In 1962, a historic collaboration between environmentalists and agriculturalists led to the formation of the Point Reyes National Seashore. This, along with a new county plan and help from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, preserved West Marin as a working landscape of beautiful ranches and rolling hills, and as a beacon for how to produce sustainable food while protecting the environment.
But today a new generation of activists and National Park Service officials view agriculture with antipathy. If that view prevails, the ranches on Point Reyes will go the way of the oyster company. We challenge those activists and officials to embrace what their predecessors supported: that agriculture and the environment can successfully collaborate. We call on them to pledge to oppose efforts already underway to run the ranchers out of the seashore.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1961, a representative of what is now the National Parks Conservation Association testified to the United States Senate in support of preserving ranching in Point Reyes: “the combination of dairy country and wild natural shoreland is part of the charm of Point Reyes, and we think the combination ought to be preserved.” The park lauded the “exceptional” public values provided by the oyster farm. In the 1970s, the founder of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Jerry Friedman, wrote to Congress supporting the continuation of the ranches and oyster farm—even in designated wilderness. The Sierra Club is on record saying much the same thing.
But in recent years these groups have flip-flopped as their leadership and priorities have changed. The park, under the direction of Jon Jarvis, led the charge to remove the oyster farm. The N.P.C.A. and its representative, Neal Desai, launched campaign-style national attacks on the oyster farm that were premised on falsehoods. The Sierra Club, initially under the direction of Gordon Bennett, did much the same.
Amy Trainer’s E.A.C. has seen its membership dwindle but its money and political influence grow as it ramped up attacks on agriculture, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Sacramento-based fund created by former Republican Governor Wilson’s undersecretary for resources. The E.A.C.’s only agricultural representative recently resigned in frustration, and rather than replace her with someone from the agricultural community to its board, the group brought in activist and political insider Jerry Meral.
Sadly, the closure of the oyster farm is not the end, but rather the beginning of the battle to protect agriculture on Point Reyes. We fear that in the next five years we will witness the end of agriculture, and with it the weakening of the ecosystem that supports farming and ranching throughout West Marin.
In coming to this conclusion, we have been good students of history, examining what happened at Cowboy Island, also known as Santa Rosa Island, in the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. There we found a blueprint.
Tim Setnicka, the former superintendent of Channel Islands National Park, warned our community two weeks ago that what happened at Cowboy Island was going to happen here. Nita Vail, the daughter of the ranching family that was kicked off the island, will speak next week, on Nov. 11, at West Marin School.
The Vails owned Cowboy Island and ranched on it for nearly 100 years. Congress recognized them as excellent stewards of the land. In creating the national park, the park service made a deal with the Vails in which the latter would be allowed to continue ranching for several decades. But then the park and its supporters started claiming cattle were polluting streams and harming endangered species in a national park area, using what Setnicka called dishonest science.
Ultimately, the N.P.C.A., with the help of the Center for Biological Diversity and a Santa Barbara environmental group, sued the park service, alleging the Vails were violating the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. The park settled the case out of court, and as a result, evicted the Vails from the island.
What does this story teach us about Point Reyes? The parallels are unnerving. Both parks were set up as partnerships between agriculturalists and environmentalists. In both there has been a change in mindset away from agriculture. On Point Reyes, the park demonized the oyster farm with dishonest science. On Cowboy Island, the park used dishonest science to restrict ranching, while lawsuits by national environmental groups ultimately sealed the Vails’ fate.
Will our ranches go the way of the oyster farm and the Vails’ ranch? The warning signs are distressing. The park’s environmental impact statement on the oyster farm put a bulls-eye on the ranchers by identifying them as “the primary source of nonpoint-source pollution in Drakes Estero.” But the oysters clean the water by filtering the coliform bacteria, a benefit the National Academy of Sciences thought was significant. Once the oysters are gone, the estero will lose the beneficial filtering functions, and winter rains will lead to increasing coliform levels. Higher levels may invite opportunistic groups to file a Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act suit against the park, which will then be pressured to settle by evicting the ranchers.
And while the suit is pending, the ranchers will continue to compete with the out-of-control tule elk for scarce forage and water.
There is good reason to believe this is the plan. As Phyllis Faber has written in these pages, a few years ago, when Don Neubacher was superintendent, he told her the C.B.D. had just such a lawsuit ready to go as soon as the oysters were removed from Drakes Estero. Last year, Gordon Bennett invited River Watch and its leader Jack Silver into this community; Silver is notorious for filing frivolous Clean Water Act lawsuits, and has already filed such a suit against the oyster farm. The C.B.D. is taking the opportunity presented by the park’s new ranch-planning process to organize its national membership in opposition to ranching.
Just last month, a blog called Protect Our Shoreline News, which is supported by local activists, wrote that now we will get to find out if “… what matters is controlling what flows into the estuary.” Given the history of Cowboy Island, there is little doubt what that statement means.
The park, the E.A.C., the N.P.C.A. and others have claimed they are not trying to get rid of the ranches. We are skeptical. If they mean what they say, then we ask Jon Jarvis, Neal Desai, Gordon Bennett, Amy Trainer and Jerry Meral to make the following pledge to the community: I promise that neither I nor any organization I am a part of will ever participate in legal action to eliminate or restrict the ranches on Point Reyes; and if such legal action is ever taken, I will do everything in my power to vigorously defend the ranches.
If they don’t take the pledge, watch out. Our ranches are about to disappear.
Peter Prows is an attorney and partner with Briscoe Ivester & Bazel L.L.P. of San Francisco. Although he has represented Drakes Bay Oyster Company, he wrote this column in his personal capacity. Dr. Corey Goodman, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, is the scientist and West Marin rancher who discovered the misleading science used by the park and its supporters against the oyster farm.