The United States House of Representatives on Tuesday night passed by a voice vote H.R. 6687, the bill introduced this month by Representative Jared Huffman and co-sponsored by Utah Republican Robert Bishop, which directs the Interior Department to continue to authorize ranching in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The vote followed unanimous approval by the House Committee on Natural Resources on Sept. 5.
“Today, Congress is reaffirming longstanding policy and decades of diligent efforts by the park service,” Rep. Huffman said on the floor on Tuesday. “[The bill] honors repeated federal promises that ranches and dairies of the Point Reyes National Seashore would be offered long-term permits so they can have the certainty and clarity they need to obtain financing and to make family succession plans and other decisions necessary to continue operations.”
The bill, which now goes to the Senate, amends the seashore’s enabling act and subsequent legislation. In addition to spelling out the need for longer lease agreements, it directs the secretary to separate tule elk from working dairies and ranches to minimize conflicts. It authorizes the secretary to consider partnering with Indian tribes to manage the herds, including relocating elk to tribal lands and hunting the animals on a subsistence or ceremonial basis.
On Tuesday, Rep. Huffman cautioned, “It’s important to remember that less than one-third of the seashore is in ag use today. Nearly twice that amount is designated wilderness. Nothing in this bill expands agriculture. It is limited to the areas where there is currently ranching or dairying operations.”
Hedging other misconceptions, he said the bill was not a directive to eliminate elk and that “there is no reason elk and ranching cannot coexist in the seashore if there is effective management and separation in areas of conflict.”
The bill does not reopen the Interior Department’s 2012 decision not to renew permits for Drakes Bay Oyster Company, he said. Rather, the bill honors the commitment to ranching in particular that then-Secretary Ken Salazar made in that decision. “He specifically directed the park service to proceed with extending 20-year permits consistent with applicable laws and planning processes.”
The bill has received a warm response from Point Reyes ranchers and many environmental groups, but ire from the three groups that sued the National Park Service over ranching in 2016. Per the settlement from that suit, the park has until 2021 to complete an amendment to its general management plan that will decide the future of the ranches and tule elk. Some argue that the legislation preempts that public process.
“Unfortunately, the introduction of H.R. 6687, in the middle of the [general management plan amendment] public planning process, undermines the [National Environmental Policy Act] and discourages public comments on the outcomes and environmental alternatives concerning management of the tule elk and the issuance of long-term dairy and ranching leases,” a press release sent by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin this month states.
Yet the bill has specific language that supports the completion of the general management plan process, instructing the Interior Secretary to complete it “without delay.”
Others have shown wholehearted support for the bill, including the county Board of Supervisors, the Marin Conservation League, the Marin County Farm Bureau and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.
In a recent letter to Rep. Huffman, MALT pointed to the fact that the ranches within the boundaries of the parks represent nearly one-fifth of Marin’s agricultural production.
“If these agricultural operations disappear, we face losing the critical mass necessary to sustain suppliers, processors and other services crucial to the future of agriculture countywide,” executive director Jamison Watts and board chair Ralph Grossi wrote. “These ranches also represent a significant portion of the county’s managed coastal grasslands, which through cattle grazing, provide habitat for endangered species, sequester carbon, store water, support pollinators, reduce wildfire danger, and control invasive plants.”
District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni also weighed in, emphasizing that the bill aligns with the county’s goals.
“The bill recognizes what we all appreciate about agriculture in Marin, the historical, cultural, and scenic values,” he wrote to the Light. “Sustainable ranching with longer leases will be possible with this legislation and the updated general management plan.”