Re-Balancing Act Making a Ranch Ecosystem More Resilient
October 14, 2021
Heather Bernikoff has been a changemaker in her community through the many roles she’s held—a volunteer leader on non-profit boards, a health educator, and an advocate for direct service programs, to name a few. Now on her ranch in the rolling foothills of the Central Sierra Nevada, she is effecting change on the land by applying her creative problem solving skills to ecological issues.
“Both my professional life and my life on the ranch involve studying issues, listening to people who know more, reading, and then using all that data to attempt to solve an issue,” she says. The problems that currently concern Heather the most are water scarcity, loss of pollinator habitat, and the cascading effects of climate change.
Heather worked extensively with former Point Blue Partner Biologist Elaina Cromer and continues to work with Partner Biologist Catie Mong to strategize and implement nature based solutions on her land. “I have installed swales and plan to install log/rock drop and beaver dam analog structures to slow down run-off, in an attempt to retain as much moisture as possible,” Heather details. She has also made extensive efforts to make her ranch a sanctuary for pollinators, especially the western monarch butterfly, planting more than 400 nectar and milkweed plants—irrigated with rainwater captured from her roof. “By doing these things, I am hoping to make this ecosystem more resilient to climate change,” says Heather.
For Heather, whatever benefits result will contribute to the greater good of the planet, and all who inhabit it. “If natural systems are not working, it impacts everything from human health and food systems to living conditions and water availability and quality,” she believes. “The ranch is where I have some small measure of control, and if I can help the ecosystem here, in this harsh landscape, there is hope for other places.”
Heather’s approach to the stewardship of her land is deeply rooted in her Native American heritage. “Inepo Yo’eme—I am Yoeme,” she says. “In my culture, there is no difference between one’s health and the health of all our relations. If you do harm, you do it to yourself.” And Heather believes that because the human species is capable of doing harm to our shared Earth, we have a corresponding responsibility to care for it. She surmises: “I am doing what I should be doing when there is an imbalance, and helping where I can.”
Heather was recently awarded a contract through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It’s a major achievement that will enable her to improve water availability and quality for livestock and wildlife, increase habitat for pollinators and birds, and protect sensitive riparian areas of her ranch. Point Blue and partners, including biologists from the NRCS and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, worked with Heather to develop a plan and navigate the application process. “I could not have done as much without this team,” says Heather, “and I thank them every chance I get!”
The award of the contract was very personal to Heather. She recalls how her grandfather Henry Ayala, a highly decorated war hero, was denied farm loans in the 1940s because of racist lending practices. “Like many people similar to him, he didn’t want anything much—just something to call his own, somewhere he could produce food for others, and make a living for his family,” she explains. “As an Indigenous and Latino person, his money and industry were not good enough. He put his dream away and moved on, never building the farm he wanted,” Heather laments.
Seventy-three years on, Heather says her grandfather would be very proud of her achievement, but also realistic about the barriers people of color continue to face with access to credit, resources, and land. “My grandfather was still alive when I purchased this ranch, and he loved this place,” she says. “He was so amazed that in just two generations his family could have such acreage.”
Cultural connections continue to be meaningful to Heather as she works to maximize the health of her ranch ecosystem. She often consults local Tribal elders, to learn from them “what grows here, what things work together—essentially, how to do things the right way.” She believes we’d all benefit from more Indigenous people having a seat at the table when it comes to setting agricultural policy. “They have a perspective as land stewards, often with thousands of years of knowledge, and as impacted stakeholders that are not tied simply to profit creation,” she says.
Heather would also like to see a major shift in thinking about our relationship with the planet and natural resources. While regenerative agriculture—which largely builds upon practices pioneered by generations of BIPOC communities—can help draw down carbon, improve the water cycle, and provide other benefits by restoring soil health and degraded habitat, Heather points out that so much of the focus is on fixing damage that has already been done. While that work is necessary and important, she wonders how different the world would be if we viewed it through another lens. “We see every blade of grass, tree, ounce of water as a function of its monetary value instead of seeing it as a relation, as necessary to our well-being, as having an intrinsic value solely due to its existence,” she says. “There are people who want to shift the ecology, but who need to ensure it won’t negatively impact the business aspects of their operations. We have to balance those interests. But to do this, we would also need to shift the fundamental economics of all sectors, including farms and ranches, to decrease the pressure to scale up, to make more and more profit or just simply keep up with costs with a little bit extra on which to live,” Heather continues. “You can’t make money if you have no water or dead soil.”
But Heather is encouraged by some of the things she is seeing. “With the smaller family farms and ranches I know, care for the land is embedded in their business model,” she says. “And young people make me hopeful—both the scientists that help land stewards innovate and thrive and the young people choosing careers as farmers and ranchers. Ne visawame eme’e—I am grateful for them all.”