Park affirms support for agriculture in final EIS

09/23/2020

The historic ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore will be allowed to continue for years to come under the terms of a plan the National Park Service released last Friday. The document, a final environmental impact statement for an amendment to the seashore’s general management plan, elects to give existing ranching families 20-year leases and to increase the park’s management of the two free-ranging tule elk herds that conflict with their operations.

After receiving thousands of public comments on the draft E.I.S., many of which opposed ranching, the park service held firm. The chosen management scheme is much the same as the preferred alternative outlined in the draft. The park did make some refinements, including in response to technical feedback received from some ranchers and conservation groups that partner with them, but the changes were minor and left some issues they flagged, such as elk conflicts, hanging in the balance.

The park has attempted to update its management strategy for the working lands in the seashore for years, and began preparing the E.I.S. in 2017 in response to a lawsuit brought by three advocacy groups. After considering a range of alternatives compelled by that suit, including discontinuing ranching altogether, the final E.I.S. formalizes the agency’s decision to preserve the ranches and details how it intends to do so. Part of the final plan includes culling some tule elk.

Rep. Jared Huffman, who has staunchly supported the ranchers, said he was pleased with the outcome, and expressed frustration with the groups that brought the litigation. “In a sense there’s nothing new here, other than that the park service is declining to change course. Some of these groups have been urging that the [park] adopt a new policy that evicts the ranchers, and I’m pleased that the [park] didn’t do that,” he said. 

Rep. Huffman also expressed apprehension that further litigation could come from the same groups. “Animated mostly by the animal rights community right now, their agenda is to get rid of all animal agriculture, and not just in the seashore,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of passion, but I believe it’s a minority view, both within the environmental community and certainly in Marin County. The overwhelming majority of my constituents think Point Reyes is wonderful and would like to see us balance these values, instead of changing course.”

The final E.I.S., which effectively amends the general management plan specifically for the 28,000 acres of ranched lands in the seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, will sit for 30 days for consultation with regulatory agencies before the park’s regional director signs a record of decision. No litigation can occur before that decision. 

Jeff Miller, an advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of groups that sued the park service, released a statement last week, and it was nothing short of a battle cry. “This is a disaster for wildlife and a stunning mismanagement of one of America’s most beautiful national parks,” he said. “The park service is greenlighting the slaughter of native wildlife in Point Reyes. After the elk, the next likely victims will be birds, bobcats, foxes and coyotes. This plan is illegal and immoral, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop it.”

In April, the Resource Renewal Institute, another group that sued, released a homemade analysis of the more than 7,600 public comments submitted on the draft E.I.S., finding that 91 percent of the commenters opposed ranching. Yet public comments do not function as a vote; the park looked for substantive and specific criticism, and addressed each of these comments in an addendum.

Carey Feieraband, the seashore’s acting superintendent, said the plan struck the balance between natural preservation and agriculture. “Point Reyes National Seashore hosts a diversity of resources, layers of human history, congressionally designated wilderness, and is beloved by millions of visitors. We are grateful for the input and engagement of stakeholders throughout this process and recognize there are a myriad of perspectives on the management of this special place,” she said in a statement. 

The E.I.S. considered six possible land management schemes, including ones that would eliminate all operations undertaken by the current 24 ranching families, convert the six dairies to beef operations, and reduce the overall ranching acreage. Each alternative was paired with a different approach to managing tule elk, ranging from eliminating one of the three herds to allowing them all to roam free without park involvement. 

The chosen alternative mirrors the one the agency fleshed out last August. The final E.I.S. establishes that there will be longer leases and tighter elk monitoring, and details the technical standards that will govern the park and the ranchers’ joint land management from now on. 

The document not only defines ecological standards, but also cultural preservation and visitation goals. Most of the acreage falls within one of two special park designations, the Point Reyes Peninsula and Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic Districts, which recognize the ranches as playing a significant role in the development of California dairying since the mid-1800s. The park described ways to improve tourism, but also defined new thresholds it will use to prevent crowding and traffic congestion. 

Many of the stakeholders’ detailed suggestions for improvement—which pertained to further elk management, flexibility in diversification and ability to participate in carbon farming—were not accepted. 

Kevin Lunny, a third-generation beef rancher who plans to pass the operation to his children one day, said he will not complain, however. “When all is said and done, are we completely happy? Of course not. We really think that this puts some ranchers in huge jeopardy with elk competition, and limits what we can do. But guess what, we feel fortunate that we are still here. We get to continue our way of life, and to produce food for our community,” he said. 

Thirty-four-year-old Jarrod Mendoza took the helm of his family’s ranch 10 years ago and supplies organic milk to Straus Family Creamery. He said he can’t imagine doing anything else with his career, yet he isn’t sure he wants the same fate for his children. “I don’t want them to have to go through all the things that we’ve had to go through, unless they were really passionate and they really wanted to,” he said. 

The keystone of the park’s selected alternative is longer leases. Under the terms, the 24 families who have current leases could be given new, 20-year leases. Putting to rest a long-simmering controversy, the final E.I.S. affirms that the seashore’s enabling legislation and subsequent amendments allow the park to authorize lease agreements to ranchers. 

Currently, the ranchers’ five-year leases expire in 2022, a term of the settlement agreement the park made as an interim measure while it prepared the E.I.S. Before the lawsuit, ranchers had varying levels of security: After selling their lands to the park service in the 1960s and ’70s, most owners negotiated a reservation of use and occupancy, which evolved into leases with five- or 10-year terms. 

The final E.I.S. describes directives handed down from the top that have pushed the park service to standardize the agreements and allow for 20-year terms. In 2012, in response to outcry over the closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered the park to issue 20-year agreements to show a commitment to continuing agriculture. 

The final E.I.S. says that one year before the expiration of the 20-year leases, the park “may offer this lease, or a similar lease to the lessee.” It includes an addendum on succession, detailing how ranches will be kept within the current families. Should a family not wish to continue ranching, other seashore leaseholders or ranch workers would be given priority on the lease. 

District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni voiced approval for the longer leases and the succession policy, echoing the support for agriculture in the seashore expressed by his fellow supervisors. 

Aside from the leases, the second core piece of the park’s plan concerns the management of tule elk. 

The park service introduced the elk to a fenced area on Tomales Point in 1978. Twenty years later, in order to address the growing population, the park moved some individuals to an area above Limantour Beach to establish a free-ranging herd. That herd was not intended to drift onto ranchland, according to the only other park document that handled elk management until now. But the elk wandered, and today there are two distinct herds—known as the Limantour and the Drakes Beach herds—that roam the pastoral zone. 

The final E.I.S. does not alter the management of the herd that remains in the enclosure, which has generated recent interest from activists. That herd is the largest, at around 445 individuals, and does not conflict with ranch operations.  

Under the final plan, the park will take measures to prevent the two free-ranging herds from migrating beyond their current ranges or establishing any new herds. The population of the Drakes Beach herd will be kept at 120 individuals, which will involve park service staff culling up to 18 elk each year. There’s no population target for the Limantour herd, which has 124 individuals.

In contrast to the draft, the final E.I.S. describes in more detail how it will mitigate conflicts, which some ranchers say threaten the viability of their operations. The park commits to enhancing elk habitat off the ranchlands, repairing fences damaged by elk and building new crossings for them. It will also explore the possibility of new fencing around certain pastures, and will meet regularly with the ranchers most affected “to allow for an assessment of which elk management strategies are most effective and what strategies may need more emphasis or adjustment.”

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, which represents some of the families in the park, had asked the park to confine the elk to the Phillip Burton Wilderness, proposing a four-mile-long fence leading up to the Inverness Ridge from Limantour Estero. “Elk should be allowed [in the seashore] but the Drakes Beach herd and the Limantour herd should not be present on the limited area of the [seashore] which has ranches,” the association wrote. “This is because over the last 30 years, NPS has not figured out how to effectively separate elk from cows; it would be better for elk if they are allowed to roam undisturbed in a much larger natural habitat in the Phillip Burton Wilderness instead of being subject to harassment, hazing, and lethal removal on ranch land.”  

A large part of the final E.I.S. is devoted to outlining how the park and the ranchers will work together into the future. 

Based on an analysis of topography and sensitive resources, each of the ranches is divided into four zones with designated uses. A resource protection zone protects threatened and endangered species habitat, creeks and riparian areas, and archeological sites; a range zone allows grazing; and a pasture zone gives ranchers slightly more freedom to produce forage for their cattle and to diversify into sheep, goats and chickens.

The last zone, the ranch core, which includes the land immediately surrounding the ranch buildings, allows up to 2.5 acres of row crops. “Ranch-specific proposals for small-scale processing of products produced in the planning area, additional animals (e.g., species consistent with the EIS), horse boarding, and irrigated crops in the Ranch Core subzone would be considered on a case-by-case basis and would require additional environmental review,” the final document says. 

The park primarily held steady on the zones, though the tight restrictions drew criticism not only from some ranchers but also the University of California’s cooperative extension in Marin. “Very few crops grown for commercial purposes lend themselves to exclusively dry-farming systems, and even those that do are successful through specialized variety selection, frequent tillage, and highly site-specific conditions such as rainfall and soil type,” wrote David Lewis, the extension’s farm advisor. “Some of the most common crops grown without irrigation are all high-acreage crops such as grains, vines and tree fruit—a clear mismatch with the 2.5-acre cap.” 

The final E.I.S. says that ranchers will enter into a ranch operating agreement, which would be renewed each year and stipulate what exactly is allowable. All management activities in the agreements will be governed by a set of practice standards, or “technical guidelines for the conservation of soil, water, air and related plant and animal resources.” For many activities there are pre-set mitigation measures, drawn from guidance from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Marin Resource Conservation District’s permit coordination program, and biological opinions from the United States Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services.

Compared to the draft E.I.S., the final document offered more explicit support for carbon sequestration practices. Many seashore ranchers have expressed interest in participating in the Marin Carbon Project, which has prepared carbon farm plans for ranches in West Marin over the past decade but until now has been blocked from doing so within park bounds. 

Some central carbon farming practices were not greenlighted, however. The park will continue to restrict compost application—a major component of carbon farming—to the ranch core and pasture zones, which altogether amount to just 2,500 acres. Ranches must also produce their own compost, rather than purchase it. 

“Not all carbon farming practices may be appropriate for implementation in the park, but to the extent that compatible practices are implemented voluntarily by ranches and with NPS approval, carbon farming could reduce GHG emissions from ranching activities,” the document says. 

Although it was encouraged to do so by several conservation groups, the park did not evaluate the possible reduction in emissions that could occur in the seashore from carbon sequestration practices.

Like the draft, the final document found the overall impact of ranching to be deleterious to the air, water quality, vegetation and wildlife—yet it asserts that its new management practices will reduce impacts. The final document did amend some of its analyses related to impacts, including by adding new studies. 

Since releasing the draft E.I.S., the park service completed two new water quality analyses, including evaluations of the Kehoe, Abbotts and Drakes Estero watersheds and a trend analysis of 19 years’ worth of data in the Olema Creek watershed. The studies showed water quality meeting regulatory criteria, and a dramatic improvement over the last 20 years as a result of best management practices on ranches. 

“Based on [a] trend analysis conducted using data collected in the park and similar conclusions from other studies, the management practices evaluated in the EIS are expected to continue to reduce concentrations of pollutants entering waterbodies and their associated environmental impacts on water quality,” the document says.

It also foresees an improvement in the management of cultural resources on ranches, providing “revised and clarified cyclic maintenance tasks that are the responsibility of each rancher and better coordination with the park to identify and treat priority needs, thereby reducing deferred maintenance.”

The park hopes to create four new staff positions related to its plan, including a historical architect who would facilitate ranchers’ work plans for facilities, roads, infrastructure, utilities, maintenance and repairs. The park also plans to hire a range specialist and a wildlife technician to assist with annual monitoring and management, including of tule elk. Lastly, a compliance ranger will be dedicated to enforcing agricultural leases and permits.

One unmet request from the ranchers’ association was that the park establish an advisory committee, with possible representation from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Marin Resource Conservation District, Marin’s agricultural commissioner’s office, the University of California’s cooperative extension and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. The purpose of the committee “would be to advise [seashore] decision makers on all agricultural planning and management decisions,” the association wrote.

The park will not establish such a committee, but it has formalized a partnership with the Marin R.C.D. Under a new cooperative agreement, the R.C.D., with funding from the park, will aid the park over the next several years in “the planning, implementation and monitoring of current conservation practices, rangeland monitoring, education and outreach on NPS lands.” 

As far as funding the plan’s implementation, Melanie Gunn, the park’s outreach coordinator, said the park would seek internal sources. The combined costs of preparing the draft and the final E.I.S. was $2.4 million. The plan is expected to increase the park’s annual operating costs by half a million, to $7.4 million; another $4.8 million in one-time expenditures are expected, all related to visitor use. 

The plan says, “NPS would explore new opportunities, techniques, and contemporary media to interpret park resources and ranching in the planning area and would collaborate with ranchers and other park partners, such as Point Reyes National Seashore Association or park concessioners, on interpretive messaging, programs, and other techniques to share the story of multi-generational ranching in the park.”

The money would go toward interpretive signs, some additional vault toilets and parking improvements, as well as several new trails in and around ranchlands. “As ranch operations diversify and engage in additional public serving activities, NPS would collaborate with ranchers to identify opportunities to integrate interpretive and educational messaging and programming,” it says. 

Nevertheless, the park service does not envision exponential growth in visitation to the seashore, but it acknowledges crowding and congestion. The plan establishes certain thresholds for parking, complaints and waste that trigger increased park management. If visitation approaches a 25 percent increase above the 2017 visitation number—2,456,669—the park will step in, including by exploring a new permit and reservation system during peak times.