The National Park Service hosted two public meetings last week to discuss its future management of agriculture and tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore, which will ultimately be codified in an amendment to the seashore’s general management plan.
At a well-attended event held in the West Marin School gym last Wednesday, park employees were stationed at banners that depicted six proposed strategies that were released last month for public comment. The scenarios range from extending ranch leases to 20-year periods and limiting elk on ranchlands to eliminating ranching altogether while allowing the elk to expand.
The park’s “initial proposal,” the option the agency has suggested the public focus on, allows for 20-year leases, operational flexibility and diversification on ranches, along with increased elk management in the pastoral zone.
One alternative would reduce ranching, and a map unveiled on Wednesday detailed which ranchlands would be taken out of grazing—likely leading some ranchers to go out of business and other family operations to be significantly curtailed.
Attendees at the Point Reyes Station meeting had a variety of feelings about the evening, with some ranchers expressing surprising support for the scope of options and others frustrated with the format of the evening itself.
The month-long comment period on the alternatives that ends on Nov. 15 allows individuals to mail or submit input on the alternatives online. The public meetings—a second was held in Sausalito last Thursday—gave people the option of writing down their thoughts at tables in the gym or else dictating to park employees, who wrote on large tablets that they posted on the wall for others to observe.
Map shows “reduced” ranching
Though the banners erected at the West Marin School last week largely reflected the same information as the recent newsletter announcing the six “concept alternatives,” there was one new map of particular interest.
It illustrated the reduced-ranching alternative, in which 7,500 of the roughly 28,000 acres currently leased for ranching in the seashore and the seashore-managed northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area would no longer be grazed.
Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said that “most of the areas identified for closure…do not have developed complexes or permitted residential uses.” Instead of having barns or houses occupied by ranching families, in other words, the lands are only used for grazing.
In Point Reyes, moving from north to south around Drakes Estero, part of D Ranch and all of F and N Ranches would be decommissioned. AT&T Ranch, near North Beach, and K Ranch on the North end of the park would also be out. From the Olema Valley south to Bolinas, ranches owned by the Martinelli, Genazzi, Gallagher, McFadden, Rogers, Cheda, Percy and Niman families, as well as Commonweal, would also be taken out.
Paul Engel, a seashore archaeologist, said decommissioning these areas—versus others where homes and barns are actively maintained—would minimize the impact on the Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches and Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic Districts. The park expects the districts to be officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the next year or two, following a decades-long application process.
According to historian Dewey Livingston, who wrote the official histories of the area for the National Park Service, the reduced-ranching alternative would result in a handful of ranchers going out of business and others losing a significant portion of their grazing land.
“Whether [people] are living there or not, these are working ranches, and the businesses would be taken out,” affirmed Kevin Lunny, a third-generation beef rancher and president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association.
Still, Mr. Lunny viewed the inclusion of a wide array of alternatives in a positive light. “It’s a mistake the park made during the [development of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan] by not including a full range of alternatives, which just called for a lawsuit,” he said.
Nicolette Hahn Niman, who runs BN Ranch in Bolinas with her husband, Bill Niman, was in agreement. Their ranch would be eliminated in the reduced-ranching alternative, though they would maintain 200 acres under their life estate until Mr. Niman’s death.
“I don’t think it’s wrong these alternatives are being considered,” Ms. Hahn Niman said, adding that an open discussion benefits everyone. “Because though there is a lot of appreciation for agricultural production, there are also people who feel it doesn’t belong. I think that the case for ranching is very strong, not just economically and culturally, but ecologically. If you have the conversation, you can spread that information.”
At the crux of the issue, she said, was the question: “Is this land optimally a grassland area?”
Mr. Livingston noted with particular interest that many of the ranches slated to be taken out in the reduced-ranching alternative border Drakes Estero.
“When the oyster farm was taken out, there was fear in the ranching community that the ranches around the estero would later be targeted—and that’s what appears to be happening,” he said.
That concern was expressed in an editorial published in this newspaper in 2014 co-authored by attorney Peter Prows and Marshall scientist Corey Goodman. “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,” they wrote.
Despite the fact that the map of the reduced-ranching alternative suggests that the proximity to Drakes Estero may have factored into the park’s selection process, the lawsuit filed by three environmental groups against the park and settled this summer did not focus on the estero specifically.
On the oversized sheets of paper hanging from the gym’s walls, concerns about the park’s proposed management of tule elk arose again and again.
Each of the six alternatives has a different elk management strategy, ranging from eliminating the two free-ranging herds to actively managing them to allowing them to expand.
Under four of the six alternatives, the park suggests separate management strategies for the two herds, which it calls the “Drakes Beach” herd and the “Limantour-Estero” herd. (The fenced herd on Tomales Point is not included in the planning area).
But even those names startled rancher Kathy Lucchesi, who wondered aloud why the park had renamed what historically was referred to as the Limantour herd the Limantour-Estero herd. She said the new name appeared to normalize the elk’s problematic encroachment on pastoral lands near Drakes Estero.
In recent years, the Limantour herd, with a population of around 126, has started exploring further northwest onto the pastures along Estero Road, as well as higher onto the western side of the Inverness Ridge.
Comments posted on the wall on Wednesday reflected a wide range of perspectives on elk management.
“Remove the cattle because we have millions of acres of ranch lands available in California,” read one. “The only habitat for tule elk is the seashore. Wise environmental management is preserve native species and move off non-native.”
Another read, “...I would like to add removal of “all” tule elk off all ranches permanently. These elk that are removed need to be managed and have access to forage and water to remain healthy. This will help with fire hazards prevention.”
An unorthodox process
The meeting was best characterized as a public scoping meeting, which is the official first step in the process of writing the environmental impact statement that the park must prepare in conjunction with the General Management Plan amendment.
Yet, in an unorthodox approach, the park will not formally begin its environmental impact statement for another year or year-and-a-half, according to Ms. Gunn.
Due to a recent change in the National Environmental Policy Act review process, environmental assessments can neither be longer than 150 pages nor take longer than one year, from start to finish.
The change follows an order in September from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to “streamline” the process. Previously, environmental documents were better measured in pounds than in pages and could take years to prepare.
Though the amendment and the environmental impact statement will ultimately be one document, Ms. Gunn said, the park decided to bifurcate the process so it could begin planning the amendment before setting off the one-year clock for the impact statement.
The park will likely not start work on the E.I.S.—a process that begins by publishing a notice of intent in the Federal Register—for another 12 to 18 months, with the hope of completing it just before the July 2021 deadline set forth in the recent settlement.
That NEPA process will include two more opportunities for public comment.
For Mr. Lunny, the delay “is concerning for us because we would rather have things determined as quickly as possible.”
Ranchers in the park complained about the impacts of elk encroachment for years, arguing the elk are costing them tens of thousands of dollars in damages annually and threatening their very survival.
In 2013, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association sent an urgent letter to Superintendent Cicely Muldoon. “Despite the Seashore’s promises of commitment continually made to the ranching community that their sustainability is ensured, the current problems created by the elk guarantee an end to agriculture in the park,” they wrote.
Laura Watt, an environmental historian and author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” said she was unsure why the park needed that extra time to prepare the E.I.S. and the amendment. Beginning in the late 1990s and lasting at least until 2011, the park prepared an update to its General Management Plan, but its finalization stalled in Washington and the effort was dropped.
“Considering the work that it put into its [first] General Management Plan update as well as its Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan in recent years, though neither was ever finalized, the science and the research should be on-hand,” she said.
Another concern about the process that arose among attendees last Wednesday was over the event’s open house-style format. Though Ms. Gunn said this had become common practice for the park service in recent years, some worried that the setup excluded a formal presentation as well as a platform for community members to raise concerns or make comments to the room at large.
“We want to feel that we are working together and that we are heard,” Ms. Luccessi said. “We don’t want to be left out of the decisions.”