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California Coastal Commission accepts Point Reyes Seashore management plan

The California Coastal Commission gave conditional approval on a split vote Thursday to a revised management plan for part of the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore that would give 20-year leases to ranchers on the Marin County coast.

Water pollution and tule elk control were the hot-button issues in a nearly 13-hour virtual meeting that included comments from more than 70 people, including state and federal lawmakers, environmentalists and at least a dozen beef and dairy cattle ranchers, all from multiple generations of their families.

A discussion on limiting the size of the elk herd and other issues continued late into Thursday night.

The nine commissioners, whose agency is charged with protecting and guiding development on California’s 841-mile coast, voted 5-4 to find the National Park Service’s plan conformed with the state agency’s policies.

The decision included two conditions proposed by Commissioner Caryl Hart, who is interim general manager of Sonoma County’s open space district and a former county parks chief.

Hart’s measures required the park service to bring a strategy for improving water quality in seashore waterways back to the commission in a year and to submit a progress report on protecting coastal resources in five years.

Hart also proposed a five-year limit on the consistency finding but was told it couldn’t be done without park service approval.

Commissioner Dayna Bochco harshly criticized the plan to control one of the park’s tule elk herds, calling it a “very poor, almost cruel” proposal.

The plan calls for limiting the Drake’s Beach elk herd to 120 animals by shooting some to death, if necessary.

Bochco’s proposal to postpone the elk management plan for a year was still under discussion late Thursday night.

Free-roaming tule elk — the seashore’s signature denizen — were hunted nearly to extinction during the Gold Rush and reintroduced to the sprawling park in 1978.

The revised park management plan was required by the settlement of a lawsuit filed by three environmental groups alleging mismanagement of the seashore, a land of wilderness and agriculture that draws 2.5 million visitors a year.

The plan, five years in the works, would give 20-year leases to the two dozen beef and dairy cattle ranching families who are tenants on about 28,100 acres in the seashore and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area, allowing them to continue grazing about 2,400 beef cattle and 3,100 dairy animals.

The ranchers, who currently hold five-year leases, have maintained they need 20 years of assured operation to justify investing in improvements to buildings that in some cases look worn by time and weather on the often fogbound Point Reyes peninsula.

Regardless of the commission’s wishes, the Department of Interior has authority over the 28,000-acre planning area because it is outside the state Coastal Zone.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said the ranching families were “part of the history and fabric of Point Reyes” and also acknowledged the “passionate advocates” who want agriculture eliminated.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, also backed the ranchers.

Preston Brown of the Turtle Island Restoration Network was one of many speakers who cited extensive pollution — attributed to cattle — of the park waterways.

The Coastal Commission’s staff report noted that water quality data outside the Tomales Bay watershed has not been collected since 2013.

Jackie Grossi, who operates one of the park’s historic ranches, said she and her husband Rich have strived “to be the best environmental stewards of the land” while also producing food.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been corrected to include the commission’s vote count.

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

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