Retired Channel Islands superintendent delivers a cautionary tale

10/30/2014

Tim Setnicka, the blunt-spoken former superintendent of Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Southern California, told a crowd of over 60 people at West Marin School last Thursday that the National Park Service “has no soul.” Instead, he argued, it’s comprised of people maneuvering through a bureaucracy that has become increasingly untrustworthy.

“The culture of the National Park Service has changed, and I learned that during a very contentious planning process dealing with deer, elk and cattle grazing… and I’m here because I really despise the lack of honesty that the park service used in that process,” he said at the beginning of an almost three-hour event that candidly denounced the premature end of ranching on Santa Rosa Island, one of five islands in the national park. 

The talk was presented by the West Marin Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture in light of the Point Reyes National Seashore’s first planning process focused specifically on ranching. A draft of the plan, which is meant to provide a way for the park to offer longer leases and manage the presence of tule elk in the pastoral zone, should be finished by this spring. 

During his presentation, Mr. Setnicka framed the park service as a clandestine government agency that ignores data and is hostile to ranching, though some attendees were taken aback by a story that sometimes sounded like a conspiracy. 

Based on his experience at the islands, Mr. Setnicka said that ranches in Point Reyes are “in jeopardy. Those are strong words, and you might say, ‘Who is this guy?’ But no one knows the Santa Rosa [Island] situation more than I do. I spent over 15 years in that park,” he said. 

Mr. Setnicka was a decades-long public servant. He worked his way through Colorado State University working as a firefighter for the forest service; after graduating in 1970, he became a park ranger at Yosemite. In 1987 he landed the chief ranger position at Channel Islands, where he later became the chief of operations and finally superintendent in 1997. 

The park service—as part of the deal to purchase Santa Rosa Island from a ranching business, Vail and Vickers Company, for $28.5 million in 1986—had agreed to allow the ranch, helmed by Al Vail, to continue grazing cattle (through renewable five-year special use permits) as well as run an elk and deer hunting business for 25 years, at which point private operations would cease. 

But according to Mr. Setnicka’s telling, an influx of almost $1 million in funding for natural resource management was the ranch’s undoing. Needing to expend the money, he said, the park hired staff to inventory the ecosystem; the new employees’ resource management background led them to assess the lands as if they should be a pristine environment, and they found that the ranch curbed the growth of some flora. 

Mr. Setnicka conceded that many riparian areas were at times “hammered” by the cattle, but argued that the data didn’t show the cattle would “irreparably” harm native vegetation, as domesticated grazers had been on the islands for over 100 years. 

In response to the resource staff evaluation, the park exterminated 1,200 feral pigs (which were likely feasting on acorns and impacting oak trees) and fenced some areas to keep out cattle. At the park’s request, he said, the Regional Water Quality Control Board visited the island and then ordered the park to meet water quality standards; soon, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said the park needed to mitigate impacts on endangered or sensitive plants. 

According to Mr. Setnicka, much of the inter-agency work was more or less orchestrated to help bring about the end of ranching. (A three-part editorial he penned for the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2006 was more blunt: “National Park Service staff made contacts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to begin to set the foundation to use the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a jackhammer on the Vails,” he wrote.) 

The park was ultimately sued by both the National Parks Conservation Association, a national advocacy group, over the environmental impacts, as well as by the Vails, who said their operation couldn’t survive all the mitigation requirements. 

The Vails ultimately agreed in 1998 to remove the cattle, though the deer and elk hunting business remained until the end of the 25-year agreement. 

For Mr. Setnicka, the whole process not only fomented bitterness within the park itself, but impaired the park service’s ability to acquire new lands due to distrust it helped create; he cited local landowner opposition to the proposed Gaviota National Seashore in Southern California, a plan that was shelved in 2004.

Mr. Setnicka said he hadn’t spoken publicly about his experience at Channel Islands until Thursday. “There’s no book coming, there’s no movie, there’s no videotapes for sale…but it’s just not right,” he said. 

During the question and answer, one attendee asked him what ranch supporters should do as the seashore undertakes its planning process. “What should our strategy be?” asked Jeff Creque, a rangeland ecologist.

Mr. Setnicka said that, in his opinion, those who support ranching in the park should appeal to congressional representatives, involve the media and remain engaged with the process. Another attendee said it was hard to stay engaged after a years-long process that resulted in the now-looming closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Mr. Setnicka said supporters had no choice. “If you don’t stand up, you will be run over,” he said.

But two attendees also questioned the tone and subject matter of Mr. Setnicka’s talk. Donna Faure, a West Marin resident, said she had been under the impression that he would speak about the actual interactions between elk, deer and cattle on Santa Rosa Island, not denigrate his former employer. When she asked him to speak to the animal issue, he said they all got along and that there was no shortage of forage.

Another, Bernie Stephan, a local realtor and activist, said there needed to be a greater emphasis on how to find ways to both grow food and protect wilderness, “or wildness, or however you want to say it.” 

“I’d like to see bears in Bear Valley, but I’m a radical,” he added.

Nona Dennis, a vice president of the Marin Conservation League, wondered how the “unusual” situation at the Channel Islands could apply to West Marin. The circumstances had a number of differences; at Channel Islands, ranching was never supposed to continue in perpetuity, and the elk were not a public resource. 

Ms. Dennis also noted that the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark 1970s environmental law, is genuinely needed and used to assess potential impacts and protect the environment.

But both Ms. Dennis and Mr. Setnicka agreed on one thing: anyone with an opinion should remain involved in the planning process. 

“It’s true there’s no single soul to a federal bureaucracy,” Ms. Dennis said, “but I’ve worked with many people who have the best intentions. They come and they go, but my advice to everyone is to work with them. I don’t see that a huge amount of paranoia will help.”