While environmentalists who oppose ranching in the Point Reyes National Seashore are up in arms over the longer leases and elk strategies outlined in the park’s amended management plan, ranchers are concerned about their own viability.
Many of the new rules released last month in the seashore’s record of decision on the amendment will bring major challenges for agriculturalists. Ranchers are eager to diversify their operations, yet the new rules added hurdles that may prove prohibitive. A new ban on growing silage threatens their ability to meet organic certification requirements, and ranchers must adapt to the growing presence of elk on pastures, further challenging their operations.
Kevin Lunny, who grew up on the ranch that he now leases from the park, said the changes will affect ranchers’ bottom lines. The modifications reflected pressure from anti-ranching activists that came after the amendment’s environmental impact statement was finalized last year, he said, when most of the public assumed the comment period was over.
“The supporters of ranch people stayed quiet because they didn’t believe that public comment could affect an outcome at that point,” Mr. Lunny said. “Yet it did, and all the changes made were to the detriment of ranchers.”
In one of the most significant changes, the park scaled back opportunities for ranchers to diversify. The preferred alternative outlined in the park’s environmental impact statement would have allowed each ranch up to 2.5 acres of row crops within the ranch core subzone and up to 500 chickens, without additional environmental review. The allowance included restrictions on tilling, and irrigation was prohibited in most cases, but the opportunity to diversify without additional review was a welcome one.
Diversification is appealing to Point Reyes ranchers, who have relatively small herds and thin profit margins, because it expands their income opportunities and allows them to connect directly with customers. Agricultural advocates say that organic produce and value-added products, such as cheese and butter, are essential for business because they help ranchers capture a premium.
“Their economies of scale are challenged,” David Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension Marin, said of the ranchers. “What they can do is diversify with value-added products, maybe direct sale of their products to customers. That’s why diversification has been appealing. It’s a way to be viable and sustainable.”
Yet in last month’s record of decision, the park placed new limits on diversification, finding that doing so would reduce soil and water impacts. Now, row crops and commercial chickens will require individual site-specific review and compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act. That means ranchers will have to submit detailed proposals and work with the park to outline alternatives, identify environmental impacts and solicit public comment on any proposed project.
Ranchers point out that vegetable crops were a part of the landscape for decades. Point Reyes was home to a robust artichoke farming industry from the 1920s to the 1960s, led by Italian tenant farmers who relied on the fog to water the vegetables.
“People were saying these are new impacts,” Mr. Lunny said. “Well, Point Reyes was full of row crops at one time. It was the artichoke capital of California.”
Until now, Mr. Lunny has been permitted to grow six acres of row crops, including artichokes, on the G Ranch, which once grew 500 acres of barley, oats, vetch and beans. But the park put his crop operation on hold two years ago as it updated its policies.
“Diversification is historically appropriate, and it would be ecologically appropriate,” Mr. Lunny said. “They had a whole set of guidelines for how to do it properly.” Now, he said, the cost and red tape involved in a case-by-case environmental review puts diversifying out of reach for most ranchers.
Another new restriction could have a major impact on operations at the G Ranch. The amended management plan prohibits forage production on beef ranches, meaning 280 acres of ranchland used for silage and hay growing must be converted to permanent pasture, which the park found would reduce impacts on soils, water and wildlife.
Mr. Lunny described on-ranch forage production as sustainable because it creates a closed system and takes trucks off the road. It reduces the costs involved in buying and transporting feed grown elsewhere, and it doubles as invasive plant control, he said. G Ranch employees mow invasive velvet grass, which cows won’t eat while it’s in the ground, bale it and feed it to cows. “We leave a clean field, and now we see the native grasses popping through,” he said.
Mr. Lunny is hoping the park will allow him to continue growing silage to comply with his mandate to manage the spread of invasive plants.
Another set of changes concerns the free-ranging tule elk. The park’s elk management plan was last updated in 1998, when officials decided to establish the seashore’s first free-ranging herd at Limantour Estero. Animals from the herd branched off to form the Drakes Beach herd, which has posed grazing conflicts with cattle, particularly on the C and D Ranches, for the past two decades.
Ranches in the park that are certified organic must meet the United States Department of Agriculture requirement to graze cattle on pastures at least 120 days a year.
During the public comment period on the amendment’s environmental impact statement, ranchers called for a new elk fence that would separate the Phillip Burton Wilderness from ranchlands. Instead, the park’s preferred alternative allowed for the lethal removal of elk if the Drakes Beach herd reaches a population threshold of 120 animals; the record of decision increased that threshold to 140.
Ranchers in areas with elk must now modify their feeding strategies to reduce potential conflict with the animals. Individual ranch operating agreements will outline how.
The amended management plan also ended grazing at the D Ranch, turning it into a scenic landscape zone where tule elk will be able to graze without the presence of cattle. The move expands the territory of the Drakes Beach herd, potentially increasing the herd’s pressure on the ranching families like the Spalettas and Mendozas, who say elk frequently eat the hay they provide for cows.
“There’s going to be challenges around competition for forage in the pastures,” said Albert Straus, the C.E.O. of Straus Family Creamery, which buys milk from two Point Reyes dairies. “Pastures are the least expensive feed for dairies, so it’s not only organic certification, it’s economic viability for some of these farmers.”
On organic beef ranches, every bit of pasture counts, Mr. Lunny said. “If you have wildlife that are eating the pastures, so you can’t meet the organic pasture rule, you can’t fix it by buying hay. It can only be fixed by reducing your cattle numbers, or reducing the impact of the wildlife.”
Although the new restrictions do pose challenges for ranchers, the plan still provides a formal path for the families to continue operating for years to come. Mr. Lewis called it an “incredible commitment to a cultural resource.”
“Now, there’s a 20-year horizon for these operations,” he said. “None of that existed before.”
The Marin Resource Conservation District, which has a contract with the seashore to provide technical guidance to ranches, will be able to provide more resources for carbon farming and other sustainability projects now that ranch leases are extended. Some carbon farming practices, such as composting, are restricted to certain areas of ranches, but the R.C.D. will work with operators to determine what’s possible.
“We haven’t, in the past, been able to help those ranches because they had such short-term leases,” said Nancy Scolari, the conservation district’s executive director. “Much of the funding for these practices requires something more than a 5- or 10-year lease agreement.”
Craig Kenkel, the seashore’s superintendent, said he hoped the ranch families choose to continue operating. “But we know other factors such as the drought and organic dairy market affect their decision,” he told the Light.
Marin’s exceptional drought has forced ranchers to draw emergency water from reservoirs, pay high costs for supplemental feed and downsize their herds. Point Reyes rancher Bob McClure shut down his dairy operation at I Ranch altogether, citing drought as the main reason. But ranchers are also facing another outside pressure: opposition from environmental activists.
The environmental groups whose lawsuit spurred the park to update its general management plan five years ago have indicated they are preparing to sue again. After the record of decision was issued on Sep. 13, the park declined to meet with representatives from the Resource Renewal Institute, one of the groups involved in the suit, because of the potential for more litigation, the group said.
“We can’t even confirm whether or not the development and administration of ranch operating agreements will be public or have any input from environmental stakeholders or partner agencies,” said Chance Cutrano, the nonprofit’s director of programs. “The lack of transparency and accountability only compounds the mistrust environmental and social justice groups already hold regarding mismanagement at Point Reyes.”
The 2016 lawsuit alleged that the park could not work on a then-proposed ranch management plan without updating its 1980 general management plan. The parties reached a settlement the following year in which the park agreed to amend its general plan within four years.
The associated environmental impact statement outlined several alternatives. The preferred option, Alternative B, extended potential ranching lease agreements from five and 10 years to 20 years, allowed for some expansion of agricultural activities and established a plan to lethally remove some of the Drakes Beach elk. The plan went through three public comment periods, during which most comments, some of which were coordinated by anti-ranching groups, opposed the longer leases. Many comments called for the outright removal of agriculture from the seashore.
Though the park closed public comment on the environmental impact statement in 2019, ranching opponents continued their efforts up until the record of decision was issued last month. The park responded to the continued public comment in its final decision, though the changes it made were within the scope of the alternatives outlined in the E.I.S.
The final modifications “further respond to public concerns raised during the planning process,” Mr. Kenkel said. “The effects of these changes were analyzed and included in the final E.I.S. and do not require additional public comment.”
Mr. Lunny said that unlike the record of decision, the park’s preferred alternative struck a skillful compromise. “There were definitely things that we were unhappy with, but guess what? The anti-ranch people felt the same way,” he said. “We figured, if everyone leaves this negotiation unhappy, it’s probably fair.”