Rising From the Ashes: Rangeland Trust CEO Is a Voice for Grazing

February 1, 2022 BY Keely Brazil Covello

It was July 2018, and Michael Delbar was at work in Sacramento when the call came.

“Katie said, ‘There’s a fire on the neighbor’s ranch and it’s headed this way.’ I got in my truck and bolted home.”

The Delbars, with their family and friends, cleared brush and cut fire breaks on the Lamb Ranch in Potter Valley. By summer’s end that blaze on the horizon would burn more than 400,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in modern California history at the time.

Katie Delbar rides through Lamb Ranch in the wake of the devastating 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire. Photo by Emily Eddie.

“My brother-in-law said, ‘That fire is going to hit us at 2 p.m. tomorrow.’ At 1:45 the next afternoon, it reached the property line. We got on the four wheelers and raced down to keep the fire from jumping the road. My son-in-law Dan and I were near a grove of live oaks when the fire jumped over us and started burning the trees. I couldn’t breathe. I got down and crouched on the upwind side of an oak tree. I knew we needed to get the hell out. We went back to the house where we had a water tank, figuring if worst came to worst we’d jump in there and either survive or boil to death. You’ve got to keep your humor in a time like that. The fire went through the ranch pretty fast and pretty hot.”

Recently named CEO of California Rangeland Trust, Michael understands the challenges agriculture producers face. He grew up in the small farm town of Winters, riding in the front seat of his dad’s pickup truck at 5 a.m. hauling fruit to the San Francisco markets. While an ag business student at Chico State, Michael worked as a USDA crop inspector. He followed the harvest from Sacramento Delta pears in summer to Chico almonds in fall to kiwis in the spring and Coachella Valley table grapes in early summer. During his second pear harvest, he met a cowgirl. Katie Eddie came from an old ranching family in Mendocino County.

They married, children came, and Michael looked for a job closer to home. While serving as executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau, he saw the tangled local politics that bedevil many California ranchers and farmers. He believed he could make a difference, ran for Mendocino County Supervisor, and won.

More than anything, Michael wanted to help his rural neighbors, whose voices, he felt, were drowned out. They worked the land and grew the food while big city politicians chipped away at their futures. He wanted to be the voice of rural communities and ag producers. This passion would define his career.

After 12 years in office, Michael became COO of California Rangeland Trust in Sacramento. Founded by ranchers, for ranchers, the trust works with landowners to protect the futures of their working ranches.

“When you’ve got a legislature in California controlled by L.A. and San Francisco, it’s tough. That’s our big challenge here.” Michael sighs. “Folks need to understand that to protect these lands, we’ve got to manage them. Locking up land under the guise of protecting it will kill it. From a policy standpoint, we need to remove the barriers to responsible land management.”

Rangeland Trust CEO Michael Delbar in the short film "From the Ground Up: Healing Our Planet, Healing Ourselves."

After the fire that torched Lamb Ranch in 2018, Michael and his family knew the grass and the trees would grow back, but it didn’t feel that way.

“At the time, we were so devastated. This place we’ve only ever known as a beautiful landscape is black and smoldering and lifeless. The timber is gone. You look at that and wonder, will it ever recover? As we’ve seen even just a few years later, it does. It comes back to life. But there are scars on the land, and we have scars ourselves.”

Lamb Ranch is slowly recovering after the devastating 2018 fire. Photo by Emily Eddie.

Native Americans used to manage wildfire with planned burns, setting fire to an area as they left it. This practice ceased decades ago. California officials took a militant fire-prevention route. Coupled with the decimation of the logging industry and grazing bans, the backlog of fuel has grown unmanageable. In an era of climate change, fire season is longer and fires are bigger and hotter than ever.

According to the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources website, grazing by animals such as cattle or sheep is more effective than mechanical means of fire fuel reduction. By utilizing managed grazing techniques, ranchers can reduce dry brush and grasses that are fuel for wildfires on large parcels of land. A 2017 study found that cattle consumed almost 12 billion pounds of dry biomass in California during that year alone—the largest fire fuel treatment in the state.

“We’ll keep running into these massive fires,” Michael says. “We’re not managing, grazing, reducing fuel load. There was a bill last year in the state legislature to make it easier to graze state-owned lands, but environmental groups pushed back and defeated it.”

Michael and Katie’s three children Kayla, Taylor, and Matthew help on the ranch and work in ag-related fields. Katie serves on the California Board of Forestry & Fire Prevention. As a family, they are dedicated to the land and to being a voice for it.

New growth in the burn. Matthew Delbar rides on Lamb Ranch.

There’s a saying in small towns like Potter Valley: Log it, graze it, or watch it burn. For too long, state leaders chose the latter. In 2021, wildfires around the world emitted 1.76 billion tons of carbon. California’s Dixie Fire reached nearly one million acres. Researchers are just beginning to understand the hazards of breathing toxic smoke.

“If there’s a silver lining to these massive fires, it’s that the message is getting through: Lockup isn’t working,” says Michael. “A lot of people have come to that realization. Others have not. As more and more folks lose any connection to farming or ranching, it’s important to have leadership that really understands what it takes to produce food and fiber and to manage these lands.”

Wildflowers are growing again on Lamb Ranch. Trees are being replanted, and the wildlife are back. Elsewhere in California, fire season is coming.

Arial view of the Lamb Ranch in 2021 from the upcoming short film "From the Ground Up: Healing Our Planet, Healing Ourselves."