Settlement reached in ranching suit


Under a settlement agreement filed in federal court on Wednesday, the Point Reyes National Seashore will update its general management plan and prepare an associated environmental impact statement that evaluates alternatives that include eliminating historic ranching and dairying operations. 

The agreement is largely a victory for the three environmental nonprofits—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watershed Project—that sued the National Park Service and Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon last February, though ranchers expressed confidence in another of the settlement’s terms: the park may issue five-year leases to agricultural operations while it updates the general management plan. 

“Issuing five-year leases, while still too short-term to truly secure the viability of small-scale ranching, is a step in the right direction towards long-term security for the families who, for generations, have made their livelihood growing food for our community and maintaining habitat for wild species here in the Seashore,” David Evans, C.E.O. of Marin Sun Farms, wrote in a press release issued by the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, which was an intervener in the lawsuit. “We look forward to the support of the general public through the review period of the planning process, and to securing at least twenty-year leases after this planning phase, thereby confirming the critical role that ranching plays in maintaining our thriving and beautiful working landscape.” 

Ranching was sharply criticized in the lawsuit over its impacts to water quality and public access. The groups also critiqued the park’s management of tule elk and questioned its decision to undertake a ranch management plan. That plan, which was suspended after the lawsuit was filed, sought to establish standards for ranching leases and practices as well as rules around the elk, which some ranchers say threaten their viability.

In fact, the Interior Department had mandated this effort back in 2012 in support of continued ranching, and the park argued that it was postponing an update to its general plan in order to prioritize the ranch plan. 

But the plaintiffs characterized this as “unlawfully prioritizing ranching above other uses of the national seashore,” saying there was no environmental review of ranch authorizations.  

The groups said the park’s 35-year-old general plan was “badly outdated,” particularly given changes such as the onset of global warming, expired reservations of use and occupancy for the ranches, endangered species listings and evolving visitor uses. (National Park Service policies say general plans should be updated every 10 to 15 years.)

The settlement agreement states that the general management plan amendment and environmental impact statement will “include both programmatic and detailed components addressing alternative strategies for future management of the lands that are currently leased.” It must evaluate a no-action alternative, a no-ranching alternative, a reduced-action alternative and a no-dairy ranching alternative. 

The park is required to complete the update and issue a “record of decision” for the environmental impact statement within four years of the court order. The update and impact statement process will include opportunities for public comment.