When the Point Reyes National Seashore was established in the 1960s, ranchers in the park’s pastoral zone were offered leases or lifetime estates to continue their operations. Allowing the continuation of ranching had lasting value for not only Marin, but the nation, the conservation movement and dairy and beef ranching: It established a template for cooperation between the ranching establishment and the budding environmental movement. It also laid the groundwork for preserving agriculture in Marin, where planners, developers and not a few ranchers were pronouncing the demise of the dairy business. 

The park served as the catalyst for rethinking the future of West Marin and scrapping a development plan that would have turned the area into a heavily populated one, with Tomales Bay a playground of yacht harbors and bayside bungalows. Now the conversation could turn from development to the preservation of ranching, not only in the park, but as a key part of the economic future of West Marin. 

This conversation planted in peoples’ minds, perhaps for the first time, the idea that the highest and best use of land could be what they wanted it to be and not what the market dictated. At the time, it was a matter of faith among the majority that the chief determinant of land use was the price it would bring on the market; thinking otherwise was economic heresy. Planners could begin to place a value on agricultural lands, and to identify and overcome the hurdles. 

The first such move was A-60 zoning in rural West Marin, making it harder to slice and dice the land into lots for houses. Cooperation between ranchers and environmentalists was now at least possible, if not cozy: They were both for protecting the land from development. It was bespoken. 

The threat of development was still present, however, with the proximity of San Francisco, a new national seashore and soaring land values. Two women, Ellen Straus, a dairy rancher, and Phyllis Faber, a biologist, came up with the idea of an independent agricultural land trust to purchase development rights on ranches. Such a move would compensate owners for the difference between the value of their land for development and its value as ranch land. This step was critical, for ranching was endangered by both inheritance taxes and the need to compensate heirs who wanted out.

The idea gave birth to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, one of the first such trusts in the nation and the model for many more. The first president of the MALT board, Ralph Grossi, went on to become the longstanding president of the national American Farmland Trust.

The newfound cooperation between ranchers and environmentalists that emerged unevenly all over the country faced many challenges. One unlikely place for it to bear fruit was in the borderlands of Southeast Arizona, where a group of cattle ranchers dubbed the Malpai Borderlands Group got together and, with the help of poet-cowboy Drum Hadley, Quaker rancher-philosopher Jim Corbett, the Nature Conservancy and state and federal agencies, put together a plan that incorporated conservation mandates, the range management desires of ranchers and the lease requirements of governments. 

In his book “Working Wilderness,” Nathan Sayre, a Malpai board member and chair of the geography department at the University of California, Berkeley, chronicled this remarkable journey. He quotes cattle rancher Bill McDonald, who was later given the McArthur Fellowship for his work with the Malpai group: “In a political climate where the traditional position on this issue of land use is usually to be at one end of the spectrum or the other, we find ourselves at the ‘radical center.’”

In considering how to proceed with the new management plan in the seashore, the stakeholders, including environmentalists, the press and the public, need to seek the radical center. The extremes are no longer workable: they lead only to the dysfunction and gridlock that has occurred at all levels of our government. The park, since it cannot silence the loudest and most strident voices, can choose to ignore those voices in favor of the voices desiring solutions that can be brought about by compromise. 

McDonald, at one time a strong opponent of government, had this advice after working closely with state and federal agencies in the Malpai group: “We’ve found that the agencies have a lot more latitude than they let on, if you can get them in a comfort zone where they feel you’ve got common goals… You begin to have less interest in labels and more interest in individuals.”

The peaceful coexistence model embodied in the seashore took its first major hit after the park moved elk from their enclosure on Pierce Point to the Muddy Hollow area, apparently without any plans for containment there. Soon those elk multiplied and found their way to ranches, where life was better for them. This led to conflicts between ranchers and their park, and raised the question of whose park should it be, the elks’ or the cows’. That’s an either-or question that proper planning and consultation between the parties might have forestalled.

The next, more serious problem arose—this one gaining national attention—when the park opted not to renew Drake’s Bay Oyster Company’s lease and to designate Drakes Estero as a wilderness area, a decision contemplated by the park’s founders. The situation exploded into a free-for-all, and accusation and distrust ran rampant. Everyone waded in, mindless of what was at stake: the already-frayed model of coexistence, and the working relationship between rangers and ranchers. 

In an attempt to salvage the park’s history and mission and restore trust in the government’s word, President Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, promised the ranchers 20-year leases. In so doing, he assured them of the government’s support of agriculture, a promise that has remarkably survived three administrations, both Democratic and Republican. 

Salazar’s promise only energized the environmentalists in their crusade to turn the park over to the elk. The park service has updated its management plan as demanded by environmentalists, who should now accept it, though the outcome is not what they wanted. A lawsuit will only continue hostilities, disrupt park operations, leave ranchers in limbo and diminish the visitor experience. 

The park and its backer, the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, the environmentalists, and the ranchers and their supporters should seek to revive the spirit of cooperation that once existed. The ranchers need to understand and embrace the park’s mission to preserve endangered species and protect natural resources, to maintain a place for elk, and to provide recreational opportunities for the public—not an easy task. 

Ranchers could showcase their animals and installations, and, on occasion, allow the public to visit their facilities. The park, for its part, should be mindful that its policy changes and management strategies affect ranch operations. It should inform and consult ranchers as a matter of respect before moves are implemented and not as a fait accompli. A liaison ranger with knowledge of ranch management should meet regularly with a representative of the ranching group to discuss problems and the concerns of either party. The meetings should be routine and cordial. 

If the park service continues to permit ranching and the ranchers want to continue to operate in the park, theirs needs to be a partnership in every sense of the word, not a troubled relationship with unresolved issues, and their mutual support of each other should be communicated to visitors. This can only be achieved by coming together in the radical center. 

We have seen what extremes have done for all aspects of our society. Ranching in the park may go beyond cattle versus elk; it could provide a wider lesson in what cooperation in our land use policies can accomplish.

Michael Whitt was a general practitioner in Point Reyes Station for over 45 years. He has long had an interest in conservation and agriculture, and was a cofounder of MALT’s “Ranches and Rolling Hills” art show.