The undertaking of a first-ever dairy and ranching management plan that the National Park Service says will address extended ranching permits, diversification of land use and tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore will either strengthen the future of local agriculture or lead to the demise of some ranches, depending on whom you ask.
Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and the park service’s Pacific West Regional Office say a comprehensive ranching management plan became necessary after the Secretary of the Interior Department last year directed them to offer 20-year leases—and extension of the original five-year and more recent ten-year terms.
Park spokespeople say they hope the extended leases will give ranchers greater confidence to invest in their operations, without the worry that their permits could end in a few short years. But just how the longer leases could impact ranching—and the seashore’s natural resources—will be explored in the plan and its accompanying environmental impact statement.
The plan, news of which was brought to ranchers individually in recent weeks and to the public in a West Marin Citizen article last week, does not yet have funding—but it does have some ranchers concerned.
Among other things, the plan will dictate the management of tule elk on pastoral lands. Some ranchers say the elk’s presence is posing a financial crisis that needs an immediate solution, not one years down the road.
The plan will also analyze the diversification of land for other agricultural uses, such as row crops or chickens, to expand economic opportunities for permit holders. Such requests, which have been approved for five ranches, are currently evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
A public scoping period will likely elicit additional issues. “Anything that could potentially affect dairy and ranching areas will be addressed,” said Melanie Gunn, the director of outreach for the seashore.
In 2009, then-National Park Service Director Mary Bomar authorized the seashore to offer 10-year permits. There was no discussion of developing a management plan at the time. Ms. Gunn said the park had been pursuing an update to its 1980 general management plan, which she believed would have taken the longer leases into account.
That update has been stalled for several years while the park service reevaluates how such plans are undertaken, Ms. Gunn said.
Of the three central components to the management plan, the debate over tule elk is the most pressing and contentious. The growth of the free-ranging elk herd, which has access to over 20,000 acres of wilderness in the park, has threatened not only organic certifications, but the livelihoods of some ranchers, according to the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association.
The impacts of elk, which consume forage and water, are costing one ranch at least $30,000 a year.
The seashore maintains that it cannot relocate the elk back to designated wilderness areas because its current tule elk management plan, approved in 1998, only addresses the trespass of elk on bordering private lands, and not on agricultural lands within the park.
But in letters to Ms. Muldoon, the ranchers association has advocated for an interpretation of the plan that provides for the elk’s removal based on its commitment to resolve conflicts with neighbors.
Ranchers also point to a 2001 park report that said the elk were being monitored so that they remained in the seashore and “[did] not interfere with cattle ranches within the park.”
Stacy Carlsen, the agricultural commissioner for Marin County, shares their view. “I think the plan has enough information and enough discussion about recognizing conflicts,” he said.
But Ms. Gunn said Interior lawyers advised the seashore that the plan does not authorize the elk’s removal and that the only way to resolve the present crisis is to develop a new plan.
Some ranchers worry that a start from scratch will not end well for them, particularly if the environmental impact statement takes the presence of elk in the pastoral zone as a baseline. Ms. Gunn insists that won’t necessarily be the case.
Although the environmental review process does not weigh comments based on their frequency, Mr. Carlsen said the process is open to everyone in the country, most of whom do not see the impacts of elk on ranchers.
“I see connection right here, right now,” Mr. Carlsen said. “I don’t think [the ranchers] see the value of spending a million dollars on a plan that could end up with the elk in the pastoral zone.”
And unlike the current elk management plan, which guides the management of all elk, the new management plan will only evaluate elk that impact ranches, including elk that migrate between wilderness and pastoral zones.
Though the seashore cannot say what the outcome of the tule elk component of the new plan will be, at least one suggestion discussed at a rangeland management conference held at seashore headquarters last week was the use of controlled fires to remove brush that has overtaken some grassland to provide more forage in wilderness areas.
Ms. Gunn said it’s not an option for ranching not to continue. Countering fears that a new plan will present new difficulties, she argued that streamlining ranchers’ ability to obtain longer leases and explore new agricultural opportunities will bolster sustainability.
One rangeland manager for the United States Forest Service, Anne Yost, who was at last week’s meeting, praised park officials for being engaged and hosting presentations that spoke to the environmental benefits of grazing.
But Justin Oldfield of the California Cattleman’s Association not only echoed ranchers’ argument that the current elk management plan is adequate, but said he does not believe everyone will survive a new planning process. “There will be folks that will not make it through a two-to-three-year period,” he said.
Sam Dolcini, the president of the Marin County Farm Bureau, said he hoped the park would work with ranchers to address the elk issue as soon as possible. “It is disconcerting that the park service seems to be taking this long to respond, and disappointing that they feel they need to start another study before they resolve a problem affecting people’s livelihoods,” he said.
If nothing else, Mr. Dolcini added, the elk’s proclivity for pastoral lands means ranchers are especially adept stewards of the land. “If the wilderness area were so great, they wouldn’t have moved onto the ranches,” he said. “It either tastes better or there’s just something that the ranchers are doing that are attracting the elk.”
Tim Nunes, a fourth generation rancher in the seashore, said he might be the second-most impacted of the ranchers in terms of elk encroachment. Still, he said that although the elk situation may be untenable in the long term, neither the ranchers nor the park will get exactly what they want, and there should be compromise.
“It’s like being married. You gotta give some and you gotta take some,” Mr. Nunes said. “As far as the review process, we just have to ride the ride along.”
Mr. Nunes said his elk problems are somewhat mitigated because the animals have mostly encroached on his beef cattle operation and his dairy heifers. It is easier for them to get the requisite amount of forage for organic certification because, unlike dairy cows that are producing milk, they do not need to be brought in for milking, and they do not require as much supplemental feed.
He also noted that this year was a particularly dry one, and he is feeding more hay to his animals, which adds to his costs.
“This is a bad year. There’s not enough for elk and cows to go around in years like this,” he said.