Park settlement leaves concerns over future


Two weeks after a settlement agreement was announced by the National Park Service and three nonprofit environmental groups over the future of ranching in the Point Reyes National Seashore, the fate of the historic landscape remains uncertain. Though both sides characterized the agreement as a victory, concerns continue to swirl for ranchers and their supporters, including Congressman Jared Huffman.

“The biggest national environmental groups were conspicuous by their absence in this litigation, yet the small minority of the environmental community that are not comfortable with continued ranching in the pastoral zone are probably enough to create a cloud of uncertainty for years to come,” Congressman Huffman said.

Under the settlement agreement, the park service has four years to prepare an amendment to its general management plan that will determine the future use of lands leased for ranching in Point Reyes and in the north district of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Per the terms of the settlement, the park must evaluate a no-action alternative, a no-ranching alternative, a reduced-action alternative and a no-dairy ranching alternative, though it could also evaluate others.

During this process, which will include public scoping meetings held as early as this fall, the dairies and ranches will operate on five-year leases. The park will also continue to manage the tule elk—which have threatened the viability of some ranches in recent years—in accordance with its current practices. According to the settlement, it must prioritize non-lethal management techniques to manage the Drakes Beach herd specifically.

“There are other parts of the country where environmentalists and agriculturists can’t ever come together, but it has always been different here,” David Evans, a fourth-generation rancher in the seashore and a member of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, an intervener in the lawsuit, said. “The park service has been supporting ranching since [the seashore’s] inception, and I expect it will continue to do so. I think it was right to settle on this.”

But, Mr. Evans said, “now that the general management plan is coming, let’s sit down and talk about it, let’s get excited about it. This is no time to go hide.”

When the suit was brought last February by the three groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watershed Project—the park was working on a ranch comprehensive management plan. That document, and a related environmental impact statement, were considering the impacts of 20-year leases, diversified production and the best strategy for managing tule elk in the pastoral zone, among other things.

In 2012, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar directed the seashore to start issuing 20-year leases. The order was part of a memorandum announcing that the park would not grant a special use permit for Drakes Bay Oyster Company, but that it would give explicit support for continued ranching.

But the lawsuit stopped the ranch plan in its tracks, leaving families in the seashore in a lurch. They had been making due with one-year letters of authorization from the park as a temporary solution ever since the agency started working on the ranch plan in 2015. (The seashore has issued ranch leases and permits since at least the ‘90s, when the original reservations of use started to expire.)

In their suit, the plaintiffs said the ranch management plan was taking precedence over an update to the park’s general management plan, which was certified in 1980. Under park service policy, general plans should be updated every 10 to 15 years, and they argued that the park was unlawfully prioritizing ranching over other uses in the seashore. The unreasonable delay in revising the general management plan was a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, the suit stated.

“When the park service started on the ranch management plan, that was the final straw,” Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “There was a predetermined outcome there: the plan wasn’t going to address any of the negative impacts of cattle grazing and actually defined tule elk as a problem. It was all backwards: commercial activities should not trump the protection of natural resources.”

The center, which has challenged grazing nationally, previously threatened to sue the seashore in the early 2000s. As a result, the park prepared a biological assessment that analyzed the impacts of grazing on a handful of specific flora and fauna, and the lawsuit was not filed.

The environmental groups also allege that the park violated federal environmental law by failing to examine environmental impacts when renewing ranch leases or issuing short-term allowances like the current letters of authorization in the six years it has been working on the ranch plan. The suit claimed this violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Park Service Act and Point Reyes National Seashore’s enabling legislation.

The suit stated that cattle grazing is “generally known to impair water quality, alter stream channels and hydrology, compact riparian soils, reduce riparian and upland vegetation and native biodiversity, and increase runoff, erosion, and sediment loads into water bodies.” It continued, “Such impacts are detrimental to riparian areas, impair or eliminate important fish habitat components, and adversely affect salmonids and other fish species.”

The settlement agreement states that all the claims that concerned the potential inadequacy of the leases were dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning they cannot be filed again at least until the park fulfills its mandate in the next four years. Though the claim that concerns the general management plan was also dismissed, it was done so “without prejudice” and was therefore the subject of the compromise reached in the agreement.

Though the plaintiffs had called for an update to the entire general management plan, the settlement only directs the park to produce an amendment and environmental impact statement that deal with ranching specifically.

In other words, the park will now embark on a process similar to that of creating the ranch comprehensive management plan—which included extensive public meetings to gather input from the community—but this time in the form of an amendment to the general plan. Importantly, the E.I.S. will include an established range of alternatives agreed upon in the settlement—from no change to the current status of ranching to its complete elimination.

This part of the settlement is particularly troubling to Laura Watt, an environmental historian and author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore.”

“Generally, for an environmental assessment, public scoping meetings take place before the range of alternatives is determined,” she said. “There may be a bias in the planning process as determined by the settlement—a presumption that ranching is detrimental to the landscape. How will the park allow for, say, expanded ranching, given these alternatives?”

The park service started the process of updating its general management plan back in 1997, but a final draft was never released.

Park spokeswoman Melanie Gunn declined to offer a reason why that update stalled, but said the upcoming amendment will terminate the former process. 

“Some of the information developed through the ranch comprehensive management plan process can and will be adapted for use in the general management plan amendment,” she added.

Dr. Watt, who teaches environmental planning at Sonoma State University, also wondered what baseline would be used to compare the no-ranching and ranching alternatives, since settlers were grazing cattle on Point Reyes since at least the 1850s. Mexican land grantees used it before that, and the Coast Miwok tended the landscape for thousands of years before they arrived. 

Yet Dr. Watt also made clear that the National Environmental Policy Act, which dictates the rules of environmental assessments, is “not a popularity contest.” Ultimately, it’s the agency that decides which course of action to take. “My hope is that the assessment will be done really well, folding in public input, and benefitting ecological systems,” she said.

But if recent history is any indication of what to expect, we might be wary, she said: “Looking back on the example of Drakes Bay, just a handful of environmental groups stacked the deck by creating online petitions that generated thousands of comments from people that had never even been to the area.”

Rep. Jared Huffman, who has voiced concern about the settlement in recent weeks, outlined the risk of this public process in a conversation with the Light. “The downside I see, including all these no-ranching alternatives in the NEPA analysis, is that you can essentially predict a second round of litigation from those that don’t want ranching,” he said. “It was my strong preference to stay the course with the comprehensive ranch management plan, but this litigation has intervened and thrown us on a different track.”

Mr. Miller, of the Center for Biological Diversity, lived in West Marin for a decade. He said that although he goes to Cowgirl Creamery and likes to eat local, organic food, “these are national park lands...There’s a very provincial attitude at play here.”

He went on, “The real fundamental question is, ‘What is best for these lands’? Is it ranching? In some cases, yes, though in other cases, probably not. It would be one thing if we were talking about people’s private land, but we are talking about land that belongs to America. We will look to the millions of Americans that come to the seashore each year—that’s who this is being decided for.”

But Mr. Evans, the fourth-generation rancher and founder of Marin Sun Farms, believes that preserving the unique agreement at Point Reyes is very much in the national interest.

“Often [people frown upon] the private use of public land from a broad-spectrum principal, but they don’t know Point Reyes and haven’t studied the foundation of our seashore, why it came to be, why it’s here. I feel very strongly that our community can explain and argue to the national interests and our representatives that this is the right thing for Point Reyes,” he said.

In the 1960s and ’70s, ranchers agreed to sell their land to the federal government, retaining reservations of use and occupancy—a complicated land acquisition document in which the sellers agree to take a reduced price in exchange for the right to continue to use and operate the land. Most families took a 20-year deal. 

Dr. Watt also explained that it is true that ranching is not a mandated use in the seashore. But, she said, when the enabling legislation of 1962 was amended so that the government could purchase the ranch lands—for which it paid around $20 million—the intent was for the ranches to continue indefinitely. 

When issues have come up over the years around wildlife, the park and the ranchers association have collaborated, Mr. Evans said. These efforts include removing and discouraging invasive plant species; developing water sources for livestock and wildlife; observing and monitoring wildlife populations, patterns, and ecosystem health; and using grazing as a tool to maintain endangered plant and animal species habitat.

In its scoping comments in the lawsuit, the ranchers association wrote that its members “provide a number of important environmental, educational and economic benefits to the area. Ranchers have had most of the agricultural land within the seashore certified organic. Ranchers work closely with the Marin County Resource Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to adopt new conservation practices and implement on the ground projects to protect and improve natural resources.”

It is also rare for such a vibrant agricultural hub to exist so close to a major metropolitan area, Mr. Evans added. “Straus, Clover, Marin Sun Farms, BN Ranch—these are all common brands that people choose to eat because they have some transparency back to a place,” he said. “People come here and have a connection to the farms. We are connective tissue to the whole social fabric of the Bay Area, and it can’t be overestimated how important that is.”

The economic benefits should not be underestimated. Twenty percent of farming in Marin takes place in Point Reyes, representing about $20 million in revenue, and the majority of that is organic.

“You can multiply that number by three or four times when you consider the economic contribution of the ranches and dairies in the seashore, given value-added commodities,” Marin County’s agriculture commissioner, Stacy Carlsen, said of the revenue. “Furthermore, they represent the highest standard of farming practices anywhere in the U.S., given the park’s oversight as well as the fact that many are certified organic. These are stellar operations and they are traditional operations, and this sudden concern that they are bad actors is bogus.”

District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni confirmed that the county “will continue to support agriculture and ranchers in the seashore—it’s our goal as a county that it continues,” he said.

The county also intervened in the lawsuit, advocating for the continuation of ranching in the seashore. Supervisors also unanimously approved allocating up to $200,000 to reimburse the ranchers for legal fees related to the lawsuit.

“Personally, I’m pleased it’s settled and we can now move forward working out the details of the settlement,” Supervisor Rodoni said. “I’m glad that they get five-year leases in the interim and hope, through this NEPA process, that they will end up with longer, 20-year leases.”

While the settlement could have been resolved without any security measures for the ranchers, five-year leases still pose challenges. Mr. Evans put it this way: ranchers are managing long-term habitat for wildlife and long-term habitat for food production, but a ranch operating on a five-year lease cannot make the investment necessary to be a long-term habitat steward.

Bob McClure, a fourth-generation dairyman whose family has been on the point since the 1920s, said that, even for relatively smaller investments, “like a year’s worth of hay, it’s very difficult to get a loan from a bank with just a year’s lease.” He continued: “We’ve been limping along, doing what we can, but we are operating hand to mouth. For larger projects like a new roof on a barn? Forget it.”

Third-generation beef rancher Kevin Lunny said the settlement did not provide all they had hoped for. “We were extremely thankful that Secretary Salazar made what we recognized as a promise from the Interior Department to issue 20-year leases to ranchers... We had reason to be hopeful,” he said. “In the meantime, all of our kids are wondering if they have a future here. That decision has been put off another five years. Are they going to put their careers on hold to see where this is going to go?”

Albert Straus, whose Straus Family Creamery operates on land across Tomales Bay, said that without the ranches and dairies in the seashore, the infrastructure of the industry would take a big hit. Losing them “would pretty much be devastating for our rural community,” he said. “Grazing practices, carbon farming, methane digesters, organic farming practices—there are so many practices we can use to make farms both viable and ecologically sustainable. Farms not only have a positive effect on local community, but can also be a solution to bigger issues of climate change. I feel that we should be working together to secure that future.”