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The future of cattle ranching and herds of tule elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore is at stake in a policy-setting process that will culminate in four years and is already attracting thousands of public comments.

The National Park Service, which manages the sprawling seashore on the Marin County coast, has received about 2,800 comments on a list of six tentative management alternatives, including one that maintains the status quo for 24 families engaged in beef and dairy cattle ranching and three others that would eliminate or reduce ranching.

That trio of alternatives was required by a settlement agreement between the Park Service and three environmental groups that sued the agency nearly a year ago alleging decades of cattle ranching had trampled the seashore’s landscape and polluted its waterways, claims that the long-established ranchers and Park Service rejected.

Two other alternatives — including one designated the Park Service’s “initial proposal” — would continue cattle ranching under 20-year permits, replacing the annual permits currently being issued to ranching families. Under the one-year deals, the families cannot afford to pay or borrow money for maintenance, causing properties to deteriorate, ranching advocates say.

“Any investment needs to be recouped over 20 years,” said Jackie Grossi, who runs a 1,200-acre cattle ranch with her husband, Rich.

None of the alternatives is “set in stone,” and the Park Service is seeking “specific feedback” on them before moving ahead in the process of adopting a general management plan amendment, said Melanie Gunn, a park spokeswoman.

“There can be nuances (developed) or a totally different alternative,” she said. “It’s very fluid right now.”

A refined range of alternatives and a proposed action will be established in 12 to 18 months, and the Park Service has until 2021 to adopt a plan will determine the fate of the cattle and elk in the 71,000-acre seashore, a popular national parkland that includes wildlife-rich wilderness and commercial ranching that dates back to the 19th century.

The management plan will govern dairy and beef ranching on about 18,000 acres in Point Reyes and about 10,000 acres in the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Olema Valley. There are six dairy and 18 beef ranching operations in the two areas, collectively allowed about 6,000 cattle year-round.

The Park Service was in the process of issuing 20-year permits to the ranchers when the three environmental groups — the Resource Renewal Institute of Mill Valley, Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed Project — filed a legal challenge in February, 2016.

Ranchers were not named in the suit, but 35 of them were listed as intervenors siding with the Park Service.

The settlement approved in July was the basis for three management alternatives that would: phase out nearly all ranching in five years; end dairy ranching and allow beef cattle grazing to continue, with dairies allowed to convert to beef operations; end ranching on 7,500 acres and allow beef and dairy operations on about 20,000 acres.

“We would definitely want more limited ranching,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute. “It has to be severely limited to restore what the habitat and landscape should be out there.”

Moskowitz said there is a “huge distinction” between dairy and beef operations, noting that dairy cattle must be concentrated to facilitate daily milking, leading to a buildup of mud and manure.

Beef cattle graze over wide areas and ranchers contend that small, well-managed farms can improve the land.

The six alternatives do not address landscape restoration or the impacts of climate change, Moskowitz said.

“I think there are a lot of options other than what was presented,” she said.

Laura Watt, a Sonoma State University environmental history professor who has studied Point Reyes’ working landscape, said she rejects the three alternatives that curb ranching, as well as maintaining the status quo.

Watt, who believes ranching and wilderness can co-exist on the peninsula, said the Park Service should revisit its entire management plan, rather than amend it.

“They need an overarching plan for the entire area,” she said, including 20-year permits for beef and dairy ranching.

Permits also need to be renewable, Jackie Grossi said, so ranchers can pass farming on to their children and, in her case, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“You can’t plan anything on a year-to-year basis,” said Rich Grossi, the third-generation member of his family to manage their historic ranch.

Of the six proposed management alternatives, “there’s not one that’s really favorable to agriculture in general,” Jackie Grossi said.

The ranchers are all tenants of the federal government, which bought the seashore property in the 1960s and ’70s.

Watt also said she supports the ranchers’ interest in diversifying their operations, such as allowing other livestock as well as row crops. The two options that allow beef and dairy ranching on 20-year permits also permit diversification.

Some ranchers are interested in planting an acre of berries or offering farm tours but not abandoning cattle, Jackie Grossi said.

Environmental advocates are not unified on the future of ranching in the park.

The West Marin Environmental Action Committee, based in Point Reyes Station, opposes conversion of agricultural park land to uses other than cattle ranching, according to an email posted by Morgan Patton, executive director of the 1,000-member nonprofit.

The committee favors “multi-generational, environmentally sustainable ranching,” but Patton would not specifically endorse 20-year permits.

Park management should address climate change, including the prospect of rising water levels at places such as Drake’s Estero, Patton said.

“There’s a lot of missing stuff (in the alternatives),” she said.

The six alternatives include several options for the seashore’s famous tule elk herds, which include about 110 animals near Drakes Beach and about 130 in the Limantour-Estero Road area.

Options include leaving the free-range herds as they are, limiting herd size and removing the Drakes Beach herd.

Moskowitz said her organization wants no restrictions on elk, while Watt said fencing is needed to keep elk out of cattle grazing lands.

“The idea that they need to be in the same place is just crazy,” Watt said, noting that elk and cattle compete for the same grass.

The tule elk on Tomales Point, a popular visitor attraction, are not mentioned in the alternatives.

For details on the National Park Service’s cattle and tule elk management plans go to http://pd2go.net/UdFCM5.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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