Seashore ranchers await longer leases

04/25/2013

Some ranchers saw it as a show of good faith when former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asked the National Park Service on Nov. 29 to double the length of the 10-year use permits that the government previously supported. Yet despite that commitment, no ranchers currently operate on 20-year terms and several lack leases of any kind after five-year leases that were formerly the norm expired, Ted McIsaac, the head of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, said on Tuesday.

The lack of contractual assurances from the park service, along with a set of preexisting issues, have led to an inchoate fear among ranchers about their future in the seashore—despite continuing statements of support from officials. In a letter earlier this month Congressman Jared Huffman asked park service officials to “do even more to ensure the continuing economic viability of ranches” in the seashore by pursuing longer-term leases and allowing ranchers to diversify their agricultural pursuits.

Ranchers have for years asked for flexibility to allow them to raise chickens, for instance, or start row crops, and park officials have been increasingly receptive to those ideas. They also continue to have differences with the park over management of tule elk, the free-ranging species that is increasingly damaging agricultural equipment and competing with cows for water and forage, ranchers say.

Those issues have frayed a tenuous and uneasy relationship initially struck in the 1960s between ranchers, environmental groups and the federal government, a storied agreement that enabled the preservation of the Point Reyes coastline for pleasure-seekers and pastoralists alike.

“We, the public, have been waiting for years,” said Ellie Rilla of the University of California Cooperative Extension. “One can ‘say’ things that others want to hear but to actually do it is the bottom line.”
In recent years many ranchers saw the treatment received by one of their own—Kevin Lunny—as unceremonious when an extension of his oyster farm’s Drakes Estero lease was debated and then 
denied.

Government officials and environmental advocates who pushed for the closure of the farm said Drakes Bay is a special case: the only aquaculture operation in the seashore and the only business operating in land designated as potential wilderness. And when Mr. Salazar announced the end of oyster farm’s tenancy, he also asked that seashore officials double the length of ranchers’ 10-year use permits. “Because of the importance of sustainable agriculture on the pastoral lands within Point Reyes, I direct that you pursue extending permits for the ranchers within those pastoral lands to 20-year terms,” he wrote to Jon Jarvis, director of the park service.

Adding to the mix, the nine ranchers and six organic dairies spread over 28,000 acres on Point Reyes continue to deal the traditional volatility of their industry—high input prices, unpredictable weather and tough markets—while investing considerable amounts in land without the security of knowing they will continue to enjoy rights. “As far as ranching goes, you’ve got to have a minimum of 10 [years], because you make investments, improvements in the business that it’s going to take several years to see the benefit from,” said Mr. McIsaac, whose five-year lease expires in November. “A lot of people have their ears open right now wanting to know what’s going on.”

Cicely Muldoon, the seashore superintendent, said officials were crafting details of “the new authority to offer 20-year permits.” “Part of this process is reviewing the current permit structure to assure it reflects and protects the ranchers’ interests while meeting [park service] responsibilities to protect natural and cultural resources,” she said in an email. “Our hope and intent is that the permits are clear, transparent, and consistent.”

Nonetheless the Drakes debate left a bad taste in many ranchers’ mouths.

Mr. McIsaac described the sentiment of many ranchers toward the threat posed by environmental groups in light of the Drakes controversy. “With their scientific data and the way they go about creating science, if they find any kind of cattle E. Coli going into that bay, what do you think they’re going to do about that? That’s where the fear factor is,” Mr. McIsaac said. “That’s the handwriting on the wall: if they can do this to the oyster beds they can probably do this to anybody else. That’s they way a lot of people think.”

Local wilderness advocates have uniformly said they support West Marin’s tradition of family farming.

The National Parks Conservation Association, which has fought Drakes Bay, called it “essential to preserve the natural and cultural resources of the Pastoral Zone” in a report. “The ranch landscape maintains a connection between past and present, reminding all who view it of the area’s history.”