The National Park Service is now preparing the documents required under the National Environmental Policy Act to decide the future of ranching and elk management in the Point Reyes National Seashore and northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a process that must wrap up by 2021, per federal court order.
Though the park provided the public with a picture of six possible management alternatives for the 28,000 acres last fall, the notice of intent filed last week officially kicked off a process that will include the preparation of an amendment to the seashore’s general management plan and an associated environmental impact statement.
The public has until Nov. 30 to submit comments. There will be two public meetings to discuss the park’s notice, on Wednesday, Nov. 14 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the West Marin School gym and at the same time the next day at the Bay Model Visitor Center, in Sausalito.
Although the notice of intent shows the same management strategies the park proposed last fall, the agency made some important changes and provided further detail.
A newsletter released last week describes the park’s “proposed action”—an evolution of the “initial proposal” it developed last fall. Under NEPA guidelines, a proposed action is synonymous to the agency’s proposal, which it compares to a host of alternatives. The proposal includes increased operational flexibility and diversification for ranchers, elk management, and longer lease agreements.
The proposal largely aligns with the directives in a bill that Rep. Jared Huffman introduced and the House passed by a voice vote in September, which would amend the seashore’s enabling legislation. The bill was received in the Senate and referred to the committee on energy and natural resources in late September.
However, instead of stating that ranching families would be authorized to continue ranching under agreements “with 20-year” terms as termed in the park’s initial proposal and as directed in Huffman’s bill, the proposed action weakens the commitment by promising agreements with “up to 20-year” terms. Ranchers have long called for the need for longer leases to conduct business and provide security for the next generation. This same language is included in each of the alternatives that supports continued ranching.
Regarding elk, the park’s proposal specifies types of management strategies, minimizing “elk-related impacts to ranch operations through hazing, fence repair and modification, water development, habitat improvement, and other measures as appropriate.”
As before, the proposal would manage the Drakes Beach herd—the one that most impacts ranch operations—at a “level compatible with authorized ranching operations.” But it newly specified a population threshold for that herd: a minimum of 100 animals and a maximum of 160, per guidance from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Above that threshold, the park would move animals out of the park when possible, or use lethal methods.
The park’s proposal would manage the Limantour herd “if they affect the ranchlands”—language that is diluted slightly from a previous statement that the park “could implement actions” to manage them. Yet the revision also newly mentioned that no additional herds would be allowed to form.
Also new in the park’s proposal is the introduction of a “conservation framework” that divides ranches into three categories, known as land management units: range, pasture and ranch core. According to the park, this framework is intended to streamline the permitting process and provide consistent guidance to ranchers, allowing different intensities of land use depending on the type of unit. For example, diversification, which could intensify land use, would only be allowed in the pasture or ranch core areas.
There are other, more minor changes in the proposed alternative. The park shrank the number of acres it plans to establish as resource protection buffers from 1,200 to 900, and gave more mention to honoring the historic legacy of the land. There are two historic districts within the area the park is considering in the E.I.S.: the Olema Valley and Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic Districts, the latter of which is awaiting formal listing in the National Historic Register.
The proposed action now states, “The NPS would implement a strategy prioritizing maintenance of historic buildings on ranches in collaboration with park ranchers. Prioritization would take into account historic preservation goals and the needs of ranch operations. In some cases, adaptive reuse of historic buildings would be considered to support diversification activities within the ranch core.”
It continues, “As appropriate, the park would evaluate potential for decommissioning/deconstruction of low priority or substantially degraded structures/complexes as part of this plan.”
The second alternative is essentially the same as the proposed action, differing only in that it would remove the Drakes Beach elk herd altogether. The last three alternatives were predetermined by a settlement agreement the park reached last summer with three national environmental groups that sued with the hope that the outcome of a NEPA process would be the elimination of the historic ranches. They include options to reduce the acreage allotted to ranching, shut down the dairy ranches, and eliminate ranching and dairying entirely.
The changes to these alternatives were minimal in the park’s notice of intent, save one key modification. Though the reduced-ranching alternative is paired with the same elk management strategy as that in the park’s proposal—with the exception that new herds are allowed to form—the park newly selected no elk management to accompany the reduced-dairying alternative.
“The NPS would take no action to limit elk population growth and limited action to manage the geographic extent of all free-range tule elk, but only where management is needed to support other resource protection and park resources,” the newsletter states.
For the last, no-action alternative, the park went into much more detail than it did last fall, stating that existing ranching operations would be authorized under five- and 10-year permits and describing the park’s current rangeland activities and elk management—including fence repairs and the construction of elk crossings, habitat enhancements, pasture offsets and hazing.
In all the alternatives, the park still suggests that the E.I.S. develop indicators and standards to guide a visitor carrying capacity for the park; improve hiking, biking and equestrian access; developing trails, including by linking existing trails with adjacent public lands; and expand the interpretation of the historic districts, among other recommendations.
The park is also considering other ways to “adaptively reuse” structures. “The NPS would look for opportunities to expand day use facilities such as picnic area and overnight accommodations in the planning area,” the newsletter states. “These activities would be focused in previously disturbed areas, such as former ranch complexes, and may take advantage of adaptive reuse of historic buildings where possible.”
The public has a 30-day window to comment on the notice, after which the park will prepare a draft environmental impact statement, anticipated by next summer. The park expects to release the final E.I.S. by next winter and a record of decision by early 2020. The draft environmental document will include a window for public comment.
To view the notice of intent and the park’s newsletter, and to make comments, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?documentID=91640.