Seashore lawsuit is a paper tiger

04/07/2016

There is considerable confusion about the lawsuit that appears to threaten ranching in the Point Reyes National Seashore. This confusion was not clarified by Laura Watt’s March 24 opinion piece. Instead of addressing that suit, Dr. Watt tried to undermine environmental organizations that support seashore ranching. She is still fighting the last war.

The op-ed omits that the Feb. 20, 2014 Sierra Club letter supported ranching outside the park, suggesting “it would be… foolish to try to preserve biodiversity within the park only to encourage suburbs to creep to the park’s border...” It also omits April 2001 and March 2007 Sierra Club letters that stated: “The Sierra Club’s focus has been to encourage PRNS to work with its ranchers...” Also omitted are a 2005 letter and testimony from the Sierra Club that then-proposed coliform targets for Tomales Bay put an unreasonable burden on ranches… which prompted the chair of the regional board to quip that it was the only time he’d seen the Sierra Club and the farm bureau agree on anything.  

Nor did Dr. Watt mention that Warren Weber’s 2002 farming expansion was contested by both the Environmental Action Committee and the Tomales Bay Association; the Sierra Club was the only organization to reach out to Mr. Weber and the club did not join the subsequent, ill-advised lawsuit. So her claim that Save Our Seashore’s position on ranching represents a change of heart from the Sierra Club’s position is not supported by the facts.   

No one has agreed on every point of every past issue. The E.A.C. and T.B.A. were on the same side in the Weber dispute, but on opposite sides of the Drakes Estero dispute. Save Our Seashore argued against E.A.C.’s hardline L.C.P. stance, noting, “We don’t want to burden our organic farmers with the cost and hassle of a permit every time they rotate from cover crops to grazing.” But the question is whether former opponents can stop bashing one another and focus on the current issue. 

Our analysis indicates that this lawsuit is a paper tiger lacking logical or legal merit—more of a publicity stunt than a lawsuit. The suit itself is contradictory, as it seeks an immediate end to the public, and legally required, ranch planning process—based on the claim that the seashore is not conducting a public, and legally required, ranch planning process.

There has been over a century of agricultural impacts on Point Reyes. The seashore and its ranchers have been addressing these impacts on a ranch-by-ranch basis, but the current ranch planning is a comprehensive and collaborative process that will result in more sustainable operations. Anti-ranch hardliners appear to want to end any collaboration, use unresolved problems to justify ending ranching and, in effect, deny the public an opportunity to find out if the collaboration can succeed. They also point to the enabling legislation, which is “supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment…” But Congress established the seashore for multiple purposes, including recreation, scientific research, education, historic preservation—and ranching. No single purpose for which the seashore was established trumps all other purposes. These differing purposes have to be balanced and reconciled. But such balance seems to be a difficult concept. 

Clearly it is not possible to have visitor centers and trails, yet still have “maximum” resource protection. No one suggests tearing down the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center, the Clem Miller Education Center or historic barns in order to plant native poppies. So it is with ranching. No one should expect ranching to be invisible; the issue is whether impacts can be mitigated to a less-than-significant level so there is no permanent “impairment.”   

Some pro-ranch hardliners deny that there are impacts and say no environmental study or planning is needed. But denying impacts only erects a target for those wanting to eliminate ranching—and makes access to funding to resolve problems more difficult. They also describe as “anti-agriculture” anyone who points out the obvious: that there are problems on ranches that need to be—and can be—resolved. As examples, every riparian corridor and spring needs to be enclosed with wildlife-friendly fencing. No manure pond should ever overflow. Water quality impacts should be a past issue, not a current one. 

The ranch plan and environmental study is the recipe for how and when these objectives can be achieved. Pro-ranch hardliners want the recipe thrown out; anti-ranch hardliners want the meal thrown out before the recipe is even read. Now, possible decisions to intervene in the lawsuit risk giving anti-ranch hardliners just what they want—more publicity—as well as the appearance of differences among ranch supporters and a legal seriousness the suit does not deserve.

We should let National Park Service lawyers put down this illogical lawsuit quietly. The public, seashore ranchers and the county will have the opportunity to review the draft plan before it is finalized; there is also the Coastal Commission’s public consistency review. If anyone has issues with the ranch plan, these are the times to make comments or take actions. The current lawsuit and intervening in it now are both wastes of time and money.

 

Gordon Bennett is the president of Save Our Seashore and the former chair of the Sierra Club Marin Group.