House committee hears Point Reyes woes

05/03/2018

A growing rift among ranchers in the Point Reyes National Seashore over whether to trust the park service to support their ongoing operations took a national stage last week.

During a hearing held by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Representative Jared Huffman sparred with Professor Laura Watt, a member of the recently formed Resilient Agriculture Group based in West Marin, over whether the park’s current process to amend the seashore’s general management plan will result in the protection of the historic ranches—a goal that they share.

In recent weeks, RAG, a new group of advocates and ranchers, has called for legislation that will guide the general management plan amendment process by clarifying Congress’s intent that the working ranches continue. 

Yet their tactics, including hiring a Republican lobbyist, have moved others in the ranching community to speak out, disassociating from the group and arguing for a more collaborative approach with the park.

Rep. Huffman, who meets regularly with the ranchers and the park service, challenged Dr. Watt’s testimony at the hearing, in which she described an agency bias that has resulted in poor management of the ranchlands. 

The congressional hearing, which was held to question the efficacy of the National Environmental Policy Act, was an odd setting for the dispute between Rep. Huffman and Dr. Watt—neither of whom support rolling back environmental regulations, as does the committee’s Republican majority.

Dr. Watt is a Sonoma State University professor with a background in environmental planning for federal agencies and the author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore.” She told the committee that she believes the park service has injured the Point Reyes ranches through an inconsistent application of NEPA, thereby forcing advocates to look for legislative solutions. 

She pointed to the fact that the park service required an environmental impact statement for the now-defunct Drakes Bay Oyster Company to transfer from its reservation of use and occupancy to a special use permit, though the agency had not conducted environmental reviews for ranches to do so. 

She also described how permits were cancelled for D Ranch and Rancho Baulines in the early 2000s without an environmental review, despite the major changes in land use that ensued.

Dr. Watt was critical of the park service for issuing a finding of no significant impact for the 1998 elk management plan that allowed for relocating animals from Tomales Point to Limantour, but declining to take any action to resolve conflicts with ranchlands without further review.

Lastly, she questioned why the park service had initiated the ranch comprehensive management plan, with an associated environmental review, to address former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s prompt to extend leases to 20 years. 

Dr. Watt characterized these actions as intentionally neglectful of the ranches. 

She said the park failed to update the 1980 general management plan and to manage and control the elk population, meanwhile “pushing several permittees to discontinue ranching and accede to the cancellation of their permits, resulting in serious degradation of historic buildings and increases in fire hazard from unmanaged pastures being taken over by brush and weeds.”

When it came time for his comments, Rep. Huffman said he appreciated Dr. Watt’s research. Still, he said, “It is important to clarify that her testimony, at least in some elements, does not reflect what I believe to be the prevailing view of ranching families in Point Reyes today.”

He continued, “It’s not a perfect relationship, but in my experience, most ranchers regard the park service as a more or less decent landlord—not the capricious, heavy-handed and anti-agriculture agency that is sometimes portrayed by is critics.”

Specifically, Rep. Huffman took issue with Dr. Watt’s criticism of the consistency of NEPA analyses, which he said she had suggested was “driven, basically, simply by whether they like a project.” That was an oversimplification, he said. 

The level of NEPA review depends on all sorts of different requirements in different circumstances, he argued, including that the significance of environmental impacts vary from one situation to another and that in some instances case law requires that even continuing uses require a review.

He also asked Dr. Watt to clarify a few points for the room. She confirmed for him that she does not support waiving or weakening NEPA reviews of timber harvesting or oil and gas drilling, as the committee majority has repeatedly proposed, or the recent legislation to take carbon pollution and climate change out of future NEPA analyses.

On a few other important points, the congressman and the professor were in agreement.

“I agree that the park service has shortcomings: their management of the tule elk—the very successful reintroduction of the tule elk—has created some real challenges for some ranches and dairies, and this has to be addressed sooner rather than later,” he said. “Senator Feinstein and I are working on this and pushing the park service, and we are going to continue to do that.”

Importantly, he said, “I also agree that in a perfect world, the enabling act of the seashore would be a little more direct about the preservation of the historic ranches and dairies.”

In a conversation with the Light, Rep. Huffman confirmed that he is open to a legislative solution. He said that he has worked on drafting legislative language in close collaboration with Sen. Feinstein, though there is no bill at this time. 

“I would only support very carefully crafted clarifying legislation,” he added.

Three members of RAG—Dr. Watt, conservationist Phyllis Faber and rancher Kevin Lunny—wrote a letter to this newspaper in early April in response to a story about the general management plan amendment.

“Both Representative Jared Huffman and Senator Dianne Feinstein are on record repeatedly as to their unwavering support for agricultural uses remaining a permanent part of the Point Reyes working landscape, consistent with Congress’s original intent,” they wrote. “It is incumbent upon them to now move from words of support to collaborative legislative
action.”

The letter concluded, “As long as the statutory language remains subject to competing interpretations, these endless planning and litigation battles will continue, resulting in perpetual uncertainty for both ranchers and the seashore-using public.”

RAG has recently announced the hiring of the lobbyist John Doolittle, a former House Republican who came under investigation in the early 2000s for his business relations with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the prominent lobbyist who defrauded numerous clients.

Chris Carr, RAG’s attorney, worked with Mr. Doolittle previously in litigation that resulted in the park service abandoning a dog management plan in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area after the plaintiffs uncovered the use of private email between park employees.

As far as Mr. Doolittle’s role, Mr. Carr said there is a Republican majority in the House, “and so we brought him on board for obvious reasons. To say the least, it’s helpful to have someone who works with those folks and is familiar with the legislative process.” 

He added, “We are talking with everyone—Congressman Huffman, Senator Feinstein, Republicans in the House. We don’t view this as a partisan issue.”

Mr. Carr has also been driving an extensive Freedom of Information Act request to the park service that has so far provided thousands of documents in an interim response. (The vast majority of those documents were simply pulled from the legislative record from the 2016 lawsuit rather than newly collected.)

Part of a rare influx of letters from the ranching community in this newspaper in the last month, ranchers David Evans and Claire Herminjard wrote a letter to the editor in early April criticizing RAG over what they believe are tactics that threaten the current process to amend the general management plan. 

Though a settlement with three environmental groups that sued the park in 2016 mandates that three out of the park’s proposed scenarios involve reducing or eliminating ranching and dairying, the agency has also put forward the idea of 20-year leases, increased elk management and operational diversification. 

“We understand that these may be well-intentioned citizens and fellow ranchers and we appreciate their support of ranching in the seashore,” Mr. Evans and Ms. Herminjard wrote. “That said, we are deeply concerned by their methods and believe their contentious actions are wholly counter-productive to completing the management plan update and securing long-term leases for ranchers.”

Their sentiments were echoed a week later by a host of ranching families, including Bill and Nicolette Niman, Bob and Ruth McClure, Dan and Dolores Evans, Julie Rossotti, Betty Nunes, Bob Giacomini, and Tim, Tom and Mike Kehoe.

“We feel the need to step out of comfort zone and make our views on the planning process clear,” they wrote. They emphasized their “positive” and “mutually respectful relations” with park staff as well as their commitment to the amendment process.

“We believe promoting exchanges between environmentalists, ranchers and the N.P.S. will lead to a better understanding of the issues around ranching and the environment in the seashore—resulting in a G.M.P.A. that will help the seashore become a model for productive agriculture on public lands throughout the United States, a long-term benefit for all,” they wrote.

Mr. Lunny, vice president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, who joined RAG in March, offered his perspective on the reservations regarding the group.

“The people who are hesitant might not yet understand RAG’s efforts, our goals and plans fully,” he said. 

Yet he also added, “The park service hasn’t treated everybody the same—there are different experiences and different loyalties. That should be respected, and that’s okay.”

In speaking with the Light, Rep. Huffman remained critical. “It’s very important to me that I have an open dialogue and working relationship with the ranching community, and it’s easier to do that when the community is unified,” he said. “When there are splinter groups and offshoots that go out and engage in secret lobbying agendas, it can complicate things and it can undermine the trust that is so important for us all to work together.”

Burr Heneman, who believes the seashore’s enabling legislation and subsequent amendments are ambiguous as to the future of the working ranches in the seashore, agreed with his representative. He is optimistic that the park service plan will provide continued strong support for ranching. Though he acknowledges there may be a time and place for legislation, he is also critical of RAG—in particular its choice for a lobbyist.

“If there is going to be legislation, we all should be working together with our very capable and involved elected representatives,” he said. “I think it can be dangerous to take the RAG path and hire a disgraced, far-right former Congressman to lobby for you in Washington.”