Point Reyes ranchers at center of debate over nature of national parks
Storm clouds shadowed Ted McIsaac as he shifted his battered 1994 Chevy pickup into four-wheel drive and bounced along a muddy track over hills cloaked in brilliant green grass.
His border collie Rollin trotted alongside while McIsaac made a morning recon of his 2,500-acre Point Reyes ranch to scan the slopes near and far for his 160 head of pure black cattle. To the west, the dark spine of Inverness Ridge framed the horizon, and 2 miles beyond winter surf pounded a wild coastline.
“You rely on Mother Nature. She rules your day,” said McIsaac, 65, a lean, sturdy man with a creased face and square jaw. A fourth-generation rancher, he’s accustomed to the vagaries of weather, especially spring rains that can make or break a cattleman.
But a much larger storm now hangs over the remote Point Reyes peninsula, where a legal fight triggered by three environmental groups has profoundly unsettled life for McIsaac and 23 other families who operate ranches on the federally protected landscape.
Theirs is a way of life often as rough as the relentless waves crashing at the edges of this timeless headland. And they believe the future of ranching is at stake in the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, where pasture for beef and dairy cattle exists side by side with wilderness, both shielded from development in a unique preserve established by the federal government at the ranchers’ behest more than 50 years ago.
President John F. Kennedy, convinced it was some sort of charmed West Coast Cape Cod, created the national park after ranchers and environmentalists fearful of intense development pressures banded together to stop the encroachment of subdivisions on Point Reyes.
As part of the deal, the ranchers insist they were made a promise specifically designed to endure: They could remain as long their families were willing to work in the wet, cold and wind of an unforgiving landscape.
Point Reyes National Seashore is now at the center of an unfolding dispute that ultimately seeks to define the nature of America’s national parks: Can the treasured public scenery accommodate the country’s ranching tradition?
Lawsuit targets ranches
The lawsuit, which has drawn wide attention to the region, does not directly seek removal of the ranches but raises fundamental questions about the purpose of the seashore. It claims the ranching that began here more than 150 years ago - and continues under leases with the federal government - is harming the wildland and wildlife the park is also supposed to safeguard.
If studies show cattle are harming the seashore they could be prohibited, said Jeff Chanin, a San Francisco attorney who represents the plaintiffs.
The park, just an hour north of San Francisco, includes thick conifer forests, miles of unspoiled beaches, wetlands teeming with birds and coastal bluffs where herds of massive tule elk roam. About 2.5 million visitors, including hikers and backpackers, are drawn to the spectacle every year.
Over decades, thousands of grazing cattle have trampled that habitat and polluted those waterways, according to the environmental groups that sued the National Park Service in February. They say none of the ranch leases, many on one-year terms, should be renewed without further study of their impact.
“That’s a public landscape,” said Huey Johnson, a former California secretary of resources and founder of the Trust for Public Land. He now heads the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute - one of three parties that filed the lawsuit.
Johnson said the Park Service’s management of the ranches is a travesty.
“We’ve got pastures of mud and manure instead of wildflowers,” he said.
However, for the park’s ranchers and their many allies, who extend from West Marin to Capitol Hill, the lawsuit threatens not only a way of life but a nearly unprecedented experiment in the history of the national park system - the same network that includes beloved spots such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.
With the exception of an Ohio park, no other place in the country allows working ranches within national park boundaries.
The pivot by some environmentalists against ranches in the seashore threatens to undermine the foundational deal on which the park was established, said Rep. Jared Huffman, whose North Coast district takes in the park.
He called the lawsuit a “frontal assault on any continued agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore.”
“We are not going to let these ranches and dairies go on my watch,” said the Marin County Democrat, a former environmental attorney.
Were it not for the lawsuit, this would be a pretty good season for Point Reyes ranchers. The wet winter and spring have delivered a plentiful grass crop to feed their herds and a respite from the worries of several drought-plagued years that nearly doomed some outfits.