Groups sue over grazing on California coast
—Resident ranchers fear for the future of agriculture
Just a year after officials with California’s Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) garnered national headlines by shutting down an oyster farm within its borders, three anti-grazing groups have filed suit, contending that the ranchers who graze the property just north of San Francisco should be removed as well.
The suit however, filed against the National Park Service (NPS) earlier this month by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Western Watersheds Project (WWP), and the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI), does not call for an immediate end to grazing. Instead, it criticizes PRNS management of wildlife, including the resident elk herd, and accuses them of favoring ranching interests over environmental concerns.
The groups claim that PRNS is violating federal law by failing to conduct adequate environmental studies before renewing grazing leases, and demands that the seashore halt its lease renewal process pending the reevaluation of its 36-year-old operating plan to account for the environmental consequences of grazing.
“The Point Reyes National Seashore is a national treasure,” said Huey Johnson, RRI President, in a recent press release. “The Park Service has delayed comprehensive planning and environmental analysis for decades, depriving the public of the right to weigh in on appropriate uses and activities in the park. This lawsuit is a last resort to get the Park Service to do its job.”
While the claim follows a now familiar pattern employed by antigrazing groups to challenge grazing on public lands throughout the West, both ranchers and PRNS officials are quick to point out that the relationship between government and ranchers on the seashore differ significantly from the traditional public land scenario.
“There is a very clear history here that our opposition is failing to recognize,” says rancher Kevin Lunny. “This is a national seashore. We are a unit under the National Park Service, but we are not a park.”
Lunny points out that PRNS was originally created with the intent of preserving the livestock operations that had inhabited that portion of seashore for generations. In 1962, with rumors of a major highway and the threat of urban encroachment from nearby San Francisco looming, ranchers along the seashore struck a deal with the government in an effort to retain their livelihoods. Under the agreement, NPS would buy the ranchers property, thus preserving it as open space. They would then lease the property back to the rancher, allowing them to continue as they had, without fear of urban development.
Between 1962 and 1972, NPS spent more than $20 million purchasing ranch land, which was then leased back to the original owner. While the lease agreements varied from one property to the next, the maximum term was 25 years or the lifespan of the original owner, whichever was longer.
While a few lifetime leases are still operational, most have lapsed over the past 50 years, to be replaced by short-term leases, renewed every 5 or 10 years. Today, PRNS encompasses roughly 90,000 acres, 28,000 of which remains grazing land for both beef and dairy cattle. A total of 24 families operate these ranches, 18 of which reside full-time on federal property.
According to PRNS Spokeswoman Melanie Gunn, under the law that led to the creation of PRNS, the short-term leases are granted at the discretion of the secretary of the interior. While the litigation groups interpret this as a clear sign that grazing is not a legal obligation of PRNS, ranchers contend that the intent of the law was always to preserve both the habitat and the ranchers.
“These people were ranching here before the park was here,” says Gunn. “When the park was established, a big part of the reason this region was not already developed was because the ranchers were here. That was acknowledged in our enabling legislation.”
Despite this assurance, says Lunny, events in recent years have led to suspicion among some of the producers that PRNS is not as amenable to ranching as it once was. “The relationship has been tenuous,” says Lunny. “NPS has made some steps recently that are clear threats to ranching.”
Among these, the December 2014 closure of an oyster farm was perhaps the most concerning to the ranchers. The oyster farm, which was also leased by Lunny, existed on the PRNS under a similar agreement to the ranches. However, PRNS refused to renew the lease, citing environmental concerns and the desire to convert the area to a wilderness. The ensuing legal battle lasted years, and ultimately grabbed the national spotlight. It was finally ended in 2014 when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar officially denied the lease.
“The truth did not prevail, and the oyster farm had to go,” says Lunny. “[NPS] got away with reinventing history and unilaterally kicking out a historic farm use.
The ranchers began wondering if they were next. Now the dust hasn’t even settled on the oyster farm battle, and here we go on the ranching.”
In an effort to patch the relationship following the oyster farm closure, Salazar granted a request by Lunny and other ranchers to extend the lease period on the seashore to 20 years. Instead of immediately following this directive, NPS countered that making the change would require an environmental assessment under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and subsequently set about generating a new comprehensive management plant for the ranches.
According to Lunny, the ranchers questioned why this process was necessary, merely to extend the duration of already-existing leases. They never received an answer, he says, which has led to considerable concern. “We have seen that NPS will use NEPA as a weapon,” he says. “If they don’t have a good reason to implement NEPA, but they’re going to do it anyway, that’s not good news for us.”
With regard to the lawsuit, says Lunny, a major concern right now is that NPS will settle or make some other type of agreement without allowing the ranchers a voice in the decision. “We are staying engaged and we’re doing everything we can,” he says.
“This is not a fight with NPS; this is us staying involved. We don’t need another fight.”
With approximately 20 percent of Marin County’s agricultural production sourcing from within PRNS, Lunny indicated that any losses to ranching will also be felt by the surrounding community. Additionally, with many ranches entirely contained within the seashore boundary, many producers stand to lose their homes as well as their livelihoods.
“Everyone out here stands to lose everything,” he says. “It’s a scary place to be. These groups are serious about removing grazing, they’re well-funded, and nothing that we are hearing bodes well for us.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent