Former ranch lands at center of new pleas

David Briggs
LAND: The 1,400-acre Rancho Baulines—over the years a dairy, a commune and the setting for countless community events—has sat empty or served as park service housing since the last tenant, Mary Tiscornia, was evicted in 2001. This summer Ms. Tescornia asked to revive ranching there, in part to stem the tide of thistle and other weeds, responding to a pubic scoping period for a new management plan at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Two individuals who were evicted from ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore in the last 15 years have asked the National Park Service to let them return, and another asked to revive a defunct ranch—requests that came during the public scoping period for the seashore’s first-ever ranching management plan and environmental assessment.

The ranchers seeking to resume or expand operations on Rancho Baulines, the historic D Ranch and Jewell Ranch cited a love of the land, an interest in the survival of agriculture in the park and concern over the wildfire threat posed by overgrown vegetation. Each submitted formal applications during this summer’s public comment period on the seashore’s Comprehensive Ranching Management Plan. The park has stated that plan will guide agriculture’s future—not its demise—with longer 20-year leases and diversified operations; it will also outline the management of tule elk, reintroduced grazers that have made their way into the pastoral zone, where they are competing with cattle for forage.

In their comments and in interviews with the Point Reyes Light, Mary Tiscornia, Todd Horick and Ted McIsaac said they want to steward and manage the ranches. Ms. Tiscornia, who lived at Rancho Baulines for decades, kept the buildings and lands in pristine condition and also welcomed its use for local events; when her permit expired in 1998, the park said the federal land needed to have a wider public function. Todd Horick grew up on D Ranch but was evicted after his mother, who ran it, died in a car crash in 1998. Ted McIsaac, who runs the MsIsaac Ranch in Tocaloma and serves as the president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, voiced fears over brush on the defunct Jewell Ranch and said allowing his cattle to graze there could strengthen his own operation while keeping invasives at bay.

Rangeland ecologist Jeff Creque said increasing fuel loads on these lands are no surprise. Before Spanish settlers, indigenous inhabitants conducted regular burns; though domestic grazers have to some degree filled that role, when those animals are removed, brush eventually makes its way in. “What we do know in our region, in Point Reyes—and we see it over and over again, not just in the seashore but in nearby landscapes—there’s a gradual or rapid transition,” he said. “First typically to invasive annuals and invasive perennials, and then usually following that is brush encroachment, and often following that… is brush-covered sites. You could call it a natural succession to woody perennials.” 

Seashore spokespeople declined requests for comment, citing the ongoing planning process.

Rancho Baulines

Rancho Baulines, long known as the Wilkins Ranch, is a 1,397-acre parcel just above the Bolinas Wye; it was originally part of the Mexican land grant Rancho Las Baulines. The site of a timber business in the 1850s around which Dogtown flourished, the ranch passed through a litany of owners—sometimes through a sale, sometimes over defaulted payments. William Wallace Watkins, who purchased it in the late 1860s, built a barn, creamery and horse stables but leased out the dairy operations, according to a history of Olema Valley ranching by historian Dewey Livingston. When Mr. Wilkins died, his son, Jim, abandoned his medical studies and took over. By the beginning of the 20th century the ranch was making over 2,000 pounds of butter a month in the high season, though by the 1930s the ranch had abandoned butter in favor of milk.

The family managed to struggle through the Depression, but the century-old dairy folded in the 1960s after Carnation, which bought the Wilkins’s milk, was sold to a Texas company that cut its California contracts. 

Ms. Tiscornia wanted to buy the ranch when the Wilkins family decided to sell it in the late ’60s. Driving along Highway 1 one day, she spotted a for-sale sign. Though she said she was in talks to make the purchase and had even moved in, the family decided to sell instead to Nicholas Charney, the founder of Psychology Today magazine and then-publisher of The Saturday Review. Though he didn’t live there, he turned it into a commune of sorts, where people cultivated organic vegetables, boarded horses and lived in the century-old barns. They christened the site Rancho Baulines.

But by the end of the ’70s everyone involved with the community had left except Ms. Tiscornia and a few others. “It was very fun for a while, but you know, it got old…I milked the cow, I made cheese, but you were so exhausted by the end of the day. Your whole day was killing or cooking food,” she said.

Like many who came before him, Mr. Charney found himself behind on payments, so he sold the ranch to the Trust for Public Lands in 1973, which sold it to the park service that same year. Ms. Tiscornia was given a special use permit for horse boarding and a few grazing cattle until the park declined to renew the permit in 1998; she was forced to leave in 2001.

Ms. Tiscornia said she only learned the park did not intend to renew her lease when she was caught by surprise by 30 people arriving to take a look at the buildings. The park had said that Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue Conservation Science) might want to use it if she didn’t renew, but when the crew of architects and the nonprofit showed up, she heard a different story. 

“They were telling me, ‘I’m sorry, you have to leave here.’ That’s how I first heard about it,” she told the Light at the time. 

Then-superintendent Don Neubacher responded that he told her two years earlier that the lease would not be renewed. He said there was not enough of a “public component” to the ranch’s use. 

In 2001, the year that Ms. Tiscornia was evicted, he conducted an environmental assessment to evaluate the conversion of Rancho Baulines to an education center. The assessment stated that, because of concerns over the loss of historic grazing, some amount of grazing would continue with “advanced grazing techniques and applied research.” (Ultimately the bird observatory didn’t move in, and there are no domestic grazers there now.) 

In 1993, Mr. Livingston deemed the main residence, dating from 1876, in fair condition after pricey preservation efforts by Ms. Tiscornia, who kept the ranch looking impeccable by many accounts. The park superintendent that preceded Mr. Neubacher, John Sansing, praised Ms. Tiscornia’s stewardship in a 1987 letter to Slide Ranch, which wanted to take over the land. “Maintenance and rehabilitation of the historic structures is the very best in the park,” he wrote.

Ms. Tiscornia cared for horses and cows at Ranch Baulines for 34 years. During her time, she said, the ranch was a part of the community; a pony club held events there, and she hosted local gatherings, too. “Now it’s not part of the community anymore. That’s sort of sad,” she said.

She also described frustration and sadness over the invasive thistle and other weeds now encroaching. “It sort of breaks your heart to spend so many years on a property and watch it fall to pieces. It seems so silly to watch them use all this money to have them mechanically clear it,” she said. (She has not asked to live at the ranch, which currently serves as park employee housing.)

D Ranch

The seashore’s new ranching plan, a draft of which is expected this spring, kicked off a year and a half after then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced in 2012 that the seashore would start offering 20-year leases to the ranchers, affording more security and easier access to financing.

The seashore designed the new plan to also address rancher’s frustration with the tule elk, which, since they were dropped into the Limantour wilderness in 1999, have migrated to the pastoral zone and eaten forage on ranches. In a letter last year to the park, the association said the intrusion cost one operator $30,000 in a year.

In one of its efforts to ameliorate the elk impacts, the park was filling ponds at D Ranch to lure them away from grazed lands. To fight invasives that have grown on the ranch—including poison hemlock, wild radish and thistles—the park recently put out a bid for a goat-grazing contract as a form of natural rangeland management.

But in its comment letter on the ranching plan, the seashore ranchers association said the entirety of the ranch should be returned to agriculture, to preserve its historic use.

Mr. Horick, the son of Vivian Horick, who ran the ranch for decades before dying in a car accident in 1998, spent the first two decades of his life there before starting his own operation in Chileno Valley. He told the Light this week that he knows “every nook and cranny of that place. You drive a tractor before you drive a truck…You’re one with the land,” he said.

If his permit for D Ranch is approved, the historic dairy would turn into a beef cattle operation, Mr. Horick said. Neighboring ranches now graze much of the 1,200-acre ranch, though there are still about 400 acres, including the historic buildings, that are unused. Mr. Horick said he wants to run the entirety of the ranch. (His 50-cow Chileno Valley beef operation—its acreage just a tenth of D Ranch—includes cattle that trace back to his mother’s dairy cows, which he crossbred to beef. “That’s the DNA I have still,” he said.)

Mr. Horick hasn’t returned since he was forced out. “It’s too hard,” he said. But he fondly recalled his ties to his neighbors on the peninsula. “We all went to school together. Everyone married everyone. The first kid I ever held was Nichola and Ernie [Spaletta’s] daughter,” he said.

D Ranch was built sometime between 1862 and 1872, according to Mr. Livingston’s history. Under Charles Webb Howard’s ownership, the ranch had a number of tenants who milked cows for butter. Once the ranches were individually sold off, D Ranch was purchased with loans in 1920 by Trajano Machado and Hamilton Martins, the latter an Azorean-born brother-in-law of Joseph V. Mendoza. But neither had money, and the bank foreclosed on the property. The next owner met the same fate and D Ranch fell into the hands of banker Quinto Codoni in 1927, whose family subsequently owned the ranch. Mr. Codoni passed on the reigns to his son-in-law, William Hall, in the 1930s. He and his wife, Alice, had two children: Vivian and Bill.

Like other dairies on the point, D Ranch eventually upgraded from butter to milk, in 1945. (The family also grew a few row crops like beets and turnips.) 

Vivian and Bill bought the ranch from their parents in the late 1940s, though it was Vivian and her husband, Rudolph Horick, who ran it until he passed away in 1980. She took over for close to two decades, until her death in 1998.

At the time of Mr. Livingston’s history, Vivian milked 260 cows on the ranch. 

After her death, Todd hoped to take the reins, but he was not listed as an operator on the special use permit. Mr. Horick told the Light this week that while he was temporarily running the ranch—and as the Horicks and the park scrambled to determine the future of the land—Mr. Neubacher had indicated that he would give him the lease.

“Neubacher said, ‘You’ll get the lease, don’t worry. Just clean it up. He said let things cool down, we’ll see what happens,’” Mr. Horick said. Some months later, Mr. Horick went on, he received a call from Mr. Neubacher and Frank Dean, who also worked at the seashore at the time. “They said, ‘Well, we’re terminating the lease. I thought, ‘Haha, real funny.’ They go, ‘Honest, Todd, were not gonna give you the lease.’”

Mr. Horick admitted that there was some family in-fighting at the time—which he said was cited as one of the reasons he didn’t get the permit—he says family members had generally agreed that he should receive the lease. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said. But in his public comment, he said he was “not in any position to challenge this [seashore] decision,” so the family left.

Mr. Horick doesn’t know whether the park will consider his application or not, but he wants to come back. “I’m always hoping, because we should have never left. What’s right is right.”

Jewell Ranch

Jewell Ranch, a 537-acre ranch in Tocaloma, has been ungrazed for a decade and a half after historic cattle operations that had been ongoing for about 150 years. This summer, Ted McIsaac, whose family has run an adjoining ranch for generations, submitted an application to graze on the land.

The ranch’s namesake, Omar Jewell, came to California in 1861 and started selling dairying equipment. With the industry booming, he bought the ranch in 1864 and started dairying. His sons took over when he died and leased the operation, though eventually it ended up in the hands of Roberts Dairy, which owned many ranches in West Marin and leased Jewell Ranch to various operators until the 1950s, after which it was used by neighboring ranchers for grazing for many years.

The park service purchased the property in 1974, and grazing continued for another 23 years, until 1997. According to a 2008 email from Mr. Neubacher, quoted in a white paper on ranching in Point Reyes by Ellie Rilla, now an adviser emeritus of the University of California Extension in Marin County, the seashore suspended grazing “in an effort to reduce significant threats to coho salmon.” (Ms. Rilla argued in her paper that it was unnecessary to end the entire operation for that purpose.)

A few years after grazing was suspended, during a drought that curbed the amount of available forage for his cows, Mr. McIsaac asked the park if he could use the land. But it replied that there would need to be an environmental review before bringing the lands back into agricultural use. “Well, here we are. The Jewell Ranch is in the project area being studied by this NEPA process,” he wrote in his public comment on the ranch plan this summer.

According to Mr. McIsaac’s comment, the end of grazing has had dangerous consequences by promoting fuel loads from invasive brush. “We have watched the brush beginning to encroach and dry fire fuel increasing year by year. It is our opinion that the Jewell Ranch is in desperate need of management to reduce the fire danger and to save the historic open grassland that has existed in the Olema Valley for centuries.” (Though Mr. Creque, the rangeland ecologist, hadn’t visited Jewell for some years, he saw the land after grazing ended and witnessed brush incursion and Douglas firs moving into some grasslands.)

Mr. McIassac said cattle would manage the land, while the extra acreage would “increase the likelihood that the 6th generation of the McIsaac family will stay on the ranch to carry on this important tradition.”