County May Dust Off Permit Policy to Settle Antelope Valley Furor Over Sheep
In response to a swirling controversy over dust clouds in the Antelope Valley, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has proposed prohibiting sheep grazing and land tilling in some parts of the desert region.
Increasingly in recent years, thick, blowing dirt and sand has forced homeowners across the valley to seal their windows, scoop mud out of their swimming pools daily and replace pitted windshields. A mile-high, fog-like cloud of dust was blamed for contributing to 40 car crashes Feb. 17.
If the measure is approved by the Board of Supervisors today, farmers and shepherds would be required to obtain permits from the county agricultural commissioner’s office before plowing or allowing their sheep to graze during the next four months. That would give vegetation germinated by the recent rainstorms a chance to mature, said Cato Fiksdal, county deputy agriculture director. Failure to comply with the ordinance would be a misdemeanor.
Antonovich, whose 5th District includes the Antelope Valley, would like the grazing and tilling permit program to become permanent after public hearings next month.
Residents of the arid valley greeted the proposal with enthusiasm, saying they are tired of breathing the dusty air and cleaning the dirt out of their houses.
“I think they should put a moratorium on sheeping,” said Debra Smith, who lives in the far northern reaches of the valley near Kern County. “You see dust in the air and when the wind finally stops it comes down and it’s almost like living at the end of the world.”
Smith’s husband, Richard, said a row of cypress trees planted as a windbreak on his property died last year when a dust storm sandblasted the bark off the tree trunks.
Some shepherds and farmers say the county is unfairly penalizing them for problems caused by the drought.
“As far as the dust problem goes, it’s not the sheep that started it,” said John Errea, who owns about 700 of the 7,000 sheep that graze in the Antelope Valley. “This is a big headache for us.”
The controversy over the cause of the dust storms and who should be responsible for stopping them has simmered in the community for years, as housing developments replace farmland and heighten the conflict between agricultural and residential lifestyles.
Although he supports the permit proposal as a fast way to gain control of the dust problem, Fiksdal said a number of factors have contributed to it: Some landowners have left their land lying fallow during the drought; the lack of rain has resulted in less forage and caused sheep to denude the land in search of food, and there are more people living in the valley to complain about the dust.
The last time the county required grazing permits was in 1977, during the last drought. Fiksdal said that program included only a small portion of the valley.
This time, he said, permit requests from all across the valley would be closely scrutinized, with those west of 110th Street West least likely to be granted.
William Barnes, who farms in the northwest valley near Kern County, is among those who agreed that something needs to be done, although he said he was worried that politics would enter into who wins the permits.
Barnes, 67, has farmed wheat and barley for most of his life without irrigation, relying only on rainfall. The drought caused him to cut back his planted acreage from 2,500 acres to about 300 last year, most of which he said was buried by dust after sheep ate their way across a neighbor’s field.