The end of agriculture on Point Reyes: The Jarvis playbook


Back in November 2014, Peter Prows and I wrote a column for the Light titled “The end of agriculture on Point Reyes.” We wrote: “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.”   

Some folks thought we were paranoid. They were right. Unfortunately, we were also right. Several weeks ago, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups sued the National Park Service with the intent to clear ranching out of the seashore.

The basic problem for the Point Reyes ranchers is that the director of the park service, Jon Jarvis, agrees with these environmental groups that agriculture does not belong in a national park. As things now stand, Mr. Jarvis will make the decision about whether and how to defend this litigation. If he gets his way, the park is likely to settle the case by agreeing that the ranchers should go. 

This has happened before, at Cowboy Island, also known as Santa Rosa Island, in the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. There we found a playbook—what we now call the Jarvis playbook—for getting agriculture out of our national lands.    

Tim Setnicka, the former superintendent of Channel Islands National Park, wrote about what happened behind the scenes in a 2008 series of guest columns in a Santa Barbara newspaper. Mr. Setnicka documented how the park service leadership worked with environmental groups to sue the park to get rid of the ranches.  

The Vail family had owned and ranched on land on Cowboy Island for nearly 100 years. When Congress created the park, the Vails had an understanding that they would be allowed to continue ranching for 25 years. But then the park and its supporters started claiming cattle were polluting streams and harming endangered species, using what Mr. Setnicka called dishonest science. Ultimately, environmental groups sued the park service, alleging the Vails were violating the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. The park settled the case out of court and, as a result, the Vails shut down their operation on Cowboy Island.  

Mr. Jarvis, when he was director of the Pacific West regional office, applauded the eviction of the Vails and other farmers from parklands, including Point Reyes. In an interview in 2007, he said: “And so we’ve got the Vails on Santa Rosa, we’ve got cabins at Lake Roosevelt, oysters at Point Reyes… And as a public servant in this role, these unique pieces of the public estate, these units of the National Park system are for everybody. They’re not for individuals to continue on these special little uses that we at some point have acquired from them.”

Huey Johnson, the spokesperson for the groups filing the new lawsuit, used sharper language. Explaining the decision to join the suit against the seashore, he said: “You’ve got welfare ranching going on public lands all over the West.”  

Like the groups who sued over the Vails and who are now suing over ranching at Point Reyes, Mr. Jarvis is trying to rewrite history. Both parks were set up as a partnership between agriculturalists and environmentalists, not as a means to purge the land of its agricultural history. 

Will the seashore ranches go the way of the Vails? Sadly, it is hard now to imagine a scenario in which they won’t. This is all part of the Jarvis playbook. That book is well funded, and the suit has engaged one of the very best law firms. It worked on Cowboy Island and, unless we as a community do our best to stop it, it will undoubtedly work here.  

Back in 2014, Mr. Prows and I challenged local activists and National Park Service officials to pledge to oppose efforts to run the ranchers out of the seashore. All of them remained silent. Since the lawsuit was filed a few weeks ago, the silence has been deafening from the same folks.  

Here’s what needs to happen.  

First, Mr. Jarvis, who last week was formally reprimanded for intentional ethics violations by the Interior Department’s Inspector General, needs to recuse himself from any decision-making about this lawsuit.  The Inspector General should make the decisions for the park service in the suit. 

Second, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Jared Huffman should introduce legislation requiring the seashore to protect its historic agriculture.  

Third, our community should support candidates for District 4 supervisor who have strongly voiced opposition to the lawsuit and who will fight for the ranchers.

The ranches on Point Reyes are about to disappear. If we remain passive, that will surely happen. I suspect Mr. Jarvis had a hand in what is going on. It’s time for our community to say no.  


Dr. Corey Goodman, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, is the scientist and West Marin rancher who discovered the dishonest science used by the park and its supporters against the oyster farm.


This article was corrected on March 14.