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California Cheese Trail

 

Ranching in Point Reyes National Seashore

Updated August 2016

In the face of a February 2016 lawsuit aimed at removing ranching from Point Reyes National Seashore, MALT unequivocally supports the continuation of sustainable agriculture in both the Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Agriculture has been part of the Seashore for more than 150 years, and the family farms and ranches there are an essential part of the region's extraordinary cultural, economic and historical heritage. Far from being a detriment to the Seashore’s ecology, sustainable ranching practices there can and do support the environmental health of this unique and diverse place.

Economic Benefit

Together, farm and ranch operations in the Seashore and GGNRA represent nearly a fifth of Marin County’s agricultural land base as well as production. If these ranches disappear, we face losing the critical mass necessary to sustain suppliers, processors and other services crucial to the future of agriculture countywide.

With the Seashore's ranches would go much of our local organic milk, grass-fed beef and artisan cheeses. The broader threat of lost agricultural services throughout the county would further threaten the availability of locally produced food for consumers.

Environmental Benefit

In addition to their economic importance, Seashore ranches represent a significant portion of the county's managed coastal grasslands, which provide vital environmental benefits for the region.

In particular, historic grazing in Point Reyes National Seashore and elsewhere—first by native grazers and more recently by livestock—has been shown to help maintain grassland habitat and conserve native plant and animal species.

Other examples of environmental benefits of sustainable ranching include:

  • Reduced wildfire threat from rangeland fires
  • Soil carbon sequestration
  • Increased soil water retention
  • Maintenance and provision of habitat for endangered species

For more information about the ecological benefits of grazing, visit the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition; University of California Cooperative Extension, Marin County; and California Country magazine.

The continuation of sustainable agriculture on Point Reyes National Seashore and GGNRA lands directly affects MALT’s mission and vision. MALT is partnering and collaborating with other conservation and agricultural organizations to effectively and publicly support continued ranching in the Seashore and GGNRA.

FAQs

What is the lawsuit about?
How were the ranches originally incorporated into the park when Point Reyes National Seashore was created?
What is the Ranch Management Plan?
Does Marin County support ranching in the Seashore?
How can I support the ranchers?

What is the lawsuit about?

In February 2016 the Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watershed Project filed suit against the National Park Service and Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon over the Seashore’s preparation of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan/Environmental Assessment (Ranch CMP) and the alleged absence of environmental review of one-year leases or “letters of authorization.”

The suit argues that National Park Service policies call for phasing out all commercial grazing, only allowing it in specific situations that do not cause “unacceptable impacts.” The groups maintain that the ranch planning process currently underway has unjustifiably taken precedence over an update to the 35-year-old General Management Plan for the Seashore, and are attempting to block the Park Service from renewing long-term leases with the ranchers now working the land.

Since the lawsuit was originally filed, Marin County as well as the ranchers in the Seashore have successfully intervened on the side of Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and the National Park Service. Separately, the judge in the case denied the Park Service’s request to dismiss the suit. Most recently, the plaintiffs asked the court to prevent the Park Service from working on the Ranch Management Plan process and issuing long-term leases to the ranches. 

Today, 18 of the 24 ranching families in the park do not have current leases but instead operate under one-year letters of authorization, which the Seashore has previously stated it will issue until the ranch plan is finished. If a court accepts the request, the delay of the ranch planning process would put on hold the issuance of 20-year leases, in turn delaying progress on issues like diversifying agricultural operations, elk management and capital improvements to ranch infrastructure—all to the detriment of the ranchers who live and work there.

How were the ranches originally incorporated into the park when Point Reyes National Seashore was created?

If it weren’t for the ranchers there would be no Point Reyes National Seashore. Ranchers formed a strong coalition with environmental organizations to protect the land from development in order to pass the original 1962 legislation that established the park.

When the National Seashore was first established, the pastoral zone was identified as an island of privately owned ranchland, within which properties of 500 acres or more could not be condemned. Under the original legislation, this island of ranches would have remained in private ownership if owners chose to continue ranching and opted not to sell, as a majority of them did.

However, in 1970 Public Law 91-223 was enacted, increasing the Seashore’s land acquisition budget and also allowing condemnation of the privately owned pastoral zone lands. The threat of possible future condemnation led all of the remaining ranch families within the pastoral zone to sell their land to the federal government, though most of them continued ranching under 20- to 25-year government agreements.

Additional history of the Seashore is detailed in a 2009 report, “The Changing Role of Agriculture in Point Reyes National Seashore,” produced by University of California Cooperative Extension, Marin County.

What is the Ranch Management Plan?

The National Park Service is currently preparing a Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan/Environmental Assessment in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. The planning area includes approximately 28,000 acres of active beef cattle and dairy operations administered by Point Reyes National Seashore under agricultural lease/special use permits. Issues to be addressed by the ranch plan include conveyance of lease/permit to non-family members, implementation of 20-year leases, agricultural diversification and elk management.

Seashore staff has said they are aiming to release the ranch plan for public comment by the end of 2016.

Does Marin County support ranching in the Seashore?

Absolutely. Marin County was critical to saving West Marin from development in the 1960s when it adopted A60 zoning for agricultural land. The County has been a longtime partner with MALT in further protecting working farms and ranches for permanent agricultural use.

The current situation with the ranches in the Seashore is no exception. In April 2016, the Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to intervene in the suit, asking to join the National Park Service as a co-defendant. As Supervisor Steve Kinsey told the Point Reyes Light, there is “broad, diverse interest in our county to see that ranching in the park can continue for generations to come, and that the requirements to be able to do so are fair and economically viable for the ranching families whose livelihood depends upon that.”

How can I support the ranchers?

Buy local, for starters. Organic milk and grass-fed beef are the primary products of Seashore ranches, but buying local food is good for farmers and ranchers throughout Marin County. In fact, many Seashore ranching families also work on private land, some protected by MALT and some not. Talk to the producers at local farmers markets and voice your support.

Beyond that, keep an eye on the Ranch Management Plan. Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon has indicated that the plan may be ready for public comment by the end of 2016.

For those interested in learning more, Marin Conservation League is hosting a free workshop series this fall about management of the natural and cultural resources on agricultural lands in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Topics will include formation of the Seashore, operational challenges, resource protection on ranchlands, and planning for the future.

For more information about how you can support the ranchers in the Seashore, contact the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association.