In new permit, park denies home to historic ranching family

David Briggs
John McFadden and his wife, Roxanne, sold off belongings last summer before vacating the main residence on John’s family ranch near Olema, where they lived with their children for at least a decade. The National Park Service excluded use of the home in a permit offered to John’s parents last week after rejecting some provisions of a detailed proposal to revive the beef ranch.

The National Park Service has denied a request by third-generation ranchers to inhabit a home on their historic ranch, a narrow 340-acre parcel that sits between Point Reyes Station and Olema. Virginia McFadden, whose family has ties to the land dating to 1918, and her husband, Jim, sought a permit to allow them to continue agricultural operations after their 25-year reservation of use of occupancy expired late last year. 

But the government says that because the McFaddens sublet the land for ranching by someone outside their clan while their son and his family lived in the residence in recent years, the two uses—agricultural and residential—have been irrevocably split.

Mr. McFadden said his decision to return to the land was prompted in part by the Interior Secretary’s announcement when he decided to shut down Drakes Bay Oyster Company that the park would bolster its commitment to ranching. But though the seashore offered him a one-year agricultural use permit, which would provide for a beef cattle herd of 35 or fewer cows, the park refused to include the house on the ranch as part of the deal. 

Mr. McFadden, who lives in Siskiyou County, has agreed to the terms but has not yet signed a lease, said Melanie Gunn, the outreach coordinator for the seashore. Mr. McFadden himself declined to comment on the negotiations, but in a proposal sent to the seashore in December he requested use the main residence “to allow us occupancy at different times of the year for the purposes of working the cattle, as well as storage.” 

In a reply, Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon wrote that the park service repeatedly told him he could not live there, and that residential use had “not been associated with the agricultural operations… for at least the past nine years.”

During that time, and possibly for years before, local rancher Mike Giammona sublet the land while the McFadden’s son, John, lived in the house with his family. (Ms. Gunn confirmed that holders of R.U.O.s are allowed to sublet.) Mr. Giammona told the West Marin Citizen last week that under the new agreement, he would have nowhere to put his animals. Until at least recently he ran cattle at Black Mountain Ranch, though ranch co-owner Dave Osborn declined to comment and Mr. Giammona did not return any calls.

The McFadden ranch was originally part of a 9,500-acre rancho belonging to Don Rafael Garcia, who moved to the valley in 1837 and ran 3,000 cattle as well as horses, sheep and pigs. (Wild poultry also lured guests seeking game.) Upon Mr. Garcia’s death the land was divvied up; the parcel where the current McFadden ranch sits off Shoreline Highway was deeded to Mr. Garcia’s daughter, Maria, but her husband sold it in 1874, two years after Maria and their infant died. 

A string of owners then ranched on the parcel. In 1918, Tomales rancher David Bordessa purchased the plot, but he had no interest in tending the land himself. Instead his son, Rico, milked 40 or 50 cows by hand, with only the aid of a single worker. In the 1930s the operation got a facelift, with the installation of milking machines and new barns. Rico inherited the land in 1955 and then sold it to his daughter and her husband, Virginia and Jim, in 1971. 

Dairying, which at that point had been the primary agricultural use for almost a century, was left behind as the McFaddens brought beef cattle onto the land.

On Jan. 9, 1989, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area purchased the ranch and offered the family a reservation of use and occupancy, though later Point Reyes National Seashore took over management of it and other northern lands in the recreation area. 

As a rule, the government offered reservations of use and occupancy to ranchers; as those agreements have expired, holders have been offered special-use permits. The R.U.O.s—of which only three remain in the seashore—allow greater control over the land, most notably by allowing holders to sublease it, which is not allowed under a permit, Ms. Gunn said. Eighteen ranches in the seashore include residential use, while only six ranches do not.

Pressed to explain why residential use was not offered to Mr. McFadden, Ms. Gunn said, “The important component is that the ag has been separated. That’s the use that the park is interested in continuing, and it’s been successful for more than 15 years. We know it can be successful without the residential. I don’t know anything more than that.”

Ms. Gunn cited F Ranch as one example of a ranch without an associated residence. But there, the Gallagher family abandoned all buildings in the 1940s, when they bought C Ranch. The buildings deteriorated for decades without use and were then torn down by the park, according to accounts by Dewey Livingston.

The park service has not yet decided on the fate of the McFadden residence, which at the moment is uninhabited, and the park has yet to conduct an official evaluation of the other buildings, which Ms. Gunn said is necessary before making any decisions. 

Nor have the McFaddens been offered a typical five or 10-year lease; because of plans to write a new ranching and dairying management plan, the seashore offered only a single-year agricultural lease. That plan, when completed in a few years’ time, will provide for up to 20-year leases and will apply to all in the seashore and the northern G.G.N.R.A. lands.