For years, both advocates and opponents of the historic ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern district of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have battered the National Park Service for not updating its vision for those lands and instead relying on a 1980 general management plan.
Yet as early as 2010, the park service completed a draft of a new general management plan—a broad document that sets the long-term goals based on a foundation statement—and an associated environmental impact statement, though the agency never shared that joint document with the public.
This newspaper recently obtained the 600-plus page document, which put forth four possibilities for managing the land’s cultural and natural resources, including maintaining the same acreage for ranching operations, halving them to make way for enhanced conservation measures and expanding ranching and keeping the now-shuttered Drakes Bay Oyster Company in operation for another 10 years.
The reason the park failed to publish the draft plan largely remains a mystery, with critics from both sides skeptical of the park’s explanation that staffing and other resources simply were not available.
The implications for the bureaucratic failure are many, including that the park has lacked guidance for issues kicked up since the ’80s, such as the expansion of tule elk and their increasing conflicts with ranching, the allowance of new farming practices, climate change impacts and mitigation, increased visitation and more.
In the draft general management plan from 2010, all four alternatives enhanced actions to steward the natural resources while continuing to preserve and protect archaeological sites, historic structures and cultural landscapes—but they varied on how much land would be kept in ranching.
The document evaluated both the environmental impacts of grazing and taking out grazing—including on vegetation, soils, water quality, air quality, wildlife, species of concern, natural soundscapes, and what it refers to as “prime and unique agricultural lands”—in the different scenarios.
The park’s preferred alternative was called “balancing cultural and natural resources.” Also identified as the “environmentally preferred” alternative, that option described keeping the 33 permitted ranch operations but taking out about 450 dispersed acres of ranchland for conservation purposes, including for habitat restoration in creeks and wetlands and the removal of invasive plants.
The document did not get into the specifics of ranch lease lengths, a topic of debate in recent years. Each of the alternatives included that, “As leases and permits expire for ranching operations, they would be reviewed and could be modified if necessary to protect sensitive natural and cultural resources.”
Diversification was also a common denominator across all scenarios. The park’s preferred alternative stated that diversification of agricultural production would be considered on a case-by-case basis and that the park would work with ranchers “to identify and implement ecologically sound beef and dairy farming practices.” Fencing and other small-scale mitigation measures would be applied as needed to protect sensitive resources.
As far as elk, the only mention in the preferred alternative was a feasibility study that would establish a wildlife corridor to move elk from the enclosure at Tomales Point to other parklands and possibly even to areas outside the park.
In terms of climate change, all alternatives involved the reduction of the seashore’s carbon footprint through energy conservation, sustainable design and construction practices, along with carbon sequestration practices.
To address the jump in the average annual park visitation from 1.4 million visitors in 1980 to 2.3 million visitors in 2008, the park did not identify any major problems, but outlined areas for special ongoing monitoring.
The preferred alternative included the caveat that existing ranching activities “may be reconfigured or changed—such as through modifying stocking rates, land swaps and closing some grazing areas—to protect sensitive resources if and when ranching families decide to discontinue operations.”
A second alternative, called “emphasis on preservation and restoration of natural resources,” described a maximum closure scenario that would discontinue up to 14 ranch permits and grazing on up to 12,000 acres. Areas identified for closure were near the most sensitive habitats, including in the immediate vicinity of Bull Point, Drakes Head, the Point Reyes Headlands, Drakes Estero, and two areas on the Inverness Ridge.
The document did not specify a timeline for phasing out ranch operations, however. “When current ranching families choose to retire or move on, ranches in these areas with sensitive natural resources are likely to be prime candidates for closure and restoration,” it stated.
In this alternative, the elk corridor would be put in place without the need for a feasibility study first. Other wide-ranging species, such as black bears, might also be introduced.
A third alternative, dubbed “emphasis on preserving cultural landscapes,” included adding grazing lands in the southern Olema Valley, generally on land that was at that time burned or mowed. This scenario added 413 acres and approximately 40 additional livestock or animal units in that part of the park.
Shellfish farming, production and sales on Drakes Estero would not be removed until 2022. In all other alternatives, the park would not offer a lease to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company beyond the expiration of the original reservation of use and occupancy in 2012.
In this third alternative, non-historic structures at ranches where original ranch families no longer wanted to continue ranching would not be targeted for removal. Instead, the park would consider using them for visitor activities or rancher use.
“Although each of the action alternatives would work to protect the integrity of cultural landscapes in the park’s ranching districts, special emphasis would be placed on preserving working ranching landscapes,” the document states about this management scheme.
The GMP today
Because the 2010 document was never published, the park has relied on a 55-page document from 1980. That fact was listed by three environmental groups that sued the park service in 2016 over its failure to update the general management plan, taking advantage of the loophole to advocate for their own vision of management.
The environmental groups initially sought a complete update of the general management plan for the seashore. Instead, they agreed to a settlement with the park that required an amendment to the 1980 plan be completed by 2021. According to the agreement, the amendment must consider, at minimum, three predetermined scenarios that would completely eliminate or else reduce ranching and dairying. That document, already underway, applies only to the 28,000 acres currently leased for agriculture in the seashore and the northern reaches of G.G.N.R.A.
The 2016 suit had primarily argued that the park service’s attempts to codify its management of the ranchlands—at the time, it was midway through a more tailored plan, called the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan—was biased toward continued ranching and had not considered a “full range of alternatives” as mandated by the National Environmental Quality Act.
Why did the park abandon the 2010 document, which had included a range of alternatives?
Advocates of historic agriculture in Point Reyes have suspected the agency has a bias against them, while environmental groups have their own theories about the park’s collusion with agriculture. Meanwhile, park spokespeople have little to offer in the way of explanation.
When asked about the unpublished 2010 document, park spokeswoman Melanie Gunn wrote in an email that the park “focused its planning efforts on the environmental impact statement for Drakes Estero starting in 2010 and did not have the capacity to complete two large planning processes at the same time.”
Yet Laura Watt, a Sonoma State University professor and the author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” was skeptical of that answer.
“It doesn’t make sense to me why starting to work on one document would preclude the park from finishing another—federal agencies like the park service do that all the time,” she said.
The general management plan update had already taken much longer than is typical, Dr. Watt said, since the notice of intent to write it was filed in 1997. Dr. Watt said the following decade saw a string of public scoping meetings, newsletters and a range of timelines for completion.
Rather than a result of inadequate staff time and resources, Dr. Watt speculated that the document conflicted with the new one underway on the oyster farm.
In the 2010 draft general management plan, three of the four alternatives include removing the oyster farm, but one allowed for a 10-year lease renewal. In the 2012 final environmental impact statement conducted to determine the fate of the oyster farm, four proposed a continued lease and one the extermination of the farm. Ultimately, the latter, which the park service identified as the environmentally preferred alternative, prevailed.
Though the lost general management plan does not include a fighting argument for the oyster farm, Kevin Lunny, the third-generation beef rancher who owned Drakes Bay Oyster Company with his family, said the fact that the document was never published was a loss for the agricultural community.
“Right there, all along, we had a document with a full range of alternatives. But since the park did not follow through, it became vulnerable to a lawsuit, which is exactly what happened,” he said.
Ranchers have long argued that time is of the essence, given the impacts from elk on their grazing lands and infrastructure and the difficulty of operating on short-term leases. Between 2014 and 2016, while the park worked on the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan, the agency did not renew expired ranch leases, but rather issued one-year permits.
“How are our kids supposed to know if this is a viable occupation for them?” Mr. Lunny implored.
Along with other Point Reyes ranchers, Mr. Lunny was an intervener in the 2016 lawsuit. The never-published document was first released by the park service as part of the administrative record provided to the court, but Mr. Lunny said it only came to his attention in recent months through his own research.
The Light acquired the document thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by conservationist Phyllis Faber and West Marin residents who banded together as the Resilient Agriculture Group. In January, that group requested documents from the park service with the stated goal of informing the public to better participate in the current drafting of the general management plan amendment.
The 6,000-plus-pages of documents the group received last month—which was only an interim response to their request—turned out to largely be those included in the administrative record for the 2016 lawsuit.
“That’s a short-cut on the part of the park service, but it makes sense because they already have those documents compiled,” said Chris Carr, an attorney for the Resilient Agriculture Group. And, he said, “my request had explicitly stated that we did not want documents that were already public, as those in the administrative record are.”
The park service said in February that officials were compiling an additional 520 documents.
Mr. Carr successfully litigated the park service in recent years over another planning document involving a failed dog management plan in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which the agency completely abandoned after the plaintiffs uncovered the use of private email between park employees in regard to the plan.
Ms. Faber said her group hired Mr. Carr to help them find out more about the park’s internal planning process, including its relationship with the environmental groups that sued. She characterized the park’s drawn-out planning process as corrupt and gobbling up taxpayer dollars.
“We need the park to produce an honest and timely document,” she said. “There has been a historic display of incompetence and corruption in the park service that we will not stand for. We want the public to be as informed as possible.”
Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that filed the 2016 suit, took serious offence at the idea that the groups might be in cahoots with the park service. In fact, he suspected bias from the other direction as far as it related to the abandoned general management plan.
“Why did they abandon it?” he asked. “I guarantee it was because of political pressure from the ag industry. The idea that we have been colluding with the park service this whole time really is fake news. The park service has historically bent over backwards for the ranchers.”
Mr. Miller believes the park does not enforce lease compliance, allowing overstocking, chronic fence disrepair, cattle straying, illegal subletting and ranchers chasing elk off their properties with A.T.V.s and dogs.
In fact, Mr. Miller said the park’s release of the 2010 general management plan had been a “slam dunk” in the lawsuit. “There was no way the park could say that they did not have the time or resources to update their general management plan to a judge, when there was already a document right there,” he said.
The park’s perspective
In combing through the FOIA documents released to the Resilient Agriculture Group, this newspaper not only took note of the 2010 general management plan, but also of numerous emails released between park employees from 2009 until 2014 that discussed the documents.
Then-superintendent of the seashore Don Neubacher, who became superintendent of Yosemite National Park, exchanged numerous emails with his staff in 2009 discussing the draft environmental impact statement. In January of that year, he sent an email to an employee at the regional office, Martha Crucius, that said, “We are almost finished. It will be off next week to the contractor for final editing.”
But by July, responding to Ms. Crucius’s question of whether they would print the document within the fiscal year or should allocate funds elsewhere, Mr. Neubacher wrote, “Unlikely, we will print.”
When Cicely Muldoon, the seashore’s current superintendent, arrived in April 2010, she received an email from Ms. Crucius concerning the document. The subject line was “Congratulations, and I’ll soon be bugging you!”
In July 2010, Ms. Muldoon wrote to park hydrologist Brannon Ketcham, asking that he read through the draft environmental impact statement before it was sent for print. “I sense some [Point Reyes] issues — e.g. read on page xxiii speaks to oyster farm removal resulting in improved water quality. Can we say that definitively? If not it will distract from the conversation…” she wrote.
The page she refers to states that taking out the oyster company “could have short-term minor adverse effects by increasing sedimentation, but would result in minor to major, more regional long-term benefits to water resources, including natural hydrologic structure and function, streambank stability and water quality.”
As determined from other emails, Mr. Ketcham subsequently made revisions, helping to create another draft. Over the next several years, the group of emails reveals that Ms. Crucius continued to bother Ms. Muldoon and her staff about the document, but there is no explicit mention as to why they ultimately nixed the process altogether.
Ms. Gunn, in response to the Light’s inquiries, pointed to a public declaration from Ms. Muldoon during the lawsuit filed in 2016 in which she refers to another internal draft. “The alternatives included in the 2010 Internal Draft GMP were substantially modified in the 2011 Internal Draft GMP, and we also stripped out the environmental consequences chapters because we realized they needed to be rewritten,” she wrote.
The Light has not uncovered any published or unpublished revisions. Instead, the next public action the park service took was to file a notice of intent in October of 2010 to complete an environmental impact statement for the oyster farm to determine whether to grant a special use permit to the oyster farm, whose reservation of occupancy and use agreement was set to expire in 2012.
The environmentally preferred alternative in the oyster farm’s statement largely echoed the 2010 document’s argument that the long-term benefits of taking it out outweighed the short-term adverse effects, though it did include a new acknowledgement of the “potential beneficial impacts [Drakes Bay Oyster Company] activities have by filtering water.”
In 2012, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar settled the chaos over the oyster farm and directed the park to return once again to the issue of ranching.
In a memorandum that explained his reasoning for shuttering the oyster farm, he attributed his decision less to evidence produced in the park’s E.I.S. for the farm, which he said still reflected “scientific uncertainty,” than to the seashore’s enabling legislation and subsequent amendments.
He wrote that legislation from 1972 “does authorize the Secretary of the Interior to lease agricultural ranch and dairy lands within Point Reyes’ pastoral zone in keeping with the historic use of that land. The enabling legislation does not authorize mariculture.”
He also pointed to the establishment of the 25,370 acres of the Phillip Burton Wilderness in 1976, at which time Congress also identified an additional 8,003 acres of land and water as “potential wilderness.” As part of his 2012 decision, 1,363 of those acres were officially changed to wilderness areas.
Mr. Salazar was clear that his decision did not apply to the ranch and dairy operations, which he told the park service to support by extending permits to 20-year terms. “In addition, the values of multi-generational ranching and farming at Point Reyes should be fully considered in future planning efforts,” he wrote.
In 2014, the park began work on the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan. At the time, the park was adopting a new policy of investing in smaller plans to address pressing management needs, which included the growing presence of elk in the pastoral zone.
“For some time, the National Park Service has grappled with the issue of effectiveness, timeliness, and costs associated with general management plans,” states a June 2012 memorandum from the Interior Department that the park service included in its administrative record. “The new planning framework introduces the concept of a park planning portfolio, which is the assemblage of the individual plans, studies and inventories needed to guide park decision-making. The portfolio can be visualized as a loose-leaf binder, in which particular planning elements can be removed and updated, and new elements added, without revising the entire body of work.”
Still, Dr. Watt, who has meticulously tracked this history, said she never understood why the park did not again take up a full general management plan update.
“Other parks still do full general management plans, and there’s a good reason—how are you going to talk about elk management when you are only looking at the pastoral zone of Point Reyes?” she implored. “There’s a value in looking at the park as a whole.”
The park service’s environmental planning and compliance branch reported this month that since 2008, there have been 29 full general management plan updates for the 400-plus park units.
Under park policy, the planning process for a general management plan begins with the development of a foundational statement, which is based on a park’s enabling legislation or presidential proclamation and which documents the park’s “purpose, significance, fundamental resources and values and primary interpretive themes.” It also includes “any relevant laws and executive orders that apply to the national park system or to the individual park unit.”
Burr Heneman, a Point Reyes Station resident who has spent much time piecing together the seashore’s enabling legislation in 1962 and subsequent amendments, said that as of now, it’s possible for people from all perspectives to pick and choose bits and pieces from the legislative history to form an argument for or against agriculture on park lands.
“Some supporters and some opponents of ranching in the seashore tend to over-interpret the language in the seashore’s enabling legislation to support their point of view,” he said. “Both find more congressional guidance than congress wrote into the original act and the subsequent amendments.”
At the core of the debate is the park’s issuance of permits and leases past the expiration of the initial reservations of use and occupancy issued soon after the formation of the seashore. Since that time, the park has issued shorter lease agreements.
Is doing so part of its mandate, or not?
In their comments submitted last fall on the park’s preliminary vision for the general management plan amendment, all three environmental groups looked to a 1976 amendment to the seashore’s enabling legislation to argue that allowing agricultural leases is against the park service’s mandate to preserve natural resources.
That amendment states that “the property acquired by the Secretary under this Act shall be administered by the Secretary, without impairment of its natural values, in a manner which provides for such recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research opportunities as are consistent with, based upon, and supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area…”
Yet Mr. Heneman, who was a member of a now-defunct citizens advisory commission for Point Reyes and G.G.N.R.A., points to the often-avoided, immediately preceding seven words: “Except as otherwise provided in this act…”
That caveat would include a 1978 amendment that includes, “Where appropriate in the discretion of the Secretary, he or she may lease federally owned land (or any interest therein) which has been acquired by the Secretary under this Act, and which was agricultural land prior to its acquisition.”
This suggests it is not only legally permissible for the federal agencies responsible for managing the seashore to lease the lands to the ranchers, but also not in conflict with their mandate to preserve natural resources.
This also aligns with Secretary Salazar’s 2012 memorandum, in which he wrote, “Long-term preservation of ranching was a central concern of local interests and members of congress as they considered legislation to establish the Point Reyes National Seashore in the late 1950s and early 1960s.” He also referred to the 1978 legislation, stating that “the use of agricultural lease-backs is encouraged to maintain this compatible activity, and the Secretary is encouraged to utilize this authority to the fullest extent possible.”
Mr. Heneman noted that the memorandum is the last direction the park service received and therefore represents its current “marching orders.” Still, he said, a general management plan, or amendment, is necessary to codify the park’s intentions.
“The seashore needs to codify some of these issues through a public planning process. That’s what the current general management plan amendment process is all about,” Mr. Heneman said.