Seashore releases visions for ranchlands

10/19/2017

Six alternative strategies that could guide the Point Reyes National Seashore’s management of lands currently leased for ranching and dairying were released on Monday, marking the first step toward amending the seashore’s General Management Plan. The announcement launched a 30-day public comment period that will end on Nov. 15.

Two public meetings have been scheduled to share information and gather input on the alternatives, including one alternative that has been chosen as the seashore’s “initial proposal.” The meetings will take place next Wednesday, Oct. 25 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the West Marin School gym and the next evening at the Bay Model Visitor Center in Sausalito during the same hours.

The National Park Service is offering a chance for the public to weigh in on the proposed alternatives before it prepares an environmental impact statement. “In the past, the park service has started both the planning and the [National Environmental Policy Act] process at the same time,” seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said. “But we wanted to start the planning process earlier to give people an additional opportunity to weigh in and to help us gather more information.”

The feedback will be used to identify potential issues and to “refine the conceptual range of alternatives and initial proposal,” according to a newsletter released by the park on Monday. The park service will then publish a notice of intent and prepare an environmental impact statement; both steps will include comment periods.

 

The initial proposal

Following a year-long lawsuit, the settlement agreement reached in July between the park service and three national nonprofits mandated that the seashore amend its General Management Plan, which had not been updated since 1980. 

Under the agreement, the amendment must evaluate a no-action alternative, a no-ranching alternative, a reduced-action alternative and a no-dairy ranching alternative for 28,000 acres within the Point Reyes National Seashore and the seashore-managed lands of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

In addition to these four alternatives, the park included two options that allow existing agricultural leases to be extended to 20-year terms. 

The six alternatives are paired with different tule elk management strategies ranging from elimination to active management to the expansion of the free-ranging herds. Each of the action alternatives also addresses the statutorily required elements for G.M.P.s, including measures to preserve park resources, guidance regarding the types and levels of public use and the development and discussion of visitor carrying capacities.

The alternative earmarked as the park service’s “initial proposal,” described as “continued ranching and management of the Drakes Beach Tule Elk Herd,” would authorize existing ranch families to continue beef and dairy ranching operations with 20-year leases. These leases would allow for “operational flexibility and diversification” and would “establish programmatic approaches for streamlined implementation of best management practices.”

The tule elk population at Drakes Beach—a free-ranging herd that has proven most problematic for ranches—would be “managed at a level compatible with authorized ranching operations,” the newsletter states. New minimum and maximum population thresholds for that herd would be established.

For the free-ranging herd near Limantour and Estero Road, which also encroaches on ranchlands, the park “could implement” management actions. (The fenced herd at Tomales Point is not within the planning area.)

In addition, around 1,200 acres of the 28,000-acre planning area would be turned into buffers to protect sensitive resources. Ms. Gunn said some of the acreage currently leased for ranching is already being used as resource-protection buffers, but that under the alternative, each ranch would be newly considered for sensitive areas. Streams, cliff edges and archeological sites are some of areas that could be fenced off, she said.

Lastly, the park would identify opportunities to improve visitor experience in the 28,000-acre area, including enhanced trail connections, improved signage and new interpretive waysides. It would also outline broad management strategies to preserve park resources and develop indicators and standards to guide visitor carrying capacities.

 

The five other alternatives

The second alternative that includes 20-year leases differs from the first only in that the Drakes Beach herd would be removed, using “methods established through this planning process,” the newsletter states. Just as in the other alternative, the park would be allowed to manage the Limantour-Estero Road herd.

Perhaps the most drastically different option is the no-ranching alternative, in which the park would phase out all ranching operations over five years. The free-ranging elk would continue to expand “with limited to no population management” and for the only two locations with life-estates, agriculture would be phased out after the death of the lease holder. 

How the land would be used once ranching was wiped out remains somewhat uncertain, the newsletter states. The park “anticipates many of the areas and their associated facilities would be converted and offered for public not-for-profit education, research, outdoor experiential activities, and other public recreation and visitor opportunities,” it states. The park could use “prescriptive grazing in high priority areas to maintain native and rare plant communities,” however.

Under the no-dairy-ranching alternative, all six active dairies would cease operations. Dairy operators would be eligible to convert operations to beef cattle grazing over a period of five years. In this scenario, beef ranchers would be issued 20-year agreements and the park would allow them the flexibility and diversification outlined in the initial proposal.

In the reduced-ranching alternative, 7,500 acres of ranching operations would be nixed, leaving approximately 20,000 acres of beef and dairy ranching (and around 750 acres of resource protection buffers). The remaining ranches would receive 20-year agreements. All other aspects of this option align with the initially proposed alternative, including the elk management strategies.

Ms. Gunn said the exact areas that would be eliminated in the reduced-ranching alternative have already been planned out. Though the park refrained from including maps in the newsletter, it will introduce the areas at the public meetings next week. “We wanted to show people with bigger maps, when we are there to explain,” she said.

According to the newsletter, most of the areas identified for closure do not have “developed complexes” or permitted residential uses. “The areas identified for closure of ranch operations would minimize the overall impact on the Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches and Olema Valley Dairy Ranches Historic Districts, both of which are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” it states.

Finally, under the no-action alternative, the park would continue to issue short-term leases of five to 10 years and, consistent with current practice, the “management of tule elk affecting Point Reyes ranch lands would be limited.” Existing park operations and the management of park resources and visitor use would generally continue at current levels and any resource protection buffers would be established on a case-by-case basis.

 

To read about and comment on the Point Reyes National Seashore’s General Management Plan amendment, visit parkplanning.nps.gov/poregmpa.