Saturday, May 29, 2010




It may not have been the unkindest cut made last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as he blue-penciled more than $500 million from the state budget before signing, and it may also not have been the most inefficient or deadly one.

But lopping $27.8 million from the Williamson Act program that has long preserved agricultural lands and leaving it with a token $1,000 was surely the brownest cut of all.

One more thing is also for sure: There is no way state legislators will seriously attempt to restore that money as they haggle over this year’s financial plan – not when they are struggling to reduce the budget by about $19 billion beyond the huge cuts of 2009.

Last year’s action once and for all should have put the lie to Schwarzenegger’s bluster about being the world’s greenest public official. But somehow the master showman and muscleman has managed to retain that image in spite of decimating the world’s largest single anti-greenhouse gas program.

That’s exactly what the Williamson Act has been.

This 44-year-old program, named for John Williamson, a 1960s-era legislator from Kern County, long gave farmers a property tax break if they pledged to keep their land in agriculture for 10 to 20 years. Williamson Act contracts now protect about 16.4 million acres of farm and ranch land from development, helping maintain the state’s standing as the world leader in farming.

Here’s what it has to do with being green: A Purdue University study seven years ago found that every acre of farmland in that university’s state of Indiana pulls about 0.107 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air each year ( That’s for all types of farmland, including grazing land, vineyards, rice fields, cotton fields, orchards and more.

That’s a lowball figure, of course, because it’s based on lands that feature no green leaves or blades of grass to remove carbon from the air during winters. But even under those conditions, the math works out to a minimum of 1.754 million tons of carbon absorbed yearly by those 16.4 million Williamson Act acres. Or 3.5 billion pounds. Nothing contemplated anywhere involves more than a small fraction of those amounts.

Even skeptics who question that most global warming is caused by humans can’t doubt the act has helped constrain both natural and man-made CO2 proliferation.

Schwarzenegger knew all this before he made his cut. He was given the numbers during a 2007 press conference after his press secretary admitted the governor and his staff knew nothing of the Williamson Act’s climate-change relevance. That was just after Schwarzenegger first tried to dump the program, only to see it temporarily reinstated by the Legislature.

When the governor finally made his environmental hypocrisy stand up last year, the program’s future was left up to county boards of supervisors, some of which have continued the property tax subsidies even without state contributions averaging just over $500,000 per county. This at a time when most county finances are at least as constrained as the state’s.

One factor pressuring counties into continuing the program on their own is that existing Williamson Act contracts are for either 10 or 20 years, with the pacts rolling over continuously as long as farmers don’t opt out. So even counties that opted out last year must honor the existing contracts for at least nine more years.

That gives future governors and legislators plenty of time to reverse Schwarzenegger’s destructive and little-publicized action.

Meanwhile, some big agricultural counties are thinking of opting out if the program isn’t revived this year. Fresno County officials, for example, are considering that move. Because it is America’s No. 1 farming county, whatever Fresno does will be watched closely by others. Especially since development pressures are strong around the city of Fresno, whose metropolitan area almost doubled in population between 1995 and 2005.

For owners of some large farms, the disappearance of the Williamson Act subsidy could shift financial equations just enough to convince them to try to develop their land rather than keep it open.

Schwarzenegger shows no sign of reversing his position on this program and without leadership from the governor, legislators won’t even try to restore it.

Which makes this another of many short-sighted Schwarzenegger actions with the potential to affect the future of California long after he’s disappeared from the scene.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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