Huffman bill assuring 20-year leases for Point Reyes ranchers clears House

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Cattle ranchers would be assured a lengthy future in Point Reyes National Seashore under a bill written by Rep. Jared Huffman that was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives, with environmental groups divided over the issue.

The bill by Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat known for his environmental politics, would require the Secretary of Interior to issue 20-year permits to the long-standing family-operated beef and dairy ranches in the scenic Marin County seashore managed by the National Park Service.

The four-page bill also orders the government agency to manage the seashore’s famed tule elk herd to keep the grazing animals separate from the ranches and dairies.

“We’re thrilled,” said Jackie Grossi, whose family runs a 1,200-acre Point Reyes cattle ranch. “We just want to ensure that there is long-term stability for the ranches.”

Jackie and Rich Grossi, their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter manage the ranch, which is, like all of the affected cattle operations, on federally owned land purchased by the government decades ago.

Ranchers say they need long-term permits to justify investment in their operations.

In an unusual exercise of bipartisanship, the bill, HR 6687, was co- authored by Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and last year advocated for repeal of the Endangered Species Act, a move Huffman has vocally opposed.

Huffman’s bill maintains that “Congress’ longstanding intent (is) to maintain working dairies and ranches on agricultural property as part of the seashore’s unique historic, cultural, scenic and natural values.”

But it also revives a controversy that dates back to the Interior Department’s decision in 2012 to oust a commercial oyster farm from a Pacific Ocean inlet in the national seashore.

And it comes on top of a federal court-approved settlement in 2017 of a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups requiring the Park Service to formulate a ranch management plan drawn from six tentative alternatives, including three that would allow ranching to continue and three others that would eliminate or curtail ranching.

By guaranteeing the ranchers’ future, Huffman’s bill undermines the planning process that has involved public participation, said Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit environmental watchdog.

“This legislation sabotages democracy. It cuts the public out completely,” Miller said, asserting the bill establishes a “predetermined outcome” for the park management plan, which is due for completion in 2021.

Huffman, a former environmental attorney, rejected the center’s contention that his bill would short-circuit the settlement with environmental groups by eliminating the possibility of a ban on commercial ranching.

The settlement gives no favor to a no-ranching plan, “it simply requires them (the Park Service) to study one,” he said.

A fact sheet issued by Huffman’s office said the bill does not expand ranching in the seashore, elevate it above other uses or exempt it from environmental laws or standards.

The Marin Conservation League and Marin County Board of Supervisors wrote letters supporting the legislation bill.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity coordinated a letter sent to all Democratic House members Monday, a day before the House vote, signed by 67 environmental groups urging a no vote on Huffman’s bill.

Susan Kirks of Santa Rosa signed twice, as president of the Madrone Audubon Society and chairwoman of the Paula Lane Action Network, a badger preservation group.

“We believe the priority and preference should be ensuring the preservation and protection of the natural resources of the Point Reyes National Seashore,” she said, declining to address the political tension over the bill, which now goes to the Senate.

By dictating a particular outcome — the 20-year ranching permits — the bill would turn the public planning process “into a charade,” the letter said.

Melanie Gunn, a Point Reyes seashore spokeswoman, said the Park Service does not comment on pending legislation.

Other environmental groups involved in the dispute include the Resource Renewal Institute of Mill Valley and the Western Watersheds Project. Their lawsuit, filed in 2016, alleged decades of cattle ranching had trampled the seashore’s landscape and polluted its waterways, claims that long-established ranchers and the Park Service disputed.

The lawsuit halted the Park Service’s process of issuing 20-year ranching permits, a step ordered by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar when he evicted an oyster company from Drakes Estero in 2012, ending the controversy over a commercial operation in a wilderness area that had raged for years with environmentalists on both sides.

The settlement-ordered ranch management plan will govern 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.

The 71,000-acre seashore is a popular national parkland that includes wildlife-rich wilderness and commercial ranching that dates back to the 19th century.

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

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