Less than two years after an oyster-farming operation was shut down in Point Reyes National Seashore following a dispute that was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, three environmental groups are challenging the National Park Service over the planned renewal of leases to cattle-ranching and dairy operations that have existed on the coastal California peninsula for 150 years.
However, other conservation groups, some of which approved of the decision to remove Drakes Bay Oyster Company and convert the vacated land into wilderness, support continued sustainable farming at Point Reyes. They point out that the ranching families were instrumental in the establishment of the Seashore in 1962 and that turning away from that relationship would threaten the creation of public land elsewhere.
And for Bob McClure, whose daughters are the fifth generation of his family in the dairy business at Point Reyes, nearly 130 years of history is at risk.
“We are concerned, but we have not packed our suitcases yet,” he said. “I believe the park will continue to do what it can to support agriculture in the park.”
At issue is whether the Park Service has considered the impact that these ranches have on the environment and wildlife at Point Reyes, and whether the proposal to issue new leases without an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement violates the National Environmental Policy Act.
Three groups – the Resource Renewal Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project – filed a lawsuit Feb. 10 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco seeking to require the park to update its General Management Plan and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before allowing the extension of grazing leases. They argue that the cattle and dairy operations, comprising more than 18,000 of the park’s 71,000 acres, negatively affect the environment (water quality, methane emissions, erosion, fish habitat), the infrastructure (pavement degradation from milk trucks) and recreational opportunities at Point Reyes. They say the park is relying on an outdated management plan, adopted in 1980, that fails to address current conditions, such as climate change, drought in the area and an expanding footprint of Tule elk.
“The Park Service continues to authorize commercial grazing permits at the Point Reyes National Seashore without an Environmental Impact Statement on how ranching impacts the park, which is needed to ensure protection of the park’s ecosystems,” Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity who lives in West Marin, said in a release. “We’re filing this lawsuit because we love the park and believe it’s up to everyone to make sure the National Seashore is managed sustainably so that future generations can enjoy it as we have.”
A spokesperson for the national seashore declined to comment due to the active litigation, but in 2014 the park began to prepare a new Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan, which includes an Environmental Assessment, in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. A scoping fact sheet notes that these working ranches, in an area known as the Pastoral Zone, “represent an important contribution to the superlative natural and cultural resources of these NPS lands.”
More than 3,000 public comments were submitted on the plan. As of now, release of the Environmental Assessment for public review and comment is scheduled for later in 2016, which is a year behind the original schedule. No progress has recently been made on the General Management Plan.
“We feel the current planning process allows for full public review,” said Kate Powers, president of the Marin Conservation League, which supports continued ranching at the Seashore.
Ethan Lane, currently the executive director of the Public Lands Council and of federal lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, prepared a report on ranching in the area for the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association in 2014. He said recently that the ranchers are “under imminent threat.”
The groups that filed the lawsuit “are attempting to create something there that has never been there,” Mr. Lane said. “They totally ignore the fact that that has been an agriculturally managed landscape for hundreds of years. You’ve never had a pure wilderness situation at Point Reyes.”
The lawsuit shines a light on an iconic coastline with rich natural, historical, cultural, and recreational value. Balancing those interests and understanding the intent of different legislation has led to decades of disagreements over priorities, purpose and protection at Point Reyes.
A Complex Land-Use History
Ranchers began grazing the area in the 1800s and were pioneers of California’s dairy industry, modernizing production equipment and methods. The lush grasses, fortified by a cool climate and moisture from rain and fog, make ideal conditions for grazing cattle. The Pastoral Zone is bordered to the east by Tomales Bay, to the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the south by Drakes Bay, with Drakes Estero jutting inland to create four finger-shaped bays. The cattle dot windswept grasslands, with an occasional grouping of houses, barns and sheds that form the ranch complexes historically known by an alphabetical designation (A to Z). Some hug rugged headlands overlooking the ocean, and others gently slope to sandy beaches.
That landscape, just a 40-mile drive north of San Francisco, was an obvious draw for developers and conservationists, which pushed property prices higher. As pressure increased in the 1950s and ’60s, Point Reyes ranchers joined with the Sierra Club to preserve their way of life. They offered to voluntarily sell their land to the Park Service at a reduced price in exchange for the opportunity to continue operating on the peninsula. Legislation to create Point Reyes National Seashore was signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The original allocation of $14 million from Congress was not enough to buy all the land, and it wasn’t until 1970 that an additional $43.5 million was secured to complete the purchases.
At the time of the authorization, there were about 27 working ranches at Point Reyes, according to Ranching on the Point Reyes Peninsula, a history of dairy and beef ranches released in 1993 by park historian D.S. (Dewey) Livingston. The ranchers signed 25- to 30-year reservations of use and occupancy leases as well as special use permits for cattle grazing. Since then, leases have been renewed on short-term arrangements, generally maxing out at five years, as the family operations have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, 13 ranching families remain in the Pastoral Zone.
Now that most of the original reservations of use have expired, the lawsuit says the Park Service is under no obligation to renew the leases and permits. It cites the agency’s 2006 Management Policies, which states the Park Service should “phase out the commercial grazing of livestock whenever possible.” Ranching, under the decades-old park management plan, violates the Seashore’s mandate for “maximum protection” of wildlife and natural resources, the lawsuit says.
Gordon Bennett, the president of local conservation group Save Our Seashore and a supporter of continued ranching in the park, said the lawsuit definition is “not supportable.”
“If NPS held to the lawsuit’s strict interpretation of ‘maximum protection,’ then there would be no trails, no roads to Seashore beaches and no visitor centers,” Mr. Bennett said.
Point Reyes isn’t alone in having cattle graze within its boundaries, as Capitol Reef National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, both in Utah, are among other sites administered by the National Park Service that allow it.
But area scientist Corey Goodman says ranchers are being squeezed out of national parks. He has written about similarities between the agreements at Point Reyes and at Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park, where a family sold its land to the Park Service under an agreement that allowed them to continue ranching for up to 25 years. The family, pressured by environmentalists and tighter regulations, vacated its farming operation before obligated when a lawsuit claiming the ranch violated environmental restrictions was settled.
Mr. Lane, of the Public Lands Council, said ranchers at Point Reyes “are some of the most environmentally sensitive stewards of resources that I’ve ever come across. For them to become a target of this is doubly frustrating.”
Not The First Debate
Grazing cattle on public lands has made national headlines in the past few years, highlighted by the recent arrests of more than a dozen protesters, most prominently members of the Bundy family, for actions in Oregon and Utah. But at Point Reyes, a different type of farming set off a debate that helped lead to last month’s lawsuit.
When Drakes Bay Oyster Company took control of an oyster farm at Drakes Estero in 2005, owner Kevin Lunny was optimistic he could obtain a new lease. However, Ken Salazar, the Interior Secretary at the time, declined to renew the lease when it expired in 2012, saying the estero was marked for protection by the 1976 Point Reyes National Seashore Wilderness Act. The commercial operation was seen as being incompatible with such a designation. After Secretary Salazar’s decision, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis designated Drakes Estero as part of the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area. The oyster company sued, and the case was appealed for two years all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case. Drakes Bay Oyster Company closed at the end of 2014, which ended a decades-long history of commercial shellfishing at the Seashore.
That dispute prompted Secretary Salazar to direct the Park Service to work on extending leases “from 10 to 20 years to provide greater certainty and clarity for the ranches operating within the national park’s Pastoral Zone and to support the continued presence of sustainable ranching and dairy operations,” according to a release from 2012. Then, in a memo dated Jan. 31, 2013, Director Jarvis delegated authority to issue leases and permits of up to 20 years, saying the directive is “supportive of multi-generational ranching and dairying within the Pastoral Zone and is consistent with the … provisions of the park’s enabling legislation.”
Neal Desai, director of Pacific Region Field Operations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said both ranching in the park and the RCMP process should continue.
“National Parks Conservation Association supports Secretary Salazar’s multi-part decision at Point Reyes National Seashore that protected Drakes Estero marine wilderness and directed the Park Service to pursue 20-year lease terms for Seashore ranchers,” Mr. Desai said. “We believe that the development of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan is an appropriate approach to ensure improved protections for all Seashore values, including recreation, public access, natural resources and wildlife. The plan will help ensure that ranching operations standardize best management practices in support of the Seashore’s diverse values.”
That opinion is shared by local conservations groups.
“The public and NPS made the deal to create the Seashore out of private ranch lands, and that deal has to be kept, just as the wilderness deal had to be kept,” Mr. Bennett said.
Tule Elk Highlight Tensions
Although some environmental groups have spoken up in support of ranching and dairying, both sides have concerns.
Conservationists say cattle grazing can degrade grassland and meadow habitats and contribute to degraded water quality through manure and waste runoff. Public comments noted unpleasant odors and sights associated with cattle waste.
“The Sierra Club does not oppose the extension of the ranch leases but does oppose any ranching practices that adversely affect the natural resources of the park,” said Alan Carlton, chair of the Federal Parks Committee of the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added that the group does not have a position on the lawsuit.
Ranchers say best management practices, existing leases and assurances to Seashore ranchers, and the original intent of Congress have been ignored in the face of outside political pressure. Short-term lease renewals hinder their ability to qualify for loans and matching grants, and decrease incentive to invest in improvements.
“This is a kind of Frankenstein of the Park Service’s own creation,” Mr. Lane said, “and I don’t think they know where to go from here.”
But probably the biggest point of contention is Tule elk, which were reestablished at the Seashore beginning in 1978. Just as environmentalists argue that the impacts of the cattle and dairy operations hasn’t been studied, ranchers say elk have been allowed to roam freely in the Pastoral Zone, which was not intended, and little has been done to remove them. The elk destroy fencing, can spread disease, interfere with operations and graze on grasslands leased to ranchers.
“Point Reyes is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been, and it’s not just from a natural perspective,” Mr. Lane said. “It is that balance, that totally unique environment and snapshot of history. It’s a healthy ecosystem. To arbitrarily release a new element into that is irresponsible.”
Once abundant in California, Tule elk populations dwindled in the 1800s, primarily due to overhunting and displacement by cattle. Thought to be extinct, around 30 animals were discovered in 1874, and efforts were made to save the species. State and federal legislation led to 10 animals being reintroduced at a 2,600-acre fenced enclosure on Tomales Point in 1978 in an attempt to restore natural systems historically found at Point Reyes. The fence was introduced to keep the elk separate from the cattle. After a period of slow growth, the population exploded to more than 500 in the 1990s, and ranchers pointed to studies that that number far exceeded optimal carrying capacity.
The park explored options for controlling the elk population. In 1998, 28 animals taken from Tomales Point were released in the wilderness area south of Limantour Beach, across Drakes Estero from the Pastoral Zone.
But starting in 2000, some of the elk were spotted at Drakes Beach in the Pastoral Zone. These free-roaming elk were not covered under the 1998 Elk Management Plan, and ranchers say the Park Service chose not to deal with the incursion. In population numbers for 2014, an RCMP update noted 92 Tule elk at “D Ranch.” Last year, the park moved three elk from D Ranch to Limantour, and two returned to D Ranch within 11 days.
Between 2012 and 2014, more than 250 Tule elk living in the fenced preserve on Tomales Point died, which the park attributed to drought conditions in California. Last month, five free-roaming tule elk at the Seashore tested positive for Johne’s disease, which can lead to rapid weight loss and diarrhea. The elk were part of the Drake’s Bay herd, which shares pasture with cattle. The disease occurs most frequently in domestic livestock herds.
“Although present park management inherited the problem, it is a huge problem and it has no easy solution,” said Mr. McClure, whose land at the northern end of the peninsula has not yet been impacted by the elk, though he expects it will without management. “In my opinion, it is the biggest problem of the ranches in the park today.”
Opportunities For Improvement
Mr. McClure, whose McClure Dairy milks about 500 cows on 1,200 acres, said the 20-year leases would give ranches security and incentive to invest back into the property. He noted the Seashore was helpful when he wanted to build new barns that solved his ranch’s impacts from runoff on water quality in Abbotts Lagoon.
This cooperation among ranchers, the Park Service, and environmental groups has “opened my eyes on how to lessen some impacts that agriculture can have on our natural resources and come up with best management practices to continue ranching on the Point.”
The rancher said the relationship has worked well for 45 years, and the in-progress Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan will bring an improved ecosystem.
“Lawsuits should be a last resort,” he said. “We should be able to cooperatively work together to solve issues without involving the courts.”
The lawsuit takes issue with the park moving forward with the RCMP, which primarily focuses on the long-term needs of ranchers, and not a General Management Plan for all public uses at the Seashore.
“The Park Service needs to take a step back and look at the impacts of commercial ranching on the park overall,” Huey D. Johnson, president of Resource Renewal Institute and former California Secretary of Resources, said in a release announcing the lawsuit.
Although Mr. Bennett, of Save Our Seashore, supports granting the ranchers new leases, he sees multiple items – wildlife-friendly fencing, sizing and maintaining of manure ponds, overgrazing – to be addressed by the RCMP. These issues and more, such as recreational opportunities, habitat enhancement and historic structures, are being considered as part of the process.
“There can and should be a renaissance of sustainable agriculture in Point Reyes that can be a model nationwide,” he said.
Traveler footnote: To read a column that argues for removal of cattle ranches at Point Reyes, click here.