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California Coastal Commission approves Point Reyes park cattle grazing, elk management with conditions

In a marathon session that lasted nearly 12 hours on Earth Day, April 22, the California Coastal Commission endorsed in a 5-4 vote a national park service plan to extend cattle ranchers’ leases at Point Reyes National Seashore with conditions that mainly address water quality issues.

The commission also requested the park service review the 20-year lease plan in five years.

More than 70 speakers — including strong rancher supporters such as U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael — gave passionate testimony on the proposal that includes limiting the population of the native Tule elk at Drakes Beach to 120. This was part of the plan for the 28,000 acre zone that Commissioner Dayna Bochco said she found “troubling” during commissioner deliberations.

“This is really one species versus another,” Bochco said, calling the elk’s treatment as “cruel.”

Another key issue in the plan was water quality, which was mentioned several times by commissioners and attendees. Critics contend that cattle fecal matter leads to pollution of the waterways. The park service stopped taking samples in 2013, a primary issue with environmentalists, backpackers, animal advocates and tribal representatives, who dominated the comments by a 3-to-1 margin. At times, the meeting got contentious.

Native American Norma Jean Wallace, who’s against the plan, took a jab at Huffman in his comment about ranching being in the park’s DNA by saying her Miwok Tribe has “the original DNA.”

But Commissioner Katie Rice noted ranching is a part of Marin County’s long history in supporting sustainable, small agricultural operations that have been “in the same hands for generations,” she reminded fellow commissioners and attendees.

“The birth of this park was developed around these ranches. They are the core of our dairy industry,” Rice said. “This is a big deal that (reflects) the core values (of) our county — the core values (of) the Coastal Act.”

Ditto, rancher Lianne Nunes noted.

“My family has a long history on this land,” she said.

The issue stems from a 2012 pledge former U.S. Interior Sec. Ken Salazar made to extend the five-year leases to 20 for ranchers — some who have used the land for almost two centuries.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Melanie Gunn, park service spokesperson, said, adding the management of the three herds of Tomales Bay-, Limantour- and Drakes Beach-area Tule elk also represents a success story. “Our job has been to balance the natural resources with the cultural resources.”

The park service came up with a comprehensive management plan for 24 ranches in 2014 and closed public comment on it in September 2019. Although federal rules supersede the state’s, the NPS works with the Coastal Commission as a regulatory partner for coastal issues and therefore seeks their blessing in a “concurrent agreement,” Gunn told the Business Journal.

Otherwise, the plan was approaching a looming legal deadline of July 14 because it expires through a settlement on a 2016 lawsuit brought by environmentalist groups, Resource Renewal Institute of Mill Valley and the Western Watersheds Project in federal district court. Without a favorable decision from the Coastal Commission, the issue would have placed the federal and state agencies at odds legally.

Either way, the decision on the polar issues was destined to bring out dissention. This proved especially prominent when it came to the spillover effect of blending grazing impacts with water runoff and wildlife populations living in harmony within the coastal zone of the 71,000-acre park founded during the Kennedy Administration.

“Water pollution doesn’t stop at the water’s edge,” National Wildlife Federation Senior Water Resources Counsel Melissa Samet said.

With a who’s who list of environmental advocacy speakers sharing their thoughts, some representatives want to see the park service phase out grazing, not expand it. Their diatribe went on for hours.

“No amount of (Best Management Practices) will get them into compliance,” said Jim Coda, who added he once worked for the park service.

As part of the conditions, the five-year review is intended to check whether the plan is working or not.

The question of trust even came up a few times.

“The park service is essentially saying ‘trust us.’ We need to hold them accountable,” resident dissenter Susan Ives said, adding: “We’re not anti-ranching.”

But Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Craig Kenkel said the plan is designed specifically to beef up more accountability measures and stringent requirements.

At one point, he cited one ranch that was denied grazing access.

But Commissioner Donne Brownsey suggested the park service return with an amendment that would address water quality issues.

“I think this (plan) is something we need to support, while balancing the metrics of water quality and sustainability. My sense is that plan is headed in that direction, but it still has some rough edges. There’s no doubt about it,” Brownsey said before the vote.

To park officials, these ranches have a role in the park.

“These 20-year leases are really important to us and the ranchers,” Kenkel said.

Some have argued the cattle have a place in wildland fire prevention and regenerative farming in a practice called “rotational grazing.”The practice is one rancher Bob McClure is very familiar with.

“Are we perfect? No. But we’ve spent millions of dollars (on improvements),” McClure told the Business Journal during the meeting lunch break.

McClure, who runs a homestead ranch started by his great-grandfather in 1889, expressed interest in operating within legislative and environmental guidelines in respect to the 1,200 acres he leases. McClure has been forced to endure 300 demonstrators who showed up on the ranch last September to protest grazing practices.

“I had to shut the gates,” he said.

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