Ranching in Point Reyes

THERE’S A CONFLICT brewing in Marin that could make the oyster farm controversy look trivial. This dispute involves cattle (as in beef and dairy) ranching. Before going further, let’s clarify, pardon the pun, what’s at stake.

Contrary to what you might’ve heard, this controversy does not involve all of West Marin: it’s an environmental lawsuit focusing on ranching on 18,000 acres within the federally owned Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS).

Also, this lawsuit is not aimed at stopping ranching on Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s about requiring, before ranching operations continue under 20-year leases, that the National Park Service, the organization that manages PRNS, determine what are the environmental impacts of nearly 6,000 cattle grazing on those 18,000 acres of grassland, and that it update the seashore’s 36-year-old management plan.

All told, Point Reyes National Seashore is 71,000 acres of the westernmost reaches of Marin County. To visit it, head west on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard for 30 miles; you can’t miss it. It was created in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy signed the Point Reyes Act to “save and preserve, for the purposes of public recreation, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States that remains undeveloped.”

At the time, there were 24 ranches on the land. By 1970, the owners had been paid $50 million for their properties and allowed to remain there for 25 years, or until the last living owner, or spouse, had passed away. That limitation has been passed. Now those 24 ranches are operating on informal, year-to-year agreements.

The lawsuit — filed in federal court in February by the Center for Biological Diversity, a national group based in Oakland; the Western Watersheds Project, headquartered in Idaho; and the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI), here in Mill Valley — contends this casual relationship between the National Park Service and the 24 ranches must now be publicly evaluated. The three groups have filed similar suits nationwide. Interestingly, RRI’s founder and president is Huey Johnson, a principled 84-year-old who led the charge in the 1970s to acquire a portion of PRNS as well as to save Marin Headlands from becoming Marincello, a planned community of 30,000 residents.

The plaintiffs maintain the Point Reyes Act of 1962 did not establish ranching as a purpose of the seashore, nor did it mandate that ranching be continued indefinitely. Moreover, the relationship between the park service and the ranchers has never been subject to a public review, nor has a comprehensive environmental analysis ever been conducted. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs maintain, among other charges, that the ranchers are overgrazing the land, allowing cattle to pollute nearby streams and Tomales Bay and prohibiting hikers from crossing their lands, a restriction not allowed in the Point Reyes Act of 1962.

Regardless, the park service is now considering entering into 20-year leases with the ranchers. The aforementioned environmentalist groups maintain this is wrong; hence, their lawsuit.

Surprisingly, environmental watchdogs such as the Marin Sierra Club, Save Our Seashore and the Marin Conservation League take umbrage at the lawsuit. Asked why, recently named MCL president Kate Powers says, “The currently in force Comprehensive Ranch Management Plan demonstrates that ranching on the seashore can be sustainable and complement the PRNS’s other values. It is my understanding that the environmentalists’ lawsuit would stop this process and we don’t want that to happen. Ranching is a vital part of the West Marin community.”

To date, most local media appear to side with MCL’s position that the existence of ranching in West Marin should be allowed to continue without the federal courts intervening. In an effort to avoid unneeded controversy, it is important that both sides of this issue be clarified and presented. Without clarification, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to properly assess this looming controversy. That’s my point of view. What’s yours?

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This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Ranching Review“. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Marin Magazine and its staff.