FRIANT, Calif. - Two cowboys on horses pushed cattle across an expanse of golden hills overgrown with tall grasses and oak trees, up an unpaved road toward another pasture.
From the Sierra Nevada foothills, the cattle will be sent for processing into beef, prized by consumers looking for locally raised, grass-fed meat in California's Central Valley.
But this isn't a ranch. It's a nature preserve managed by the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, a Fresno-area land trust that protects ecosystems. The Conservancy says it is breaking new ground by raising its own beef herd, using cattle to benefit the environment and to improve its bottom line.
The beef operation is one of several novel approaches — cost-effective, though paradoxical — that marry conservation work with industries often held in low esteem by environmentalists.
Across the nation, conservation groups in partnership with ranchers are using cattle to restore native plant species by grazing invasive grasses. Other groups are working with fishermen to fish sustainably, and using logging and mining profits to pave way for forest and salmon restoration.
"There's been a shift to working more with industries," said Lynn Huntsinger, professor of rangeland ecology at the University of California, Berkeley. "This is a human landscape. We need food, we need wood, people are crazy about eating salmon. Working closely with those who produce on the land offers opportunities for ... teaching them about conservation."
In the past, conservationists relied on purchasing land and setting it aside, away from human activity. Logging, ranching or mining were seen as harmful and incompatible with preservation.
But in recent years, the use of conservation easements to retire development rights on private land has exploded. The easements, which cost a fraction of what it would cost to buy the property, allow landowners to continue working the land.
In areas where nearby urban development has pushed up land values, conservation easements can provide an alternative solution to ranchers who might be tempted to sell their holdings, said Daniel Press, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Conservationists "have found that allowing, or even encouraging or designing some way of making money off of properties is the only way to keep them from being degraded further or developed outright," Press said.
At the Conservancy — which owns about 6,500 acres of land in Fresno, Madera, Merced and Mariposa counties and manages another 20,000 acres for ranchers with easements and for public agencies — allowing ranching on its land was once controversial.
But over the past decade, studies have shown that cattle grazing can help the land, especially vernal pools, temporary collections of water that provide crucial habitat for native plants and invertebrates, said executive director Jeannette Tuitele-Lewis.
"If we don't graze the foothills, then the European grasses end up choking out a lot of the native plants and it really decreases the biodiversity of the habitat," Tuitele-Lewis said.
So-called conservation grazing is increasingly used by land trusts and public agencies on preserves and on private ranches throughout the U.S., she said. Most lease land to ranchers, but the Conservancy took the practice a step further. Two years ago, it started its own beef herd under the label Sierra Lands Beef.
The group now runs about 300 cows on 1,800 acres of land. The beef operation provides an additional revenue stream, Tuitele-Lewis said, and allows greater control over grazing management.
The conservancy's herdsmen transport the cattle, five head at a time, to Fresno State University's slaughterhouse to be butchered, processed and boxed. They then deliver the grass-fed beef to customers.
"We're creating a bridge between conservation and the local economy," Tuitele-Lewis said.
Other conservationists are teaming up with private timber investors such as the Lyme Timber Company based in New Hampshire. The company acquires quality habitat that doubles as timberland, gives up development rights by selling conservation easements to land trusts and public agencies throughout the U.S., then logs the land in a sustainable way to generate an income.
Timber is harvested at or below the annual rate of growth, said Peter Stein, the company's managing director, and harvesting methods are third party certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
The approach is key, Stein said, as conservationists aim to preserve larger tracts of land — in the hundreds of acres — which are too expensive to buy outright.
The Nature Conservancy is also partnering with the timber industry in California and Alaska to restore salmon by felling trees to create stream habitat.
The group has also partnered with the fishing industry. It bought out fishing permits in California and in Maine to protect millions of acres of ocean habitat, then leased the permits back to fishermen who agreed to fish sustainably.
"We've come to the realization that you don't try to do everything yourself. You catalyze the adoption of practices by having ranchers, fishermen and logging companies adopt them, so that you can have widespread impact," said the group's North and Central Coast Director Brian Stranko.
But ecologist George Wuerthner says such approaches do more harm than good.
"Given all the impacts associated with these operations, it's troubling to call it conservation," said Wuerthner, who works for the California non-profit Foundation for Deep Ecology.
Wuerthner said using terms such as "conservation grazing" gives people the false impression that the practices lack negative costs or impacts. These include damage to riparian areas and to soil, ranchers killing predators, and water pollution from animal waste, he said.
Grazing, logging and other human activities also destroy wild, undisturbed habitat that some species need to survive, Wuerthner said.
The Sierra Foothill Conservancy says it manages grazing to minimize impact on species, leaves some areas ungrazed, and keeps cattle out of riparian habitat. The group hopes to bring other ranchers under its beef label — and in line with its conservation efforts. If these ranchers can get higher premiums for grass-fed meat, it translates into less pressure to sell land to developers.
"Any bit that we can do to help keep the local ranching economy viable is a good thing for us, because it keeps those lands undeveloped," Tuitele-Lewis said. "The end goal is conservation, not becoming a large land baron."