Recent requests to ranch in park: A brief history

11/22/2017

With the public comment period on the Point Reyes National Seashore’s proposed general management plan amendment alternatives closing today, the Light looked back at recent requests made by former ranchers who were denied either renewals or new leases in the last 20 years.

During a public scoping period in 2014 when the park was developing the now defunct ranch comprehensive management plan, two people who had been evicted from their land asked to return and another rancher asked to revive a vacant ranch to help him through the drought. None of these requests came to fruition.

Per the recent settlement agreement with three national environmental nonprofits, the park has ceased work on the ranch management plan. Park officials have stated that information gathered during the process of creating that plan may be integrated into the amendment to its general management plan and the associated environmental impact statement to address the future of ranching in the park.

“I couldn’t imagine why the park wanted the ranch,” said Mary Tiscornia, who lived for decades at Rancho Baulines near the Bolinas Lagoon. Ms. Tiscornia, now a Larkspur resident, boarded horses and grazed cattle at the ranch from late ’60s until 1998. She was known for keeping the buildings and lands in pristine condition and welcomed its use for local events. The park said the federal land needed to serve a wider public function, however, and chose not to renew her lease.

Laura Watt, author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” said Ms. Tiscornia had been given an agricultural lease with an option to renew for an additional five years, an agreement that was designed to provide security.

Though the park had plans for an education center on the land, it never built, and the historic farmhouse is now occupied by park service employees.

Ms. Tiscornia submitted a request to return cattle to the land during the scoping period for the ranch management plan in 2014, but never received a response. Though she’s since given up the idea of helping to manage the land, she hopes the park addresses “management” issues there.

“The fuel load that is developing out there is shocking to see,” she said. “It used to be a grassland with fields of poppies and lupines, but now all you have is weeds and junk. Why not keep the place cleaned up, put some public trails in?”

There are other problems, too, such as an earthen dam created by an old fence that is causing a blockage in the nearby creek and affecting the passage of salmon, she said.

“Partnerships between public and private entities are very beneficial, because otherwise funding is a huge issue,” she said. “The land is always better managed by individuals who know the land; to have a bureaucracy manage it doesn’t work.”

Another rancher, Todd Horick, whose family was evicted from D Ranch after his mother, Vivian, died in a car crash in 1998, said he will closely follow the upcoming public process. Mr. Horick, who now runs a beef ranch in Chileno Valley, was not on the ranch’s special use permit at the time of his mother’s death, after which the park decided to cancel the family’s lease.

Mr. Horick’s grandparents converted the ranch from butter to milk production and Vivian ran it until her death. Mr. Horick, one of three siblings, hoped to take the reins at that time. “We were supposed to continue managing the land,” he said. “The park told us we could stay. They told us to clean it up and that we could have 300 head of beef, but then we cleaned it up and they said, ‘Get out.’”

During the public scoping period in 2014, Mr. Horick submitted an application to reinstate his lease for the 1,200-acre ranch. He “never heard a word” from the park, he said.

His beef operation, which includes cattle that trace back to his mother’s dairy cows, which he crossbred to beef, is just a tenth of what his family had at D Ranch. He had hoped to operate both ranches simultaneously.

Dr. Watt said it was uncommon at the time to list heirs on special use permits, one of the types of agreements the park has signed with ranchers, along with agricultural permits and life estates. About the Horicks, she said: “It was described to me that there had been squabbling over who would get the ranch, and that’s why the park canceled the lease. But when I went into the archives, I found a different story.”

According to her research, the Horick family’s lawyers had requested the park appraise the ranch so that the three siblings could determine how to divide their other family assets among themselves equally, since Mr. Horick was going to take over ranch operations.

But the family was “basically getting strung along,” Dr. Watt said. “It really was this very unclear process, and though it’s still unclear exactly what happened, it does appear that the park was not providing the family with the information they needed to pass the ranch along.”

Third-generation beef rancher, Kevin Lunny, who serves as president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, said the Horicks’ experience made an impact on the ranching community, which believed the park had cancelled the lease because the childrens’ names had been absent. Subsequently, Mr. Lunny said his own parents added his name and that of his two brothers to their lease agreement. 

Currently, two parcels of D Ranch are leased by two families who lease neighboring lands for dairying and ranching. Another parcel on the ranch is now home to a herd of tule elk, referred to as the Drakes Beach herd. 

It’s that herd specifically, Mr. Lunny said, that has been problematic for the ranchers. Unlike the herds at Tomales Point and in the Limantour wilderness area, the Drakes Beach herd is in the pastoral zone, posing threats to cattle forage, fences and water sources.

Park ecologist Dave Press said the park had begun filling ponds for elk on the area taken out of grazing in 1998. Additionally, the park grazed it with goats in an attempt to control weeds, “with mixed results.”

“There was a short-term gain in weed control where the goats grazed, but since that time, the areas have become re-invaded,” Mr. Press wrote to the Light. “We hope to continue with weed management efforts in the future using more cost-effective and sustainable methods.”

Mr. Lunny said that during the ranch plan’s public scoping meetings, the ranchers expressed interest in returning grazing to that portion of D Ranch.

“The park was able to change the use for this land—what sort of environmental compliance or public process was needed to do this?” Mr. Lunny asked. “Of course, that sort of unilateral action, which both removed a rancher as well as livestock ranching, makes us nervous… It is worth noting that the park service was able to do that and could, theoretically, do that again.”

The park declined to comment on his concerns.

In 2014, Ted McIsaac, who grazes the McIsaac Ranch in Tocaloma, sought a new lease to operate the neighboring Jewell Ranch, a 537-acre ranch that has not been grazed for two decades. But the park’s formal process was so lengthy that he gave up it, he said.

After the park service purchased the property in 1974, grazing continued for another 23 years, until 1997. According to a 2008 email from Don Neubacher, former superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore, quoted in a white paper on ranching in the seashore by Ellie Rilla, now an adviser emeritus of the University of California Cooperative Extension Marin, the seashore suspended grazing at Jewell Ranch “in an effort to reduce significant threats to coho salmon.” Ms. Rilla argued in her paper that it was unnecessary to end the entire operation for that purpose.

During the most recent drought that curbed the amount of available forage for his cows, Mr. McIsaac asked the park if he could graze the land. But, he said, the park replied that it would need to conduct an environmental review before bringing the lands back into agricultural use.

“We have watched the brush beginning to encroach and dry fire fuel increasing year by year,” he wrote in his public comment on the ranch plan in 2014. “It is our opinion that the Jewell Ranch is in desperate need of management to reduce the fire danger and to save the historic open grassland that has existed in the Olema Valley for centuries.”

Mr. McIsaac said cattle would manage invasives on the land, while the extra acreage would increase the likelihood that the sixth generation of his family would stay on the ranch.

But the park said the environmental review process would take two to four years, and Mr. McIsaac decided at the time that it wasn’t worth it. “It happens pretty fast: now, it’s so inundated with weeds that I’d have to fence it, clear it, re-seed the ground—it wouldn’t be worth the investment,” he said. “It’s not common knowledge how land can degrade and go downhill so quickly if you aren’t grazing it.”