teacher at Arroyo Grande High School in San Luis Obispo County, followed by 10 years as an ag lender with the Farm Credit system, he was offered the role of Rangeland Resource Manager by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).
Around this time, a shift in public opinion challenged the time-honored practice of grazing the 40,000-acre watershed Tim had been hired to manage.
“The most important thing we did was field trips,” he recalls. “We took people out and showed them what we were doing. Groups like the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco were against grazing and fearful it would contaminate water sources and cause illness in their communities. Through scientific programs we put together, we brought the facts to the table and were able to show them that grazing was safe. They ended up signing on in support.”
Without Tim’s work, the state of California could look very different today. “Los Angeles Power & Water has hundreds of thousands of acres leased out for grazing. If we had removed grazing from our watershed in San Francisco, it would have had a domino effect on every other major water purveyor in California.”
Tim reflects on those 25 years at SFPUC: “I’m proud of the work we did there. We had a large number of endangered species throughout the watershed and we took pride in trying to take care of them just as we took care of the land and our grazing tenants.”
But there wan’t much time to enjoy the victory. In 1991, the Koopmann ranch faced a new threat following the unexpected death of Tim’s father. In the midst of their grief, the family was forced to reckon with a sudden tax bill of $750,000.
“I was working for wages and had two kids. My parents had $75,000 in the bank and that was pretty well eroded by the state of California and a down payment to the IRS.”
CREATING A CONSERVATION SOLUTION BY AND FOR RANCHERS
The family explored every possible avenue to save the ranch, from leasing land for cell tower construction to selling off parcels. In the end, they discovered the answer had been there all along. One day while riding on the ranch, Tim spotted a small breeding pond where endangered California tiger salamanders were thriving.
“Those little short-legged critters are the most lucrative livestock we ever raised,” he laughs.
Developers purchased and placed three mitigation easements on the ranch. Mitigation easements are tools developers can use to offset the negative environmental impacts of construction in any given area. For example, if a new highway project causes loss of some wetlands, a developer can purchase and protect wetlands in another area to offset or “mitigate” that damage. Finalized between 2003 and 2015, the Koopmann ranch easements offset Bay Area development in Pleasanton and San Jose. Held by California Rangeland Trust, these easements protect the habitats of two sensitive species: the California tiger salamander and the callippe silverspot butterfly. The proceeds from sale of the easements saved the Koopmann family ranch.
Tim’s background in range science enabled him to show government agencies that the management practices used on the ranch for decades had allowed these species to thrive and should go on uninterrupted. With the rancher-friendly Rangeland Trust monitoring the easements, the Koopmanns have been able to manage the ranch as they did before.
GRAZING SAVES ANIMALS AND WILDFLOWERS
Tim is a naturalist who hears every heartbeat on his land. When the city of Pleasanton opened a golf course on a neighboring parcel, he noticed some interesting differences between his side of the fence and the 61-acre “wild lands” section of the golf course.
“I brought the golf club managers out to see it. On my side of the fence, there were a variety of wildflower species. On their side were just the skeletal remains of weeds and black thatch. What was missing? Management.”
Now, Koopmann cattle graze that part of the Pleasanton golf course, and the wildflowers are already coming back.
Tim loves explaining how grazing is necessary for the habitats of ground-nesting birds, tiger salamanders, and native wildflowers. For each of the last 15 years, he has hosted the range science class from UC Berkeley on his land, and he recently began hosting students from CSU Chico.
He also helped found the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, where organizations with widely divergent beliefs and interests come together with a common goal of conserving the state’s open spaces.
“Anytime we can show them, we’ll do it, because we’ve got to have good outreach,” Tim says.
Over the last 20 years, he has seen tremendous headway in public understanding of the need for vegetation management.
“The best way for anyone to manage land is through grazing. We’ve got the scientific community and even former anti-grazing organizations who now support us tremendously.”
In an era of endless commentary and debate, ranchers have largely remained silent figures who walk the walk, quietly protecting the public resources we all require: Fresh water, healthy protein, clean air, rich soil, wildflowers, wild animals. They are America’s silent stewards, ensuring a more resilient climate by offsetting development. Ranching has always been a tough job; one that requires adaptation. For Tim Koopmann, he had to learn to speak up about the value of grazing and land management in order to save his land. The state of California is better, greener, and safer because he did.
A version of this feature was originally written for the California Rangeland Trust.