A court settlement announced this week between three environmentalist groups and ranchers over grazing at Point Reyes National Seashore is more of a truce than a resolution. Nonetheless, it’s a welcome cease-fire, one that hopefully will provide a necessary break to evaluate the complaints in this legal battle more closely and to allow reason to prevail.
To us, reason is a long-term resolution that would allow dairy and beef cattle and the wildlife of these bucolic Marin County lands to co-exist — as they have for some 150 years. But that is no guarantee.
In fact, the court settlement announced Wednesday is a step away from long-term leases, which the federal government has granted to cattle-raising families for generations — since they began selling their properties in hopes of seeing the land preserved. Under the settlement, ranchers will only be getting five-year leases instead of the traditional 20-year agreements. In exchange, the environmental groups have agreed to suspend their lawsuit over the damage they claim ranching has caused. Meanwhile, the National Park Service has committed to using the next four years to study the impacts of dairy and beef cattle operations on the 71,000-acre park. Under the agreement, the study will look at reducing or ending cattle ranching.
But the settlement was fair enough that all sides can and have declared victory. Ranchers say that while five years is far less than they’ve gotten in the past, it’s better than the one-year extensions that they’re getting now. The five-year window gives ranchers more certainty about their immediate future and improves their chances of securing the business financing they were not able to achieve under one-year agreements.
Yet all of this is merely prologue to the main question, where’s the beef?
The environmental groups, which include the Resource Renewal Institute, the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watershed Project, claim cattle grazing has done irreparable harm to wetlands near the seashore as well as streams and other wildlife habitat in the area. But ranchers bristle at the idea that they have not been good stewards of the property that has been their families’ home for generations. They claim that their beef and dairy cows have peacefully co-existed with the wildlife in the area for decades.
All parties should welcome the information that will emerge from these studies. These no doubt will highlight ways that ranchers can be more environmentally conscious. All businesses can find ways to develop better practices.
But these studies should not be viewed as the next step in building a case for the elimination of grazing dairy and beef cattle in Point Reyes National Seashore. This does not need to be a zero-sum game.
It’s true that, aside from one park in Ohio, Point Reyes is the only national park area that allows working ranches within the park boundaries. But that is as much a part of its unique history as its sweeping views. Point Reyes would not exist as it is if not for the seashore ranchers who were pioneers in open space-protection more than 50 years ago when, facing pressure from urban developers, agreed to sell their property to the government. That should still mean something. So should the promises the federal government made to these families long ago.