Bill to keep ranches in park heads to House floor

09/06/2018

A bill that would preserve the working ranches of the Point Reyes National Seashore by amending the park’s enabling legislation has moved to the floor of the United States House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Natural Resources decided unanimously to press forward with H.R. 6687, introduced by Representative Jared Huffman and co-sponsored by a Utah Republican, which directs the Interior Department to maintain the ranches in the seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

“I’ve been clear on this for a long time—this is what Congress intended,” Rep. Huffman told the Light.

The Natural Resources Committee made fast work of the bill after it was introduced last week. In a rare partnership, Rep. Huffman co-sponsored the bill with Representative Robert Bishop of Utah, the committee chair.

It has received a warm response from Point Reyes ranchers, many of whom are part of families that have farmed the land since the mid-1800s. Some have called specifically for Congressional action that clarifies the seashore’s 1962 enabling act and subsequent amendments.

The settlement with three environmental groups that sought to oust of the historic ranches added urgency to the conversation over the past year. The National Park Service has until 2021 to complete an amendment to its general management plan that will decide the future of the ranches and tule elk.

A handful of Republican committee members, whose majority favors private interests and has worked tirelessly to weaken conservation laws, commended Rep. Huffman on Wednesday. “I’m actually proud of you on this,” Representative Garret Graves from Louisiana teased.

Rep. Bishop said, “Congress has a track record of making promises to local communities, only to have them reinterpreted as years go by, so obviously the legislation needs to be clear.” He was critical of the public opponents to the bill, including the three environmental groups that sued the park in 2016, calling their perspective “myopic.” He said, “Bottom line here is that when we have found local solutions that the local people agree on, we should do everything we can on both sides, and all the outside groups should do what they can to actually support those solutions and not try to bring them down with archaic, uninformed solutions.”

The bill would insert a new directive into the enabling act’s section on ranchers’ terms of use: “The Secretary shall manage agricultural property consistent with Congress’ long-standing intent to continue to authorize working dairies and ranches on agricultural property as part of the seashore’s unique historic, cultural, scenic and natural values.”

The bill, which would also clarify subsequent amendments to the enabling legislation, directs the secretary to separate the elk from working dairies and ranches to minimize conflicts. It also authorizes the secretary to consider partnering with Indian tribes, including relocating elk to tribal lands and hunting the animals on a subsistence or ceremonial basis.  

The bill clarifies that the term “agricultural property” includes certain ranches in the northern portions of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in addition to those in the seashore.

Rep. Huffman emphasized that it “made good” on the 2012 memorandum from then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that directed the park service to issue 20-year agreements to demonstrate its commitment to the land's agricultural legacy.

That directive was never followed: In 2014, the park stopped renewing expired ranch leases, instead issuing one-year permits pending a formalized policy. 

The new bill has brought backlash from the groups that sued the park over its failure to update the general management plan, which dates to 1980. They have long characterized the commercial livestock operations as fundamentally incompatible with healthy native ecosystems and optimal visitor use on Point Reyes.

Jeff Miller, spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the bill undermined the park’s public process. “It’s disappointing that Representative Huffman is trying to short-circuit the public planning process for Point Reyes National Seashore that ranchers, conservationists and the Park Service agreed on,” he wrote in an email last week. “Huffman’s legislation would deny all Americans the opportunity to weigh in on how their public parklands should be managed and protected.”

But the bill specifically addresses the general management amendment process, instructing the Interior Secretary to complete it “without delay.” It also directs the park, “upon completion of the record of decision, [to] issue leases and special use permits of 20 years for working dairies and ranches on agricultural property.”

In a recent release, Mr. Miller also criticized Rep. Huffman’s partnership with Rep. Bishop, whom he characterized as a “political extremist who hates public land.” He said, “Huffman’s alliance with Bishop furthers the right-wing’s attempt to weaken protections for America’s public lands so that corporations can exploit them. It’s deeply disappointing to see him joining this dangerous movement.” 

Mr. Huffman argued that a bipartisan bill was stronger. “This bill provides a measure of support for the continuation of sustainable ranches and dairies as part of the fabric of our spectacular [seashore], without compromising any environmental standards and consistent with the current General Management Plan update process,” he said in a press release.

The response from ranchers has been positive, if not surprised. “We recently learned that a bill was introduced, and we are grateful to Congressman Huffman and Congressman Bishop for their efforts. We will continue to actively participate in the ongoing planning process,” Mike Giammona, the vice chair of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, wrote in an email this week.

The association elected Mr. Giammona as the group’s spokesman following a public rift this spring that centered around the best approach to advocating for ranchers’ interests in the context of the general plan amendment, with some favoring an alliance with the park service and others more skeptical of the agency’s position.

The promise of supportive legislation may unite their voices again.

Burr Heneman, a Point Reyes Station resident who has spent time piecing together the seashore’s enabling legislation and subsequent amendments, has said that, as of now, it’s possible for people from all perspectives to pick and choose bits and pieces from the legislative history to form an argument for or against agriculture.

“People keep arguing about what the intent was, and this should settle that,” he said to the Light this week. “People who want to see the ranches stabilized in the seashore will get behind Jared’s bill.”