The Point Reyes and Olema Valley Historic Ranch Districts, located within Point Reyes National Seashore, are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet today the future of these ranches is threatened by an uncertain future and a growing herd of free-ranging tule elk. To ensure the long-term survival of the ranches, those submitting scoping comments on the national seashore’s Ranch Management Plan and Environmental Assessment, due June 2, could urge the National Park Service to nominate these historic districts for World Heritage Site status.
The ranches in the seashore became an important food source for San Francisco after the Gold Rush, and they continue to supply quality dairy products to the Bay Area. More recently, they have provided a significant percentage of Marin’s agricultural production capacity and played a key part in what has become an international farm-to-table movement.
The UNESCO Convention on World Heritage Sites defines a Cultural Landscape as “a diversity of manifestations of the interaction between humankind and its natural environment.” The Olema Valley and Point Reyes ranches fall into the “continuing landscape” category, defined as “…one which retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress. At the same time it exhibits significant material evidence of its evolution over time.”
Ranches at Point Reyes are among the few dairies left in California’s historic coastal dairying region, extending from Humboldt south through the Central Coast. Typically, the most successful dairies have often been located within five to ten miles of the shoreline, where frequent fog produces the best grass and the grazing season is long.
Olema and Point Reyes ranches are the only cluster of coastal California ranches on federal land. Tule elk ranging freely in the national seashore’s pastoral zone now pose an imminent threat to the viability of the dairy ranches the pastoral zone was created to protect. Ironically, the formerly threatened elk are now found on 22 sites throughout the state, with a combined population of over 4,000.
UNESCO’s guiding principles for managing World Heritage cultural landscapes include recognizing that “[p]eople associated with the cultural landscape are the primary stakeholders for stewardship”; that “[s]uccessful management… is shaped through dialogue and agreement among key stakeholders”; and that the focus of managing cultural landscapes should be “based on the interaction between people and their environment.”
Today’s seashore ranchers are the third, fourth and fifth generations on these lands. They not only have the history of the land in their blood, they are also actively engaged in developing environmentally sound agricultural practices and products to enable the ranches to be economically viable into the future. The histories of some of these founding families were described in a series of local articles from the 1990s, republished in Dave Mitchell’s recent “The Light on the Coast: 65 Years of News Big and Small as Reported in the Point Reyes Light.”
World Heritage Site status would better ensure continued ranching and farming on historically agricultural areas that have evolved over the last 150 years. It could both extend existing leases, and include re-leasing ranches that have recently gone out of production, such as D Ranch on Point Reyes and the Jewell and Wilkins Ranches in the Olema Valley.
New long-term leasing regulations could be modeled on the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Countryside Initiative. Lessees would be supported in the continued adoption of farming practices considered to be ecologically sustainable, including organic and carbon-beneficial practices. In order to encourage a sustainable combination of agricultural land uses, a diversity of food and fiber crops would be allowed.
With Cuyahoga as precedent, the park service could lease the land directly to ranchers and enter into an agreement for day-to-day management by a nonprofit partner whose board could include farm advisors and other Marin ranchers. In the case of Cuyahoga, the nonprofit partner “provides technical information and guidance on sustainable agriculture, helps prioritize rehabilitation of farm properties, recruits and evaluates prospective farm lessees, and will evaluate and monitor each farm’s annual operation plan.”
To ensure the ecological integrity of the cultural landscape, invasive exotic species removal and native plant community enhancement efforts could also be expanded. Marine research facilities could be created in cooperation with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to better understand the ecological role of historic aquaculture activities in Drakes Estero and protect the ocean surrounding the park in the face of rising sea levels and acidification. In addition, rangeland management plans could be co-developed between the lessees, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and park staff in an adaptive management approach to link agriculture and pastoralism to ecological stewardship, restoration and climate change resilience and mitigation.
Whether or not the Olema Valley and Point Reyes Historic Ranch Districts are ultimately designated World Heritage Cultural Landscapes, the park service should be urged to develop a ranch management plan consistent with principles guiding management of World Heritage Sites. This would enable the seashore to integrate the management of its ranchlands with the region’s natural resources and ecosystem processes, the county’s agriculture, the goals of Historic District preservation and the park service’s vision of cooperative community engagement.
Jeff Creque has worked in West Marin agriculture for over 35 years. He is currently the rangeland and agricultural ecosystem management director of the Carbon Cycle Institute (www.carboncycle.org).