Seashore ranch suit, funding for ag projects discussed

08/10/2017

Seashore spokespeople shed light on how they will proceed in the wake of the recent settlement over ranching in the park during the Marin Conservation League’s Agricultural Land Use Committee’s recent quarterly meeting, where attendees remained concerned about what will guide the amendment to the seashore’s general management plan.  

The July 28 meeting took a deep look into the general state of ranching in the county, including an update on recent ranch conservation projects and an overview of funding prospects for carbon farming. 

The Point Reyes National Seashore’s acting superintendent, Steve Mietz, who will be replaced by another acting superintendent in September, addressed the ranchers, committee members and many others who packed the Marin County Farm Bureau’s board room.

Mr. Mietz said the park plans to publish a notice of intent in the federal register this fall, detailing the timeline for the public planning process associated with the general management plan amendment and environmental assessment, which the park service is mandated to prepare under a recent settlement with three national environmental groups. 

As determined by the National Environmental Policy Act, the first step in the public process will be preliminary scoping meetings. Held this fall, they will gather public input on which alternatives should be considered—though, per the terms of the settlement, at least a “no action” and reduced and eliminated ranching and dairying alternatives must be considered. 

Subsequently, the seashore will release a draft environmental impact statement with all the alternatives it will consider; that draft will also be open for public comment. Finally, the seashore will release a final E.I.S. 

“The settlement says we must be done in four years, which is a pretty aggressive timeline, though a lot of the work has been done. We’ve already collected a lot of the data,” Mr. Mietz said, referring to the comprehensive ranch management plan that the park was in the process of preparing before the suit was filed last February. 

The park is also drafting language for the five-year permits for ranchers allowed under the settlement, Mr. Mietz said. “The day we got the settlement agreement was a big day, as we get to move forward on all these paths,” he said.

Mr. Mietz is leaving in September and another acting superintendent will take his place, as Cecily Muldoon will not be back from her temporary post as acting superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area until that position is permanently filled.

Multiple stakeholders at the meeting were concerned that there would be adequate opportunity for discussion in the public process.

“During the last ranch plan process, we had our scoping meetings, but then we also had over 100 meetings with individual ranch families, the [Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association], and other stakeholders,” park wildlife ecologist Dave Press said in response to the concern. “There will still be opportunities to schedule meetings with park staff to discuss particular issues, and one-on-one discussions will be part of the next four years.”

Yet those in the room remained skeptical that local voices would be heard. 

Sally Gale, co-chair of the conservation league’s Agricultural Land Use Committee, commented she was troubled by the way these planning processes unfolded. 

As part of the environmental assessment process, the park will recommend a preferred alternative. Ms. Gale asked whether the park had any internal value system that would guide its recommendation. 

“In your scoping process, you get opinions from everyone in the U.S., which means that people weigh in who are very uninformed, or who have been persuaded by large organizations to believe one thing or another. Whereas there are local people who are well informed and who have deep roots in the community and more at stake. How do you distinguish between these different stakeholders?” she said.

Mr. Mietz responded that it is the “nature of democracy that some people are more informed than others,” and that what mattered was the environmental impacts of the alternatives under consideration. “The key is understanding the impacts of the alternatives that will be analyzed through the NEPA process, including the economic, conservation, cultural, and ecological impacts,” he said. 

Mr. Press said that comments will be divided into different “buckets,” and whether one bucket has 10 similarly minded comments or 100, it’s still just one bucket. “It’s not a popularity contest,” he said. 

Third-generation beef rancher Kevin Lunny asked whether the public would have input on who the park selects to write the amendment and E.I.S., as that contractor’s particular orientation could bring a bias. Mr. Mietz replied that the decision was not a public process. 

Collaboration on ranchland

In wake of a lawsuit that cast doubt about the impacts of ranching on federal lands, it was notable that other presentations at the meeting touched on collaborative conservation efforts undertaken by the park and ranchers.

Dylan Voeller, the seashore’s range ecologist, gave a detailed report on conservation projects facilitated by the park in recent years. On over 28,000 acres of working beef cattle and dairy ranches in the seashore, over $1.5 million has been invested since 1998, he said. 

Projects have included instream erosion control and restoration, fencing, the construction of controlled cattle crossings, road rehabilitation and decommissioning, water development (such as wildlife-friendly troughs) and water quality monitoring.

Gordon Bennett, founder of a group called Save Our Seashore, asked how much progress has been made in these restoration efforts so far: “What percentage of the way done are we?” he asked, referring to how much more work the park could potentially undertake, funds permitting. 

“I’ll answer that,” jumped in rancher Ernie Spalletta. “It’s a like a boat that you have. It’s a nice boat, but it will never be finished.”

Nancy Scolari, executive director of the Marin Resource Conservation District, followed with a presentation on recent stewardship projects outside of the seashore. 

She highlighted the group’s Conserving Our Watersheds, or COW, program that collaborates with local ranchers and other natural resource management agencies to implement watershed projects to improve water quality in the Tomales Bay and Novato and San Antonio Creek watersheds and on lands protected by agricultural easements. 

These have included a $100,000 project funded by the Environmental Protection Agency for riparian fencing and planting around the Nicasio Reservoir and a $15,000 project to address erosion along Lagunitas Creek.

But federal funding for these types of projects may be in jeopardy. 

A representative from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S.D.A., jumped in to describe the state of federal funding. Alarmingly, he said that not only do agencies remain deadlocked by a hiring freeze, they have seen a 20 percent to 25 percent reduction in staff members since the Trump administration took over. Still, they are continuing with business as usual, even as many agencies remain in the dark about what funding the next fiscal year will bring.  

With another gloomy report on funding, Jeffery Creque from the Carbon Cycle Institute, which aims to tackle climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon, gave a comprehensive update on the state of funding for a variety of carbon farming initiatives. 

Carbon sequestration has been outlined by some local ranchers as a larger benefit their practices can offer nationwide. The Carbon Cycle Institute and its partners are working to pave the way for the broad adoption of carbon farming practices. In Marin County, the institute is collaborating with the Marin Resource Conservation District to implement carbon farm plans on 20 farms and ranches by the end of this year.

Statewide there are many other exciting initiatives getting underway. The California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program, for instance, is providing financial incentives for farmers and ranchers to adopt soil and agricultural practices that sequester carbon and improve soil health. And the C.D.F.A.’s Alternative Manure Management Program supports “non-digester practices,” which reduce methane emissions from dairy and livestock operations by disposing of manure in ways that reduce its water content.  

Yet as President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, rolled back environmental protection and climate legislation and proposed steep budget cuts to science and environmental agencies, Mr. Creque’s overall message was that there’s much more potential for carbon farming initiatives nationwide than is currently, or likely to be, funded.  

For perspetive, Mr. Creque attempted to estimate how much funding it would take to adequately implement carbon farming practices in the U.S. and in Marin. Mr. Creque referred to a paper published last year by the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation that suggested that an investment of $3 billion to $5 billion would enable the U.S. to halt the annual increase in carbon emissions in the atmosphere over the next couple of decades. The $3 billion to $5 billion number refers to a French initiative known as “four per 1,000,” which sets a goal of increasing the amount of carbon in the soil by 0.4 percent each year to eventually halt emissions. 

“I think it is a low-ball figure, but it is a place to start,” Mr. Creque said. 

As far as how much funding it would take to halt emissions in Marin alone, he said: “I really don’t have any numbers, but when I look at what appears to be likely implementation costs on the farms we’ve developed plans for to date, I’d estimate an overall average of something like $500,000 to $1 million per farm....but that really is a guess!”