Ranchers say park plan will blanket pastures in sand

David Briggs
The removal of non-native beachgrass on Point Reyes has resulted in flatter dunes that park ecologists believe improve habitat for numerous threatened, rare or unique species. For ranchers, however, shifting sands have buried fences and rendered some pastureland unusable.

European beachgrass, long favored by natural resource management agencies as a means to stabilize shifting sands, has fallen out of fashion with the National Park Service. Not so with local ranchers.

In a letter sent to the superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore last week, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association slammed a proposal to expand the removal of beachgrass and other invasive plants from coastal dunes, arguing that it lacks scientific grounds and poses immediate threats to agriculture.

Some areas where the beachgrass was dug up in recent years have eroded, they said; in other areas, sand blown from previously fixed dunes has buried fences, filled in stock ponds, and even blanketed a study area for an endangered foxtail.

Nor have dunes remained clear of the tenacious grass, the association said. Aerial photographs attached to the letter show significant regrowth within a few years of removal.

In a harsh critique of the environmental assessment conducted for the Abbotts Lagoon dune restoration plan, which the seashore is now hoping to expand to include other areas, the ranchers argued that the document, released in 2009, neither cites peer-reviewed science nor demonstrates how the removal of beachgrass would benefit native plants and endangered species.

The assessment “makes countless, unfounded claims that both support [the park service’s] position, and inexplicably casts blame on ranching practices for a host of environmental problems,” they wrote, adding that the document “blatantly ignores clear evidence that contradicts many of [its] statements.”

They criticize the plan for failing to indicate how funds to carry the project through to completion will be acquired, saying that incomplete restoration efforts could result in significant erosion as well as the reestablishment of non-native plants and other “unforeseen consequences.”

As these impacts would directly affect its members, the association requested that the park service “abandon the dune restoration project altogether.”

The proposal to expand the project was not widely publicized, and the public comment period ended last Tuesday. A letter from seashore superintendent Cicely Muldoon posted online and dated December 6, 2012 addresses “interested parties” and describes plans to write a programmatic environmental assessment built upon the original assessment but with an expanded scope that would “cover potential restoration efforts in other dune areas throughout the park.”

The website cites the “demonstrable success” of initial efforts, and invites “comments regarding the range of suitable alternatives, applicable impact topics, and potential impacts and benefits.”

The experimental removal of beachgrass dates back to 2001, when seashore biologists began small-scale efforts around Abbotts Lagoon, a designated wilderness area.

In 2011 a team cleared over 100 acres of the grass near the lagoon. In 2012 more than 15,000 Tidestrom’s lupines had taken root on 16 acres, and snowy plovers had moved into the area to nest.

The management document that guided that project, known as the Abbotts Lagoon Area Dune Restoration Plan, was approved in 2009 with an estimated price of $2 million. It was a compromise between a $21 million proposal and continuing at current levels.

The original plan outlines a 160-day removal effort involving heavy machinery digging nine-foot holes in which mechanically excavated grasses would be buried under at least three feet of sand and the pits smoothed over with bulldozers. It antici

pated five years of maintenance that would include herbicide treatments.

The project area covers 300 acres of what biologists call the last remaining intact dune habitat in the seashore. In an interview in 2009, restoration biologist Ellen Hamingson described the dunes as an “intersection of rare species and invasive species.”

Ms. Hamingson said as much as 70 percent of those dunes are inhabited by beachgrass or iceplant, both of which were introduced in California in the late 19th century to help stop sand from blowing onto roads and houses. The area is considered critical habitat for four federally listed species and seven other “rare and unique” species, including the Western snowy plover, Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, beach layia and Tidestrom’s lupine.

European beachgrass is said to trap more sand with its rhizomes, or root-like tendrils, than does native beachgrass, resulting in steeper dunes that run parallel to the beach.

Without the beachgrass, dunes exhibit greater variation in height and run perpendicular to the shore. That improves habitat, increases corridors for foraging and decreases predation of native species like the snowy plover.

“We don’t have any research data on it, but evidence is out there that various predators, such as foxes, coyotes and ravens, will use the beach grass as cover to hunt,” seashore biologist Sarah Minnick said last year. “Predators of the snowy plover might hide in the tall grass, or eat the plovers’ eggs.”

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the encroachment of exotic grasses into the snowy plover’s habitat is among the primary factors in the bird’s decline.

The Abbotts Lagoon plan allows for the use of herbicides to keep grasses from returning to areas with wind speeds less than 10 mph and with buffers to wetlands, nesting areas and rare plants.

But it does not require buffers around ranches—some of which are certified organic. Though the environmental assessment called the potential effects of herbicide drift “negligible, adverse and short-term,” the ranchers call such contamination a serious concern.

They are also concerned with the seashore’s decision not to plant native grasses or plants that would help stabilize sands, but instead to let new vegetation grow in “naturally.” The already visible results—including pastures covered with sand and rendered useless for agricultural production—are unacceptable, they wrote.

Additionally they point to inconsistencies in the environmental assessment, such as contradictory statements that the plan would benefit the snowy plover by limiting human access to its nesting grounds, and that the long-term effects of the restoration might include increased numbers of visitors attracted to “a dune area where thick vegetation has previously prevented access.”

“The [park service] should be clear in its management plans for its presumed new habitat,” the association wrote, concluding that the overall plan is so flawed that it “blemishes the reputation” of the park service. “Should the [park service] wish to engage in a project that will benefit the restoration of the dunes, they would do well to consult the long-time land stewards of the historical ranches.”