Outsiders say keep elk, 
not ranches


The National Park Service received more than 3,000 comment letters on the preparation of a plan that will govern the future of West Marin’s dairy and cattle ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

The vast majority of opinions, sent from outside West Marin, denounced attempts to remove free-ranging herds of tule elk and asked the federal government to boot ranchers and their cattle from the park. Local conservationists and working ranchers, on the other hand, still recovering from the divisive closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, searched for compromise to maintain the unique partnership of agriculture and environmental preservation the seashore symbolizes. 

In individual letters, ranchers revealed plans to modernize their operations for the next generation, and several asked that underutilized lands or closed ranches—Jewell Ranch, Rancho Baulines and the Historic D Ranch—be returned to full agricultural use.

Former Secretary of the Interior Department Ken Salazar initiated this study of how to manage existing ranches in November 2012 when he denied Drakes Bay a special use permit but reaffirmed “the importance of sustainable agriculture on the pastoral lands within Point Reyes” by directing the agency to extend ranchers’ leases to 20-year terms. The first-ever Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan and its environmental assessment will analyze lease extensions and family succession plans, diversification of agricultural products, weed management and control of the elk population. A final document is expected late next year.

As part of the initial six-week scoping period from late April to June, the park’s inbox flooded with 3,019 online comments (and 62 letters delivered the old-fashioned way), totaling 824 pages. Sixty-two percent of comments flew in from outside California, and another 13 percent fluttered in from abroad, mostly from Great Britain, Canada, Australia, France and Italy. 

Contrary to the “long-term preservation of ranching [that] was a central concern of local interests and members of Congress as they considered legislation to establish the Point Reyes National Seashore in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” as Mr. Salazar wrote two years ago, many asked that ranching be phased out, discontinued if no “essential and positive addition to the natural resources” can be proven or opened to competitive bidding against wildlife conservation groups, as the Center for Biological Diversity suggested.

“I used to love to hike along the coastline near the Lighthouse, but I have always resented the ranching out there. The ranches create such a painful eyesore of overgrazed muddy areas and the smells are putrid. I used to love to take my horses around Bear Valley, but have been told several times to ‘stay off my land’ by lessees,” multiple commenters wrote in what appears to be a form letter. “Now they want to kill every animal in sight—the elk, the deer, the coyotes, etc., because they encroach on ‘their land’ and compete with ‘their right’ to graze cattle on OUR land. This problem is bad and it is only going to get worse unless something is done to stop them. … GET RID OF THE RANCHERS, NOT THE ELK!”

Several other comments placed the elk issue into the context of national debates about federal management of public lands or wildlife habitat. 

In response to the large volume of comments supporting free-roaming elk herds, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a gleeful press release. “Point Reyes tule elk are highly beloved by visitors, photographers, naturalists and locals alike. The public doesn’t want these elk relocated, fenced into an exhibit, shot, sterilized or any of the other absurd proposals from ranchers who enjoy subsidized grazing privileges in our national seashore,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate with the group. “This is the only national park with native tule elk—it’s not a ‘national ranch’ or a zoo exhibit, and it shouldn’t be managed that way.”

By comparison, local conservationists took a levelheaded approach in their scoping letters. Amy Trainer, the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, called the planning process “a way to work collaboratively to find creative solutions” in a park that “provides a unique opportunity to show how wildlife and sustainable agriculture can co-exist and thrive,” and said she supported 20-year leases. The group said they were “doubtful” a fence could limit the herd from returning to their pastureland on their “historic range,” but suggested cheaper leases for impacted ranches or funds by an outside group to purchase additional hay during droughts.

Burr Heneman, a Bolinas resident and environmentalist, said the plan “should be explicit that the tule elk need management.” If not, they will likely grow to “the level of unacceptable impact (and may already have) on the Seashore’s largest cultural resource,” he said. 

Advocates for the ranchers stated that herds have already “killed heifers in the Pastoral Zone, consumed forage to the point of compromising the ability of certified organic producers to meet their pasturage requirements and for other producers to meet residual dry matter requirements, forced ranchers to purchase expensive feed, consumed limited water, broken fences repeatedly and continue to increase in numbers on the Pastoral Zone,” as local rangeland ecologist Jeff Creque enumerated in his letter. 

Management of the herds should begin immediately, the advocates said. The park service is authorized to do so under the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan, which studied the environmental impacts of moving the herd to a designated wilderness area near Limantour and explicitly rejected an alternative that would have allowed free-ranging elk throughout the park, said Dr. Laura Watt, the chair of the environmental studies department at Sonoma State University. 

“Elk should be removed from the Pastoral Zone without extensive further study, since those removal activities have been used before and were successful,” said Dewey Livingston, the local historian who wrote studies of the various ranches’ pasts for both of West Marin’s national parks. “NPS and other agencies tend to use further study as a delaying tactic, and in this case action needs to happen sooner, not later.”

The ranchers, for their part, supported immediate removal of the herds from the pastoral zone and the construction of a fence along the border of the Limantour wilderness as well as the repair of a worn fence that originally contained the herd on Pierce Point. “There is a place for the cattle and for the elk both in this beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore,” wrote Ernie, Nichola and Ernest, Jr., Spaletta in their family’s scoping letter. “It is not fair that the ranching families have had to wait for so many years and have had to endure so much damage caused by these roaming elk. If the elk are not removed off the ranches in the Pastoral Zone, then ranching will not be able to continue into the future.” Disease transmission poses an added concern, added Robert McClure, of Historic I Ranch.

Elected officials, too, added their support for the elk’s removal. A letter co-signed by Rep. Jared Huffman and Supervisor Steve Kinsey called for an end to the damage they have caused, “a serious problem for ranchers now [that] will certainly lead to impairment of historic values of the working ranches.”

Ranchers also asked for a return to the diverse production that once dotted the hillsides during the Shafter era. “For my great grandfather and grandfather, being able to diversify was one of the key reasons J Ranch was able to survive and be passed on to the next generation,” said Anne Kehoe. “Having the opportunity to be able to return to diversification practices such as farmstead dairy products, growing chickens for egg sales, raising pigs for market, growing grain crops, such as barley, wheat, or rye for specialty products is an option we would like to have available to our family operation.”

The Lunny family’s G Ranch, too, once contained “a dairy, many large barns for cattle and horses, a slaughterhouse to kill and process cattle, sheep and hogs, a cheese processing plant, pastures, hayfields and worker housing” and possibly rows of artichokes, beans, peas and other vegetables, their letter says. 

But after World War II, when the modes of transportation changed, ranchers realized they earned the largest profit from shipping milk to distant areas. “The landscape at Point Reyes began to change,” they wrote, just before the park service began acquiring land. “It is our understanding that NPS policy does not require that activities in a cultural landscape present at the time of purchase be frozen in time.” 

The Lunnys asked for the park to accommodate a shift from a national commodity-driven market to local, small-scale production, “a ‘new’ model [that] is actually a recreation of the traditional” by allowing a dairy’s restoration, butter processing, enlarged row-crop acreage, hog and chicken production and on-farm sales.

In addition to removing the elk and allowing greater diversification, other key concerns for many of the ranchers included longer leases, providing an incentive to invest in “infrastructure, repairs, rangeland improvements and conservation projects,” as Carleen and Timothy Nunes, who operate the Historic A and E Ranches (and rent pasture at D Ranch) suggested, and making it easier to obtain loans to do so. They also asked to add succession terms to leases that would have a preference for family members, followed by neighboring ranchers; to permit the mowing or windrowing of weeds, brush and other grasses, particularly to keep in line with organic regulations; and to streamline procedures for day-to-day maintenance when “ranchers in the seashore cannot wait for the lengthy process it takes to make a decision,” said Jarrod Mendoza, whose family has operated a dairy on B Ranch.

Several asked that lands that have become overgrown with weeds or fallen into disuse be returned to agriculture. Mary Tiscornia, who leased Rancho Baulines to run cattle and horses for three decades, asked to reinstate her right to first refusal of grazing rights for the Bolinas property. Ted McIsaac asked permission to manage the Jewell Ranch. “A few years ago, during a drought, I requested permission from PRNS to graze the Jewell Ranch. I saw it as a win-win. The rangeland is in need of grazing to control weeds and overgrowth and we needed the feed for our cattle,” he wrote. “The answer from PRNS was no—not because PRNS disagreed with my analysis of the win-win scenario I had proposed, rather because PRNS asserted that a NEPA process would be required prior to reauthorization of the historic grazing. Well, here we are,” he said of the current opportunity for an environmental assessment. 

Todd Horick, a third-generation rancher raised on D Ranch, asked the park to reverse its decision to prevent him from continuing their family operations, after his mother died in a car accident in 1998 and did not have a succession plan for the special use permit. “As I grew up on the ranch, I was always under the impression that our ranches within the pastoral zone would remain in agricultural production and would be operated by the same historic families. I was shocked when PRNS denied my request to continue and by their choice to evict our family and our cows. We were not in any position to challenge this PRNS decision at the time, so we left sadly and quietly.” 

Attached to his letter, Mr. Horick included an application for a new special use permit to resume charge of D Ranch. “This [environmental assessment] should recognize all the benefits of allowing me to return home. I will provide the rangeland stewardship to preserve the historic grasslands, I will bring the same cattle back to their rightful home, and I will save taxpayers by relieving the PRNS of the sole responsibility for maintenance to fencing, roads, buildings and other infrastructure,” he said. 

For generations, two dozen historic ranching families have passed on a way of life. They’re still trying to run the same business, but now they need to do so with the input of a wide range of stakeholders. But many of them are optimistic about their future.

“We are the backbone of the community,” said Jolynn Mendoza McClelland. “We hold the keys to West Marin’s past and will play an important role in the future.”