Save Our Seashore voices concern over fences, trees

11/21/2013

Gordon Bennett, an Inverness environmentalist whose concerns about Point Reyes National Seashore have in the past helped spark reviews by federal agencies, has just voiced some new ones—that of electric fencing and tree removal and their respective impacts to wildlife. At least some of those concerns, ranchers say, are based on misunderstandings.

In a letter sent to seashore superintendent Cicely Muldoon in October, Mr. Bennett, the founder of a group called Save Our Seashore and a former spokesman for the local chapter of the Sierra Club, wrote that the National Park Service should conduct an environmental assessment of the use of electric fencing on ranches, which he said has the potential to expand in prevalence, impinge on visitor access and present new threats to wildlife. He also said that ranchers were compensated for installing fencing, adding to the need for a public review.  

In a November letter, Mr. Bennett described a recent birding excursion in which his group found that trees near the historic Lifeboat Station that were formerly inhabited by “some notable species” had been cut; he suggested the park, in its efforts to maintain the historic proportions of windbreaks—described in park newsletters as a matter of importance to cultural resource managers—develop “careful plans” for each windbreak in order to consider the environmental impacts of any changes.

Spokesmen for the seashore said they are reviewing the letters and could not comment on their claims; however, they confirmed that all fencing is approved through a review process during which potential impacts are evaluated, and that individual ranchers fund the projects and do not receive discounts. 

The seashore does fund some special fencing efforts, such as those to protect wetlands, native plant projects and areas of special biological significance from cattle disturbance. Officials say they do not fundamentally prefer traditional barbed wire over electric fencing; both have their benefits and costs, and can be adjusted to reduce the potential for harm. Biologists are experimenting with deer and elk crossings and alterations to fencing based on current literature.

Some Point Reyes ranchers have been using electric fencing for at least 15 years, according to Nicola Spaletta, whose family operates the historic C Ranch. “We’re able to rest and rotate our pastures to save on forage and also to protect the pastures, which benefits soil because we’re able to rest pastures more efficiently,” she said. Electric fencing can be moved if sections of land become especially wet from rains; those areas can be quickly blocked off, preventing cattle from eroding the soil.

Jarrod Mendoza, who has worked on his family’s B Ranch since 2010, uses electric fences for both rotational grazing and on some boundaries because he finds it easier to maintain and less expensive. Cows sometimes like to rub on the barbs of traditional wire and thereby damage fences; barbed wire also rusts and therefore needs to be replaced more often. He said portions of his electric fence are powered by solar panels.

Mr. Mendoza also said wildlife has an easier time moving through electric fencing, countering another of Mr. Bennett’s concerns that electric fencing could “exclude from pastures native ruminants formerly undeterred by barbed wire.” 

Ms. Spaletta said her electric fence is a single strand roughly 40 inches off the ground that wildlife easily maneuver around. 

The park does not document instances of wildlife that have been injured or killed by fences, and spokespeople declined to speak generally about the impacts.

To Mr. Bennett’s claim that electric fencing at C Ranch “impinge[s] on public right-of-ways,” Ms. Spaletta said ranchers are not permitted to block public access. There are two areas on C Ranch, a pond and a plateau, where birdwatchers like to scope out the area’s avian bounty, she said. “There’s electric fence along there with a gate. Bird watchers go through the gate… We haven’t blocked access to anywhere,” she said. 

Mr. Mendoza said signs are posted to alert people to the presence of his electric fences. And, he explained, “It’s not like Jurassic Park where you touch it and the kid flies 20 feet backwards. You’re gonna feel a jolt.” But Mr. Bennett asked whether the public could be deterred by the presence of electrified fencing even if it’s not especially dangerous.

He declined requests for comment on this story. 

Mr. Bennett’s second letter references a 2006 seashore newsletter that discusses the challenges of managing trees of historical significance that act as windbreaks in the Olema Valley and on some historic ranches. The park sometimes cuts or thins some trees to bring their growth back to a “historic footprint” and to reduce the risk of fire.

Mr. Bennett said he attempted to locate management plans for these historic windbreaks but could not find any.