The plan to get rid of the ranchers

01/09/2014

A few years ago, Don Neubacher, at the time the superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, provided a troubling story to one of us—Phyllis Faber, who was then a board member of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association—saying the National Park Service had a “plan” to rid the seashore of working ranches.

That plan would start with closure of the oyster farm in Drakes Estero. Once it was gone, the park would stand by as environmental groups brought lawsuits against the surrounding ranches, claiming their operations were degrading water quality. The ranchers, whose means are modest, would have no choice but to shut down, bringing an end to the 150-year ranching tradition at Point Reyes. 

It was reminiscent of a plan developed by the National Parks Conservation Association in 1971. The organization called for designating most of the peninsula as wilderness, thus requiring the closure of both the oyster farm and the working ranches. No other conservation groups advocating for wilderness supported this plan when wilderness legislation came before Congress in 1976.

In fact, every interested environmental and civic organization told Congress that the oyster farm and working ranches should stay.

But the N.P.C.A. appears to have held firm to its agenda, and has honed it elsewhere in recent years. On Santa Rosa Island, in Southern California, the group used laws like the Clean Water Act to force out a historic family cattle ranch operating on park service land. If the plan worked there, it could also work here.

Opponents argue that the oyster farm must go because “a deal is a deal.” But the farm had the same deal as all the surrounding ranches: a renewable lease and decades-old assurances from the federal government that they are part of the agricultural heritage the seashore was created to protect. If that deal meant the oyster farm must close, then expect to soon hear that the same deal requires the ranchers to go too.  

The park service is already doing its part to make life difficult for the ranchers. In the environmental impact statement for Drakes Bay Oyster Company, it went out of its way to identify the surrounding ranches as primary sources of pollution that could degrade water quality in Drakes Estero. In recent years it also terminated a long-time lease at Rancho Baulines, and evicted another family, the Horicks, whose history at their ranch dated back to the 1800’s. It is now demanding that the rest agree to difficult, if not impossible, lease conditions.

For example, park officials recently told one rancher that his lease will be renewed only if he moves out of his house and lives off-site. Officials are demanding that other ranchers allow tule elk to graze on their lands. If ranchers lose forage to elk, they will have to import more hay and water, which will surely force them out of business.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The park service could still renounce the N.P.C.A. plan and issue the oyster farm a permit, as Congress intended. It also has the authority to issue ranchers new long-term permits—today—without imposing any new conditions.

Even with the recently announced range management planning process underway, the park could take pressure off ranchers by moving the elk off pastoral zone in the meantime.  The existing management plan gives the authority needed to do so—or it could easily be amended to clarify that authority.

That plan specifically rejected an alternative that would have allowed free-ranging elk in the pastoral zone, and required that the park be a “good neighbor” by relocating elk that wander from their designated range. The environmental analysis that accompanied it determined that relocating stray elk would have no significant impacts. After all, over 40 elk were relocated from Tomales Point to Limantour in 1998 under the plan, so no harm can come from moving them off the pastoral zone now.

Both the oyster farm and ranches provide considerable ecosystem services to Marin that should not be ignored. Oysters improve water quality by filtering the water, so losing the farm would result in long-term adverse effects to water quality. The ranches maintain pastureland that provides clean air and plant diversity; losing them would allow fire-prone weedy vegetation to quickly encroach, as it has at Rancho Baulines.

The seashore was established to offer the public recreation and natural beauty while protecting local agricultural operations, including the oyster farm and working ranches.  The park service seems to have forgotten that the seashore would never have been created without the support and cooperation of these farming families. It should stop trying to push aside historic operations in favor of a plan that will both eliminate the working landscape and degrade the ecological integrity of these lands.

 

Phyllis Faber is a biologist and co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Laura Watt, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Sonoma State University and chair of its Department of Environmental Studies and Planning and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at P.R.N.S. Peter Prows is a partner with Briscoe Ivester & Bazel, L.L.P. of San Francisco, which represents Drakes Bay Oyster Company.