Seashore ranchers make case for workable future

06/05/2014

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association delivered a dense 32-page public comment letter to the park this week, outlining its collective vision of the future of agriculture in the seashore that includes more public education on ranching, uniform treatment of ranchers and the removal of tule elk from the pastoral zone. 

The letter, signed by every rancher in the park save for one who was reportedly out of town, was submitted on the last day of the six-week scoping period for the seashore’s ranching management plan, which will guide agriculture in the seashore for the foreseeable future.

The ranchers’ comment came with seven attachments, including a report on the history of tule elk in the seashore, which was commissioned by the ranchers association and completed last month.

Ranchers at Point Reyes have felt a mixture of apprehension and optimism for the forthcoming plan, the need for which they have also questioned. The park says the plan is necessary to “articulate a clear vision for ranching on existing ranch lands,” to implement a policy allowing 20-year leases, address the elk problem and streamline the review of diversifying uses of ranch lands, according to the park service’s scoping notice. 

But as a group, the ranchers have argued against the park’s explanation for the plan, saying there is no apparent environmental impact from longer leases and that the current elk management plan can be used or modified to address elk encroaching on ranches.

But since the park moved forward with the plan, the ranchers association decide dto participate fully in the process, which has fostered a renewed sense of unity, according to Kevin Lunny, who runs cattle with his parents on G Ranch and owns Drakes Bay Oyster Company.

“This [plan] has been able to solidify and unify the ranchers, because what it has done is forced every one of us to get educated… Our futures and our children’s futures depend on this process,” Mr. Lunny said.

Ranchers who typically do not attend association meetings started coming, he said, and they all commented on, edited and debated drafts of the scoping letter. “It’s all of us together, standing shoulder to shoulder, handing this to the park service and saying, ‘If you truly want ranching to succeed, here’s the roadmap,’” he added.

(The park does not comment on individual scoping letters, citing concerns that it can discourage public engagement. Seashore spokesperson Melanie Gunn said, “We welcome the participation of the ranchers association and individual ranchers, and we’ll be going through all the comments and working through the next steps.”)

Though park service employees come and go, the letter says, ranchers remain generation after generation, providing context, history and understanding of the land. “For longer than anyone at the [park service], the seashore ranchers have known the seashore’s history, and have known and cared for both the natural resources and the local community and the people in the county we serve,” it says.

It also cites a lack of uniformity in what ranches are permitted to do; those policies should be consistent, the association wrote. Some ranches, for instance, are allowed to harvest forage or cultivate row crops, while others aren’t. Only one ranch is authorized for farm stays. 

Maximum head counts for cattle also vary across leases despite similarities in acreage, but ranchers want to see those limits eliminated entirely. Instead, they suggest, the park should monitor forage levels, which would better encourage rangeland management. As for row crops, which existed historically and provided food locally, ranchers say this should also be allowed across the board, with their production capped at 15 percent of acreage. 

“It will…benefit the gateway communities surrounding the project area by allowing seashore ranchers to once again be a lively and important part of the local food system and more directly influence the local economy,” the letter says.

To further bolster agriculture in the seashore, the association argues, ranches should be required to create succession plans that concretely outline what happens when a rancher passes away, is evicted or otherwise stops ranching. (This is also one objective of the project, according to the park’s scoping
document.)

In addition, former ranches should be returned to agricultural use where feasible. Some former ranch lands have become overrun with brush after falling out of use, which not only provides fewer acres for agriculture but also contributes to the elk problem, the letter argues.

Ranchers also ask the park to consider creating an interpretive center and public education programs that feature ranching in the seashore, similar to what happens at the oyster farm. If such a center were located on a farm or ranch, children could come and see where their food originates, and ranchers could even lead some of the programs. 

The ranchers’ submittal to the park also included a commissioned report on tule elk that was originally intended for the ranchers’ own edification and to pin down a timeline of elk in the pastoral zone. The report documents the rancher’s experiences; includes research undertaken by Laura Watt, a professor at Sonoma State who has studied the seashore in depth; and summarizes the park’s administrative history in one document.

“When things aren’t written down it gets hard to remember. ‘Which happened when?’ A lot happened in a short amount of time,” particularly between 1999 and 2001, said Dr. Watt, whose research on the elk intrusion informed the report. “There’s this pretty tight timeline of stuff happening, so it was really trying to help [the ranchers] sort that out.”

The report puts the elk issue in the context of what it describes as a historically confused purpose of the seashore. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the park service was attempting to figure out how to manage new kinds of lands it was purchasing that didn’t fit the traditional model of a national park—such as seashores, lakeshores and historic areas—and it continually revised its management policies. 

The seashore’s own authorizing legislation variously pointed to protection of natural resources, recreation and the preservation of ranching as the backbone of the formation of the seashore, which can have conflicting goals.

Even after the boundaries of the seashore were set, “the process of redefining the function and meaning of the peninsula’s natural, cultural, and human resources continued over the next three decades of PRNS history,” according to an administrative history of the park quoted in the report.

An emphasis on recreation in the seashore’s early years led environmental groups to push for more natural resource protection in the ‘70s. 

Original promises that ranchers could continue to hunt were soon reversed under pressure from those groups, which also advocated for designating around 25,000 acres of the park as wilderness and for the reintroduction of tule elk—even before the seashore’s first general management plan was approved in 1980 and before that plan’s formal public comment period.

The first elk were placed in a fenced enclosure on Tomales Point, where the historic cattle operation at Pierce Point Ranch had just been shut down. The 1975 wilderness designation included the ranch, and the park subsequently evicted rancher Merv McDonald, though he fought for years to remain. 

Mr. McDonald actually watched over the elk—some sick with diarrhea from Johne’s disease—during the last few months he was on the land, in 1979.

To deal with an eventual population boom, a 1992 environmental assessment was undertaken to evaluate ways to manage the elk. The process was abandoned, although the draft and the public responses helped shape management policies—an example of what the ranchers association calls an ongoing “disregard” at Point Reyes for the National Environmental Policy Act.

After the adoption of the 1998 Elk Management Plan, a few elk were moved from Tomales Point to the Limantour wilderness, and soon ended up in the pastoral zone. The two herds that have now established themselves outside the wilderness—one near Home Ranch, and one around Drakes Beach—regularly feed on forage leased for cattle grazing. 

Ranchers said they are particularly rankled by elk on the defunct D Ranch; though the park has said it filled ponds there to try to lure the ungulates away from active ranches, the ranchers said they are upset that the park uses former agricultural lands to accommodate elk.

It’s the kind of disagreement that the renewed discussion about ranching and the management plan will—hopefully—resolve.