A change of heart about ranching

03/24/2016

I was delighted to see the guest opinion piece in your March 17 issue by Gordon Bennett, calling for “a renaissance of ranching at Point Reyes, and a model for sustainable ranching nationwide.” This piece follows several others published in the past month, written by Bennett and others representing the Sierra Club, the Environmental Action Committee and the National Parks and Conservation Association. I sincerely hope that this new sentiment from these groups, calling themselves “middle-ground environmentalists” (in contrast to the anti-ranching extremists who have brought a lawsuit against the National Park Service) is a genuine and lasting conversion of perspective. 

In the past, many of these same organizations and individuals have worked to question the presence of agriculture at Point Reyes National Seashore. As early as 1971, the N.P.C.A. proposed designating nearly the entire Point Reyes peninsula as wilderness, which would have shuttered all of the ranches in the process. Their plan did not garner much support, but in the late 1990s, when Point Reyes first requested scoping comments on the planned update of its General Management Plan, a series of “form letter” comments were sent in, some arriving even before the official announcement of the planning process was made. 

The first group, consisting of at least 10 comment letters mostly sent from out-of-state and received between September 1997 and May 1998, only said one thing: They urged the park to not renew any grazing leases when they came due. Very similar language also appeared in a comment letter from the Committee for the Preservation of the Tule Elk, suggesting that organization was likely the source of this letter-writing campaign. A second form letter of boilerplate text, longer and more subtly worded than the first, began appearing in November 1999; one paragraph asserted that, “with 13 operating ranches, there are potential conflicts between natural and cultural resource management,” giving an example of “runoff from ranching harming salmon and steelhead runs and the water quality in Tomales Bay.” An identical sentence appeared in the N.P.C.A.’s official comment letter, dated Nov. 30, 1999.

A few years later, another comment letter, authored by Bennett, then the president of the Sierra Club Marin Group, and dated Feb. 20, 2004, raised a series of points about grazing. He urged a study of “Congressional intent” in allowing the continuance of beef, dairy and oyster operations to determine what legal obligation might exist for permit renewals or extensions. The letter went on to question whether Congress intended to allow “expansion” of agriculture into diversified areas such as row-cropping, orchards, chickens etc., asked for numerous studies on habitat impacts of grazing and questioned its economic importance. It lastly asked for a “more definite timetable” should scientific studies determine that ranching activities ought to be decreased or relocated within the park.

I call attention to this history not to cause further division, but to make sure all the facts are on the table. It is also worth remembering that both the Point Reyes and Olema Valley ranches have been found to be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as historic districts, which means they warrant protection from the park service just like any ecosystem. I am hopeful that the West Marin community—ranchers, environmentalists, and others—can move forward together from this point to develop a truly collaborative partnership for land management at the seashore. 

Laura A. Watt is an associate professor and the chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University. Her book "The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore" will be published later this year by the University of California Press.