Granting of Point Reyes ranch long-term leases halted in lawsuit settlement

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Granting long-term leases to the two dozen ranching families that have raised cattle for generations at Point Reyes National Seashore would be halted under a proposed court settlement announced Wednesday to resolve a lawsuit brought last year by three environmental groups.

The tentative deal, which involves the groups and the National Park Service, manager of the 71,000-acre seashore on the Marin County coast, requires park managers to study impacts on the environment from decades of ranching and opens up the possibility that grazing dairy and beef cattle could be curtailed or ended.

Both the ranchers and environmental groups claimed victory in the settlement of a closely watched case, seen as having wider implications for management of federal land.

“This is what we asked for in the lawsuit,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute, one of the environmental groups. “It’s good news.”

Dairy rancher Jarrod Mendoza said the settlement was “a temporary win” for ranchers, who would get five-year leases.

Ranchers have been operating on one-year leases and Mendoza, a fourth-generation rancher, said he was “hopeful” that 20-year terms would ultimately be allowed. Mendoza, who milks about 200 cows a day at his ranch, said he hopes to continue in agriculture for the rest of his life.

Moskowitz and Mendoza acknowledged the settlement does not address the question of whether cattle can coexist with wilderness on a scenic peninsula inhabited by tule elk, eagles, black-tailed deer and bobcats.

“I think those questions will be answered in the general management plan,” Mendoza said, referring to a park planning update required by the settlement,

Moskowitz said the plan should “first and foremost take care of the wildlife and see where ranching fits in.”

The settlement, meanwhile, gives ranchers “some assurances about being able to continue their operations,” she said.

Public comment will be part of the plan update process, Moskowitz said, noting that “everybody will have their say.”

The 43-page agreement, filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court in Oakland, requires the Park Service to suspend a process to grant the ranchers 20-year leases and to undertake a four-year planning study that must consider reducing or ending cattle ranching.

The long-term lease process was initiated by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as part of his order evicting a commercial oyster farm from Drakes Estero in 2012, a move that sharply divided the West Marin community. The long-term leases were seen at the time as a concession to ranchers who are tenants on lands owned by the federal government.

The settlement must be approved by U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong. Parties to the agreement, in addition to the Park Service, included the three environmental groups that filed suit in February 2016, contending that decades of cattle grazing had trampled the seashore’s landscape and polluted its waterways.

The ranching families, including some who have worked the land on the windswept Point Reyes peninsula for generations, were left on tenterhooks by the lawsuit filed jointly by the Resource Renewal Institute of Mill Valley, Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed Project.

Ranchers were not named in the initial lawsuit, but 35 of them were listed on the proposed settlement as intervenors siding with the Park Service. Marin County was also listed as an intervenor.

The organizations contended the Park Service was prematurely moving to grant long-term ranching leases without updating a 37-year-old general management plan for the seashore, a wilderness destination visited by 2.5 million people a year.

“This is a win for those of us who don’t want to see tule elk evicted from the park and for anyone concerned about damage to wetlands, streams and wildlife habitats from cattle grazing,” Jeff Miller of the Oakland environmental center said in a statement.

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, representing the 24 farming families, said in a statement they produce about one-fifth of Marin’s agricultural products and serve “as a national model for responsible food production in sensitive environmental habitats.”

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