The Myths of Point Reyes: Legality, History and Economy

Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: NPS.

This is part two of a three-part series on this multi-faceted and important issue.  Part one, which explored the myths of Stewardship, Perpetuity, and Creation, can be found here.  

Myth of Legality

Somewhat related to the myth of perpetuity is the myth of legality. When the federal government bought the ranchlands in the 60’s and 70’s to form the park, the land deals included Rights of Use and Occupancy (ROPs), generally for 25 years or life of the owner or spouse. The assertion is that, regardless of the squishier claims around who intended what and when, the fact of the matter is the ranches are legally warranted beyond the ROP durations under the same language cited above (repeated here):

“Where appropriate in the discretion of the Secretary, he or she may lease federally owned land (or any interest therein) which has been acquired by the Secretary under this Act, and which was agricultural land prior to its acquisition. Such lease shall be subject to such restrictive covenants as may be necessary to carry out the purposes of this Act.” PUBLIC LAW 95-625—NOV. 10, 1978

So, legality appears nominally extant. And of course, whether something is legal or not is a matter for lawyers and a court, not to be settled in an essay by an unbarred layman. However, a plain language reading of the above may highlight the words where appropriate. What does that mean? There is a case to be made — and there’s a decent chance it will be made — that appropriateness is to be judged considering the other laws governing all park units and PRNS in particular.

One such law is the 1916 NPS Organic Act, which created the NPS and instructed it how to manage all national park units (including seashores and recreation areas). It says:

100101. Promotion and regulation

(a)     In General.

The Secretary, acting through the Director of the National Park service, shall promote and regulate the use of the National Park System by means and measures that conform to the fundamental purpose of the System units, which purpose is to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in the System units and to provide for the enjoyment of the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wild life in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations… 54 U.S.C. § 100101. (Emphasis added.)

Another such law is a provision that was added to the PRNS legislation in 1976, which says:

459c–6. Administration of property

(a) Protection, restoration, and preservation of natural environment

… the property acquired by the Secretary … shall be administered by the Secretary without impairment of its natural values, in a manner which provides for such recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research opportunities as are consistent with, based upon, and supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area… 16 U.S.C. § 459c-6. (Emphasis added.)

So, the Secretary is authorized to lease certain lands, but he/she is not required to do so. Furthermore, the leases shall be conditioned to support the requirements of the Enabling Act. Every action taken by the Secretary must conform with all laws controlling the Park Service, as well as the Department of Interior. If you consider the documented impacts from these operations (discussed in the previous part of this series) and combine that with the earlier, more foundational laws, there is an evident contradiction. What was understood by “unimpaired” in 1916 and what was understood by “maximum protection, restoration, and preservation” in 1976 might not be satisfied considering the recent EIS, and given what we now know about climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, and more/worse. Other laws may be brought into the argument to press this point, such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, et al.

Sometimes in legal discussions, you see reference to the letter from then Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar to the Director of the NPS in November 2012, which directs the NPS to shut down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company operating in the park, but also says, “Because of the importance of sustainable agriculture on the pastoral lands within Point Reyes, I direct that you pursue extending permits for the ranchers within those pastoral lands to 20-year terms.”  This is not legally binding beyond Salazar’s term in office.

Note, the Secretary of the Interior has the power to terminate any lease at any time:

A right retained pursuant to this section shall be subject to termination by the Secretary upon his or her determination that it is being exercised in a manner inconsistent with the purposes of sections 459c to 459c-7 of this title. 16 U.S.C. § 459c-5.

Myth of Special Jurisdiction

The NPS has been careful to correct anyone who calls Point Reyes National Seashore, Point Reyes National Park. Harping on that last word would be merely pedantic, except for the fact that the Point Reyes ranchers have long implied that seashores fall under different laws and policy than parks, presumably in an attempt to inoculate themselves against charges regarding their legal and ecological status. For example, a July 22, 2020, op-ed in the Marin Independent Journal from Point Reyes rancher Kevin Lunny claims, “PRNS is not a national park. Where parks are created for quieter, contemplative uses, national seashores are for public activities, recreation and historic cultural uses.”[1]  Additionally, a 2014 scoping letter from the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association (PRSRA) to the park says, “… PRNS is a “National Seashore,” not a “National Park.” PRSRA asks that all [Environmental Assessment] documents, publications and communications be corrected…this error, if not corrected, could cause the public and consultants to apply the wrong standards to this environmental review.” [2]

Whereas you can be sure that the Ranchers Association was not worried about the operative standard being too low, there simply is no such distinction; “seashores” and “parks” are both “national park units” and are subject to the same laws, for example the Organic Act of 1916, which requires the NPS to “manage park resources and values in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”[3]  In addition, the PRNS enabling legislation, specific to this park/seashore/unit requires the land to be administered “supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area…” [4]

Myth of History

The claim is that perpetuating ranching in PRNS is part of the NPS mandate to preserve history. It is true that the PRNS specific legislation mentions “historic preservation” and the broader Organic Act stipulates that among the purposes of the national park system is “to conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects.” In both cases, as mentioned above, these goals are explicitly subordinate to the preservation of the natural environment.

Regardless, the preferred Alternative B for the ranches inside the park proposes several changes to the operations there, including row crops, diversification of livestock (and associated guard animals), bed-and-breakfasts, retail shops, mobile abattoirs, and more. It’s hard to see how carrying on a practice but changing it so much is simultaneously preserving history. This is like a consumer product that is labeled “new and improved” — well, which is it? Is ranching in the park being modernized, for the sake of the environment and economic viability, or is it being frozen in time, for the sake of historical preservation? Indeed, even before any new management plan is implemented, the operations in PRNS have already been modernized, with dry scrape loafing barns, mechanized milking, and other technology intended to increase efficiency.

The EIS, meanwhile, says removing ranching from Point Reyes altogether, “would eliminate a unique experience for visitors to experience the role of ranching in California.”  But approximately 50% of land space in Marin County is farms or ranches,[5] and there are tours available in private ranches around Marin and Sonoma. One must drive through hundreds of acres of ranchland to reach the national park in the first place. To suggest that people do so to see more of it, rather than wilderness and wildlife, is dubious.

It’s understandable that honoring ranching’s history is at odds with preserving the environment unimpaired, given ranching is inherently impactful. Neither do we honor the history of foresting or mining with commercial-scaled operations in national parks. What would genuinely preserve history is a modest, interpretive dairy or small acreage beef ranch, funded by the park system, open to the public, including docents and interpretive materials, etc., operated at a scale that doesn’t violate the NPS’s main charter, harm the environment, or inhibit public access.  This approach is already implemented at Pierce Point Ranch, in the elk preserve.

Lastly on this topic, there remains an awkward question: whose history is being preserved? Is it the Shafter-era, white Colonial one, when we were at the height of our damaging extractive powers, in the darkness of our pre-scientific ignorance regarding their consequences, and the depths of our cultural exceptionalism? Why isn’t it the Coast Miwok history, thousands of years longer and, though not passive, balanced and truly sustainable? It is frequently said when arguing for continued ranching that it arrived in the mid and late 19th century, as if that counts in their favor. What is not frequently added is that this is also when settlers extirpated elk, vanquished grizzlies to the California State flag, deforested, mined, and perpetrated now-acknowledged genocides against the area’s traditional inhabitants[6]. (See more on Miwok exclusion in the Myth of Process section in the final part of this series.)

Myths of Economy

Myth of Viability

Ranching in PRNS is sometimes described as economically viable, but it is heavily subsidized. The park spends an average of over $1 million a year in ranch related costs and collects approximately half that in lease fees.[7] The leases themselves are set at a third to a half of fair market rates outside the park.[8]  Generally, the former landholders were not charged anything like rent for the land over the 25-year reservations of use.

Beef and milk are overproduced in California and across the U.S. and are heavily subsidized (even when operating on private property.)  Between 1950 and 2000, the number of dairies in California shrunk from 18,000 to 2,000 and in Marin from 200 to 22.[9] Neither ranching nor dairying is generally profitable, and small operations stand to suffer more as they compete with large outfits inland. Both are subject to further automation and associated declines in production costs. Both are subject to the reputation problems around health concerns, environmental concerns, and animal rights. And both are subject to growing market pressures from alternatives like oat milk, Impossible Burger, etc. Furthermore, California state air quality regulations will likely make dairying yet more expensive, to control methane emissions associated with livestock. Increasingly strict State water quality rules also will make dairies and cattle ranches more costly to operate (due to erosion controls and manure management) — unless of course, the rules are not applied.

The park’s EIS shows that about a third of leased fields are overgrazed. Making matters worse, average rainfall has dropped by over 20% in the park since 2005 and climate change is forecast to make rainfall more variable year-to-year in coastal Northern California. These changes will reduce grass production, increase erosion, and make grazing more costly. Moreover, California recently adopted a $15/hr. minimum wage for 2023 plus overtime pay and this will raise dairy costs.

None of this bodes well for Point Reyes operations. Of course, ranching in Point Reyes is economically sustainable if the public subsidizes as necessary and indefinitely.

With respect to ecological sustainability, the environmental impacts of ranching in Point Reyes are described in the Myth of Stewardship section. One regarded measure of sustainability is whether the system is closed or relies on inputs and outputs at a distance. Hay trucks are frequently seen bringing food from off-site to Point Reyes livestock (without invasive species inspection or certification), and water trucks as well. The McClure Dairy alone uses 20,000 of water a day.[10]  Rep. Huffman makes the case that local food is more sustainable because it minimizes distribution impacts (“food miles”). But two of the biggest producers operating in the park, Niman Ranch[11] and Mindful Meats[12] (formerly Marin Sun Farms), are sold through Amazon, and are available in high end restaurants far and wide. Straus products are similarly available at considerable distances, including as far as the American south and mid-west.[13] It’s possible that if Straus moved its milk production to the California Central Valley, it would actually reduce food-miles. As far as the author is aware, there is no analysis available of the likely net effect of closing Point Reyes ranches with respect to food-miles.

Myth of Value

Sometimes it is claimed that without the Point Reyes ranches, the infrastructure to support the food production in the surrounding area would collapse. An op-ed in the Point Reyes Light in July of 2020 claimed the loss of Point Reyes ranching “would undermine, if not destroy, the supporting economic and information infrastructure that depends on a critical mass of regional agricultural activity for its continued viability.” [i]

This might or might not be true. But given the environmental impacts and public costs of subsidy, as well as the public’s pronounced preference to remove ranching from Point Reyes (see the Myth of Popularity section) it should be studied and argued, not just claimed. For example, it could on the contrary be argued that since many of the leaseholders in the park have substantial ranch holdings elsewhere in Marin County (see below) these operations could be moved within the county, with no net-loss of commercial production. And it could be argued that since sufficient infrastructure is nearby in Sonoma County, the elimination of local subsidized competition from the park would benefit Marin beef and dairy operations outside the park.

Maybe these counter arguments are not definitively refuting, but the burden of proof should clearly lie with the party wanting to perpetuate environmental impacts as an exceptional commercial activity in a publicly owned open space and against the public’s wishes.

The author asked the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), which supports ranches and dairies in PRNS explicitly based on the local-critical-mass argument, to defend this line of reasoning. MALT pointed me to a University of California Cooperative Extension paper from 2009, The Changing Role of Agriculture in Point Reyes National Seashore, which when gauging the importance of PRNS agriculture, not only includes economic output from the now defunct Drakes Bay Oyster Company, but which also explicitly omits adjacent Sonoma County from consideration, without any justification. (So, for example, in 2005 the total value of PRNS agriculture and aquiculture was 17% of the overall Marin number, but only .09% of the Sonoma-Marin total.) [ii]  In fact, the well-known Straus Creamery just moved its production from Marin to Sonoma, with many benefits to the company, including a steep decline in employee travel time and associated emissions.[iii]  The common argument that if PRNS operations close, production will move to more environmentally impactful central valley operations, has little basis; it could move elsewhere in Marin (where many of the same operators already have ranches), or it could move to Sonoma.

In 2017, dairies in Marin contributed $34.2 million to the local economies, and those inside PRNS accounted for $7.5 million (22%), or just 7.5% of the overall $100 million agricultural output in the County. Nearby Sonoma, to where much agriculture and supporting infrastructure has migrated in recent decades, has an agricultural output 8.5 times that of Marin.[iv]   The more recent EIS number indicate ranching “contributes 0.03% of total regional employment and 0.01% of gross regional product in the study area.”

The economic value attributed to tourism at PRNS in 2017 was ~$132 million,[v]dwarfing that of the dairies and ranches. This number is a measure of the total estimated value of the production of goods and services supported by NPS visitor spending, and doesn’t include the more recently studied value of mental health benefits attributable to open space experiences of visitors, associated with fewer suicides, less substance abuse, domestic abuse, etc. A study in Australia[vi] found an average benefit of approximately $500 per visit and $9,000 per visitor, extrapolated to Point Reyes is at least $1.2 billion. Having a third of the park degraded and practically inaccessible certainly diminishes this large economic social benefit. 

The public subsidies are not small. In the 10 years leading up to 2009, the NPS reports spending over $3 million on capital improvements specifically for the ranches. The ranches also enjoy a per-animal unit lease rate of between a third and a half of the fair market rate outside the park.[vii]

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, ranching in PRNS was sometimes credited as bolstering food security. But “food security is a measure of the availability of food and individuals’ ability to access it.”[viii]  The italicized clause surely eliminates the high-end, boutique products that come out of Point Reyes, unless what’s being said is that these operations will donate food to those in need when necessary. I am not aware of any price breaks for Covid relief. Besides, any serious conversation about food security would begin by acknowledging that beef and dairy are the wrong place to look in the first place, as beef infamously turns food into less food.[ix]

Lastly regarding value, and oddly, sometimes you hear the idea that the ranches are necessary to protect the land as open space. It may be some people are conflating issues regarding easements, land trusts, and zoning restrictions outside the park with the park itself. National parks (including national seashores) are the highest designation of protected lands in the world. They do not need commercial operations to offer protection from development; they are in fact supposed to offer protections from commercial operations.

Myth of Poverty

Of course, people’s personal finances are generally their own business. But if public sentiment in support of ranching in the park is to be bolstered by the claim that the operators are just eking by, certain countervailing publicly available facts become relevant.

Joseph H. Mendoza, who testified to Congress against the formation of the park in 1961, sold A, B, and L ranches to the government in 1971 for $8,000,000,[x] (over $53 million adjusted) and in 1972 purchased five parcels elsewhere in Marin totaling 1,631 acres.[xi]All five parcels were immediately put into a Williamson Act contract to reduce property taxes. Today, all five are owned by Linda Mendoza, Joseph’s daughter, who leases B and L Ranch, the sales of which appears to have directly funded the acquisition of her land holdings in Marin. In 1973, Mr. Mendoza purchased an additional 787 acres in Marin, which are now owned by his granddaughter, Karen Taylor. In 2018, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) purchased an easement over 704 acres of this land for $3,594,000, using $1,817,950 in Measure A money.

Alfred Grossi, who also testified against the park in those same 1961 hearings, sold H Ranch in 1971 for $909,800 [xii] (over $6 million adjusted). In 1973 he purchased two parcels in Marin covering 998 acres.[xiii] Both parcels were immediately put into a Williamson Act contract to reduce property taxes. Today the parcels are owned by his daughter, Dolores Evans, who leases H Ranch, the sale of which appears to have directly funded the acquisition of her land holdings in Marin. Dolores Evans also leases K Ranch and AT&T Ranch. Her son, David, leases D. Rogers Ranch and owns Marin Sun Farms which in 2017 had 12 million dollars in gross sales.[xiv] In that same year of 2017, MALT purchased an easement over the two parcels for $3,285,000, using a Measure A grant of $1,662,012.[xv] Dolores’s late sister, Darlene Giacomini, co-owned the land, called the Evans-Giacomini Ranch. Darlene’s husband was Richard Louis Giacomini, member of another prominent Point Reyes ranching family, which sold 550 acres to the NPS in 2000 for $5.75 million (and a 7-year lease-back) to create the Giacomini Wetland.[xvi] [xvii]

The leaseholder of C Ranch, Jim Spaletta, belongs to yet another prominent ranching family, whose 772-acre West Petaluma property was brought into easement by MALT for $2.5 million in 2009,[xviii] but which is currently for sale for $6.3 million. The leaseholder of G Ranch, Kevin Lunny, also owns a locally well-known paving company. So, the leaseholders of many of the ranches we know about seem to be doing alright. But the leaseholder of I Ranch, Robert McClure, recently announced he would close his dairy in the park. It may be that certain of the PRNS ranch operators are, nonetheless, struggling. If so, given the subsidies and services provided by the NPS, the question arises as to how much help the taxpayer will continue to give failing businesses.

Endnotes

[1] https://www.marinij.com/author/kevin-lunny/

[2]https://www.rri.org/Lawsuit/Ranchers%20Association%20CRMP%20Scoping%20Comments.pdf

[3] The 1916 Organic Act – https://www.nps.gov/foun/learn/management/upload/1916%20ACT%20TO%20ESTABLISH%20A%20NATIONAL%20PARK%20SERVICE-5.pdf

[4] 1976 Amendment: https: www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/94/hr8002/text

[5] Facts About Marin County Agriculture http://cemarin.ucanr.edu/files/225389.pdf

[6] Genocide: ‘It’s called a genocide’: Gavin Newsom apologizes to California’s Native Americans” https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/It-s-called-a-genocide-Gavin-Newsom-14016400.php

[7] https://www.thewildlifenews.com/2020/09/30/welcome-to-point-reyes-national-cattle-ranch/

[8] https://restoreptreyesseashore.org/by-the-numbers/

[9] https://www.marinij.com/2020/01/12/marin-historians-aim-to-document-every-local-dairy-ever/

[10] https://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/mcclure-dairy-shuts-down

[11] https://www.nimanranch.com/blog/finest-tasting-meat/niman-ranch-expands-nationwide-with-online-distribution/

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/they-finally-figured-out-what-to-do-with-old-dairy-cows-2015-6

[13] https://www.strausfamilycreamery.com/simple-faqs/where-can-i-buy-your-products/

[i] https://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/point-reyes-national-seashore-new-vision-or-enduring-myth

[ii] The Changing Role of Agriculture in Point Reyes National Seashore. http://www.ucanr.org/sites/uccemarin/files/31000.pdf

[iii] https://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Straus-Family-Creamery-heads-to-Sonoma-County-16231590.php

[iv] Amazing But True Facts About Marin County Agriculture. http://cemarin.ucanr.edu/files/225389.pdf

[v] National Park Service. (2018). 2017 National Park Visitor Spending Effects Economic Contributions to Local Communities, States, and the Nation. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

[vi] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-12631-6

[vii]https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/management/upload/planning_ag_report_response_090724.pdf

[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_security

[ix] https://www.idtechex.com/en/research-article/the-meat-industry-is-unsustainable/20231

[x]https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/protecting_Point_Reyes_elk/pdfs/KeeganPt%20ReyesBook.pdf

[xi] Marin County Recorder’s Office.

[xii]https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/protecting_Point_Reyes_elk/pdfs/KeeganPt%20ReyesBook.pdf

[xiii] Marin County Recorder’s Office.

[xiv] https://www.sfchronicle.com/food/article/Point-Reyes-couple-s-merger-brings-local-meat-10918456.php

[xv] https://malt.org/press_releases/marin-agricultural-land-trust-protects-998-acre-nicasio-ranch/

[xvi] https://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/giacomini-wetlands-10-years-sees-quick-rebirth

[xvii] https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/management/planning_giacomini_wrp.htm

[xviii] https://www.marinij.com/2009/08/15/25-million-deal-by-malt-preserves-petaluma-dairy-ranch/

Ken Bouley is a software developer at the data analytics company FICO, where he has worked for the last 24 years. He and his wife Kelli live in Inverness, immediately adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore, hiking there frequently and indulging Ken’s wildlife photography hobby. Bobcats are his favorite.

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