Within the month, if you are driving through Butte County, Calif., north of Sacramento, maybe on your way to California State University-Chico, you’re going to see some billboards that tie California’s rich heritage of ranching to cattle producers’ love of the environment.

The Butte County Cattlemen and Cattlewomen have designed two full-sized billboards to be placed on some heavily traveled highways outside of small urban areas in California -- on some of the most beautiful ranch land in the West. Butte County Cattlemen Immediate Past President and California State University-Chico Associate Dean of Agriculture David Daley says the site is relatively close to Chico where there are roughly 15,000 students---many of them from the Bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego. “As their parents and family bring them to CSU, Chico, they can't help but see the sign,” he says. “It is a message that we hope resonates with urban voters.”

And what is the message? That the surrounding environment is cared for and sustained by local ranchers – instead of being developed and paved over. “We don’t have a large cattlemen’s membership but we do have a lot of cattle in the county in the winter months because it is a winter grazing area for stockers and cow-calf operations,” Daley explains. “The county is diverse with a lot of fertile ag land along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers. We are trying to protect that land through Farm Bureau and other groups.”

The problem, Daley notes, is that the rangelands where the cattle, wildlife and water recharge areas are located, are often seen as marginal land and easy to develop. “Our job is to educate the public about the critical role those landscapes play not only for cattle grazing, but plant and animal biodiversity as well. Those lands are essential to recharge the aquifer, support wildlife and harvest sunlight in the form of grass and cattle. We don’t tell the story well enough or often enough. In addition, those lands contribute to the fabric of rural America and the small towns that dot our nation’s highways -- keeping the local businesses open, providing a tax base and creating local jobs.”

Butte County has significant rangeland and open space that are threatened by development. “In addition, we are in the middle of a county general plan and zoning update which will set development guidelines for the next 30 years,” Daley says. “We are making sure our Board of Supervisors and the public values ranching.” Daley adds that being close to a university, one of the most common criticisms is how cows “negatively impact the environment”. “It was easy to choose an environmental message. There are few issues that cut across so many socio-economic groups than environmental issues.”

Daley and students at Chico State came up with some draft ideas that were then floated past the cattlemen members and the public. The two messages are: Untamed Scenery – enjoy the view courtesy of your local cattlemen. And, Wide Open Spaces – courtesy of your local cattlemen. Both billboards are identified as coming from the Butte County Cattlemen’s and CattleWomen’s Associations. “Choose your landscape, your message and your design very carefully,” Daley suggests. “At least ask some non-ag folks before you put it in place. We also have bumper stickers with the same message that are very popular.”

Daley credits Holly Foster, director of Butte County Cattlemen, who has chaired the project and helped to refine the message and the design. The two billboards cost about $3500 and sit on land owned by cattlemen’s association members. Funding came from the Cattlemen’s/CattleWomen’s associations and private donations.

Daley encourages other livestock groups to do the same sort of thing, but suggests they plan carefully. “If you are in a very rural county with limited traffic and no major highways, you might be better off giving your resources to a billboard that will get more visibility. Test your message with someone besides your membership and see if it resonates.”

Geni Wren
Editor, Bovine Veterinarian Magazine