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Groups ask judge to halt Point Reyes National Seashore farm leases

Three environmental groups have asked a federal judge in Oakland for an order to halt the process of granting long-term leases to the cattle ranches operating on government-owned land at Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley, Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Idaho-based Western Watershed Project contend the National Park Service is moving to grant 20-year leases to the ranches without completing an assessment of their impact on the 71,000-acre national seashore, a popular wilderness destination visited by 2.5 million people a year.

The original lawsuit, filed in February, rattled ranchers whose families have been working on the windswept peninsula for generations.

In the request for a court order filed last week, the groups said the Park Service intends to “short circuit” the case by completing a ranch management plan and issuing the leases, thereby denying the groups “any chance at meaningful relief.”

“The Park Service cannot simply predetermine that ranching should continue long-term at the national seashore without any public input or environmental study,” Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a press release.

The park is currently operating under an “antiquated plan” prepared 36 years ago with no environmental impact statement, the release said.

The environmental groups contend that decades of cattle grazing have trampled the seashore’s landscape and polluted its waterways. Huey Johnson, a former California secretary of resources who now heads the Resource Renewal Institute, has called the Park Service’s management of the ranches a travesty.

The Park Service, ranchers and their allies contend the agriculture and wildlands can coexist side by side. When the seashore was established in 1962, preserving the peninsula from development, it specifically included the historic ranches, marked by signs along the seashore roads.

The ranchers, not named in the lawsuit, are depending on Park Service attorneys to defend their ability to continue raising beef and dairy cattle on land they share with tule elk, eagles, black-tailed deer and bobcats.

It’s a reversal from the legal battle in which the Park Service succeeded in ousting a commercial oyster farm from Drakes Estero, a move that sharply divided the West Marin community. In pushing out the oyster farm, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the Park Service to pursue granting 20-year permits to the ranches.

Park Service officials have said they cannot comment on an issue in litigation.

Jeff Chanin, a San Francisco attorney representing the environmental groups, said the court order, if granted, would put a hold on the long-term leasing process until the court case is decided. Meanwhile, he said, annual leases for the ranchers could be renewed.

The request is tentatively set for an Oct. 12 hearing before U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, who could also decide the matter based on court papers.

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

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