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The End of Agriculture at Point Reyes National Seashore: The Jarvis Playbook

03/14/2016 01:03 am ET | Updated Mar 15, 2016
  • Corey S. Goodman Scientist and entrepreneur; retired U.C. Berkeley biology professor; member, National Academy of Sciences

What makes a national park? Some were fashioned, by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, out of what was romanticized as the Wild West. Others were created in partnership with those who have been the historic stewards of the land. The Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, is the latter: a national seashore created out of historic farm and ranch land, preserved by its farmers and ranchers for more than a century, to protect and promote the farming and ranching heritage of the land, and to keep it from turning into urban sprawl, golf courses, and gated communities.

But the seashore is under dire threat. A few weeks ago, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups sued the National Park Service with the intent to clear the eleven remaining ranches out of Point Reyes National Seashore (of the nineteen that existed when PRNS was created), with clear implications for the eight remaining ranches in adjoining Golden Gate National Recreation Area (of the fifteen that existed when GGNRA was created).

The ranchers have a right to feel their days are numbered. After all, the continuation of their ranches was part of the deal when these parks were created. The basic problem for these ranchers, however, is that the director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, agrees with these environmental groups that agriculture does not belong in a national park. As things now stand, Mr. Jarvis will make the decision about whether and how to defend this litigation. If he gets his way, the park is likely to settle the case by agreeing that the ranchers should go, or alternatively by financially restricting them such that they voluntarily shut down.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the National Park Service, in collaboration with activist environmentalists, has reneged on the original deal made by Congress to maintain the historic agriculture on parklands as a condition for the government acquiring these lands. The same playbook - what we call the Jarvis playbook - was followed successfully to clear the historic Vail & Vickers ranch off of Santa Rosa Island in 1997. If something isn't done to stop Jarvis and his cadre now, the same thing will soon happen to the ranches at PRNS and GGNRA.

Two schools of thought exist for how the federal government should treat working landscapes when it acquires private lands and turns them into national parks.

Progressive environmentalists believe the production of wholesome food and the protection of the environment can work in harmony, and thus that our parks should preserve working landscapes. Wendell Berry provided this perspective when he wrote, in Conservation and Local Economy: "The longstanding division between conservationists and farmers, ranchers, and other private small-business people is distressing because it is to a considerable extent false." The sustainable food movement, represented by such luminaries as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, supports this approach as well.

On the other hand, many activist environmentalists believe that farms and ranches have no place in our parks and should be forced out as government land is returned to an imagined more pristine condition akin to what they imagine it was like before humans arrived.

Mr. Jarvis provided this perspective in an interview in 2007 when he said: "And so we've got the Vails on Santa Rosa, we've got cabins at Lake Roosevelt, oysters at Point Reyes... And as a public servant in this role, these unique pieces of the public estate, these units of the National Park system are for everybody. They're not for individuals to continue on these special little uses that we at some point have acquired from them."

As described below, the Congressmen who wrote the laws creating the Channel Islands National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area intended that the farms and ranches should stay, as shown by their Congressional testimony at the time, and letters and articles they have written since. And the initial NPS representatives - the park superintendents - appear to have negotiated with the farmers and ranchers in good faith. Some major environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, at the time these parks were created, testified to Congress that the farms and ranches could and should remain.

But this was a bait and switch. Concerning both the ranch at Santa Rosa Island, and the oyster farm at Pt. Reyes, some years later, subsequent NPS officials and activists reneged on those agreements and flip-flopped, deciding that the farms and ranches needed to go. At both Santa Rosa and Pt. Reyes, they accomplished their mission by working with and encouraging local government agencies and activists to financially restrict the farms and ranches by regulatory and legal actions, and then ultimately either preventing them from renewing their permits, or filing law suits against the government with the goal of driving those ranchers off their land.

The Jarvis playbook is well funded - both publicly (with tax dollars) and privately (with well-meaning but misdirected donations) - and has been highly successful. The Vails' ranch is gone from Santa Rosa Island, and the Lunnys' oyster farm is gone from Pt. Reyes. And in the third act of this tragic play, the ranches at Point Reyes and GGNRA, once promised that they could stay in perpetuity, are likely to be next in line.

Below, I briefly review the history of the demise of the Vails' ranch at Santa Rosa Island, and then consider how the same playbook is being used to drive the ranchers at Pt. Reyes off their land.

In a previous blog, I reviewed what happened to the oyster farm at Pt. Reyes. For further details, you should turn to articles written by Michael Ames in Harper's and Newsweek on the unflattering side of the American conservation movement, and how in this case, science took a back seat to ideology at the Department of the Interior. A shorter abridged version of this blog recently appeared as a guest column in the Point Reyes Light newspaper.

The Vails ranch on Santa Rosa Island
In 1980, Congress passed public law 96-199: An Act to establish the Channel Islands National Park. The bill instructed the Secretary of the Interior to acquire the lands on Santa Rosa Island (also known by the nickname Cowboy Island, in the Santa Barbara Channel Islands off the southern coast of California) "as expeditiously as possible." The island was owned and operated by the Vail & Vickers (V&V) company.

The law allowed the Vails to obtain "a right of use and occupancy ... for a definite term of not more than twenty-five years" and that "the owner shall elect the term to be reserved." Thus, Congress agreed that the Vails could ranch the island for 25 years as of the date of the acquisition (which occurred in 1986).

The bill was written by Congressman Bob Lagomarsino with the help of National Park Service Superintendent Bill Ehorn, and sponsored in the Senate by Senator Alan Cranston. The Congressman's contribution and leadership was recognized in 1996 when the Channel Islands National Park Visitor's Center was named after him.

In his letter to Congress twenty-seven years later in 2007, the former Congressman wrote: "It was my clear intent, and of Congress (including CA Senator Alan Cranston), that the cattle ranching operation that had thrived for a century would continue for 25 years ..." He went on to write: "As I stated to Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1997, I would not have included Santa Rosa Island in the park boundary, and I doubt the Senate would have approved it, had I known that the ranchers would be caught between competing special interests for the next quarter century."

The same sentiment was expressed by the law's co-author, Mr. Ehorn, in a letter to the court in 1997, when he wrote: "At the time of acquisition, it was also clearly understood that a viable ranching operation would be permitted to continue for 25 years. As Superintendent of the park, it was my intention to honor the commitments made by Congress and NPS and allow ranching to continue." He went on to write: "My personal perspective is that it is important for the federal government to honor the commitments expressed by Congress and clearly understood by all who were involved when the park was created by providing for the continuation of the private ranch until 2011." Mr. Ehorn wrote that "in the absence of these repeated assurances, I believe that the island would not have been added to the park."

In 1990, Superintendent Ehorn was transferred to Redwoods National Park. Between 1990, and 1997, when activist environmentalists filed a lawsuit to eliminate the Vails' ranch from the island (see below), the attitude of the park service, other federal and local government agencies, and environmental groups toward the Vails' ranch changed dramatically. Much of what we know about this seven-year period comes from a series of three columns in 2006 in the Santa Barbara News-Press written by Tim Setnicka, who was superintendent of Channel Islands National Park during part of this period.

Mr. Setnicka documented in detail how the park service leadership worked with other government agencies and environmental groups to do everything they could to get rid of the ranch. The park and its supporters started claiming cattle were polluting streams and harming endangered species (even though they had co-existed with cattle for more than 100 years), using what Mr. Setnicka called dishonest science. Restrictions were placed on the Vails' operation by various government agencies forcing them to fence off and prevent grazing on historic pastures. Ultimately, with so many restrictions and regulations and legal fees, the Vails' ranch fell into financial hardship.

Finally, in 1997, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and other local environmental groups sued the park service, alleging the Vails were violating the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. The park settled the case out of court with NPCA and the Vails, and as a result of this settlement, the Vails vacated Santa Rosa Island, 14 years earlier than was the intent and commitment of Congress in 1980. The Vails agreed to this settlement because, given all of the restrictions, the ranch was no longer financially viable, and with all of the added legal costs, they were hemorrhaging financially. Moreover, as explained below, they only had a series of renewable five-year permits, and they saw little hope of getting their permit renewed, especially without further restrictions that would have made the ranch even less financially viable.

Given the language in the 1980 law, why didn't the Vails have a 25-year lease for the entire island as Congress said they could? Why instead did they take out a 25-year lease for only 7 acres (that contained their buildings) and rely on the promise of five successive five-year permits for the grazing operation for the remainder of the island? The answer is that the government persuaded them to follow this path.

In his 1997 letter to the court, former Superintendent Ehorn provided the answer when he wrote: "Vail and Vickers were offered two procedural options for continuation: a lease or a special use permit. I was able to persuade Vail and Vickers to accept the permit option rather than the lease on the grounds that (1) a permit would be managed locally by NPS while a lease would be administered from Washington, D.C., (2) permit fees could be used to improve and maintain facilities on Santa Rosa Island relative to the management of the permit, and (3) a permit would allow NPS to begin operations on the island in cooperation with the ranch."

In his 2007 Congressional testimony, Tim Vail echoed Ehorn's explanation when he wrote: "It was the intent of all sides involved that these agreements were to be followed for the full 25-year period." He continued: "It was due in part to Mr. Ehorn's persuasion that we accepted this course of action rather than opting for a 5-year lease agreement for the commercial cattle and wildlife enterprises, which would have allowed V&V to operate as it had historically until 2011 with no Park input and no public access."

Unfortunately, the Vails were not given good legal advice, and instead they followed the well-meaning (but legally misguided) advice of Mr. Ehorn who told them it would be better for them, for the park, and for their collaboration with the park, if they took out five successive five-year permits rather than a 25-year lease. The agreement was based upon trust, and the intent and commitment of Congress in 1980.

None of that mattered when the government and activists went after them in the 1990's. With a lawsuit hanging over their heads, they settled the case and quietly vacated their historic ranch from Santa Rosa Island in 1998, 14 years earlier than Congress promised.

Nita Vail, who grew up on the ranch (and today is CEO of the California Rangeland Trust), wrote concerning her father's decision to follow Mr. Ehorn's advice and accept 5-year permits instead of a 25-year lease: "It was naïve and based on trust, not knowing NPS or seeing any reason why this would not happen. It literally broke my dad's heart and he died of a fatal heart attack a year after all of the cattle were removed."

The ranches at Point Reyes
Today this same playbook is being enacted at Pt. Reyes under the leadership of Mr. Jarvis. Here too, the ranchers were led by Congress to believe, when the Point Reyes National Seashore was created in 1962, that they could stay forever. Here too, they were give a series of renewable permits rather than a permanent lease. And here too, the government and activists reneged on that agreement and are part-way along in the process of removing the ranches, either directly by lawsuit, or indirectly by restrictions leading to financial ruin.

Point Reyes National Seashore along the northern coast of California originally included nineteen ranches and today includes the remaining eleven ranches. Many ranches already folded over the years (in some cases due to bad behavior on the part of the park service), and of course the demise of the oyster farm was just a part of Jarvis' overall plan, setting up potential Clean Water Act lawsuits against the majority of ranches that drain into Drakes Estero, a body of water now called wilderness.

In 1976, when Congress passed laws designating Drakes Estero as "potential wilderness," there was a remarkable consensus among the public - including the Park Service and environmental organizations - that the oyster farm should remain operating under wilderness designation in perpetuity. The Sierra Club, for example, argued that Drakes Estero could be put under the Wilderness Act "even while the oyster culture is continued - it will be a prior existing, non-conforming use." The co-sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Alan Cranston, Sen. John Tunney, and Rep. John Burton, all agreed that the oyster farm should continue. The oyster farm had a permit with the potential to be renewed in 2012, just like the ranchers in PRNS and GGNRA have permits with renewal clauses.

Once the Park Service, Sierra Club, and others changed their minds and decided they wanted to remove the oyster farm, they presumably needed a justification for their flip-flop - some new information to turn public opinion - and elected officials - against the oyster farm, and thus against the permit renewal. That new information was so-called scientific evidence of environmental harm.

This is remarkably similar to what the park and activist supporters did to the Vails in the 1990's - both the Vails and the Lunnys were turned into environmental criminals to turn public opinion against them. The same kind of negative statements have begun against the ranchers on Pt. Reyes.

In 2007, National Park Service, led by then West Regional Director Jon Jarvis (who in 2009 under President Obama became NPS Director), announced that the oyster farm was harming harbor seals, polluting the water, smothering eelgrass, killing fish, and degrading the estero's ecosystem. As is well documented, none of this was true.

In November 2012, then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ruled against the oyster farm's permit renewal, citing, in part, the conclusions about environmental harm in the National Park Service's environmental impact statement, conclusions that have shown to be based on dishonest science (see previous blog).

Pro bono lawyers representing the oyster farm filed suit in December 2012 asking a federal court to reverse the Salazar's decision to close down the farm, claiming the decision had been informed by false science. The suit went to the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ultimately to the steps of the Supreme Court. In June 2014, the Supreme Court denied the oyster farm's petition for a hearing. Months later, the oyster farm was gone.

In November 2014, Peter Prows (one of the pro bono lawyers for the oyster farm) and I wrote a column for the Point Reyes Light newspaper titled The End Of Agriculture On Point Reyes. We wrote: "Sadly, the closure of the oyster farm is not the end, but rather the beginning of the battle to protect agriculture on Point Reyes. We fear that in the next five years, we will witness the end of agriculture, and with it the weakening of the ecosystem that supports farming and ranching throughout West Marin."

Some folks thought we were paranoid. They were right. Unfortunately, we were also right. Several weeks ago, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and other environmental groups sued the National Park Service with the intent to clear ranching out of the seashore.

Huey Johnson, the spokesperson for the groups filing the new lawsuit, used sharper language. Explaining the decision to join the suit against the seashore, he said: "You've got welfare ranching going on public lands all over the West."

Like the groups who sued over the Vails (e.g., NPCA) and who are now suing over ranching at Point Reyes (e.g., CBD), Mr. Jarvis is trying to rewrite history. Both parks and the GGNRA were set up as a partnership between agriculturalists and environmentalists, not as a means to purge the land of its agricultural history.

Will the seashore ranches go the way of the Vails? Sadly, it is hard now to imagine a scenario in which they won't, unless Congress takes action. This is all part of the Jarvis playbook. That book is well funded, and the suit has engaged one of the very best law firms. It worked on Santa Rosa Island, it worked with the oyster farm at Pt. Reyes, and, unless the local and broader community does our best to stop it, it will undoubtedly work here.

Back in 2014, Mr. Prows and I challenged local activists and National Park Service officials to pledge to oppose efforts to run the ranchers out of the seashore. All of them remained silent. Since the lawsuit was filed a few weeks ago, the silence has been deafening from the same folks.

Here's what needs to happen.

First, Mr. Jarvis, who several weeks ago was formally reprimanded for intentional ethics violations by the Interior Department's Inspector General, needs to recuse himself from any decision-making about this lawsuit. The Inspector General should make the decisions for the park service in the suit.

Second, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Jared Huffman should introduce legislation requiring the park service to protect its historic agriculture at PRNS and GGNRA. A strongly worded law could trump current and potential future lawsuits.

The ranches on Point Reyes are about to disappear, and if they do, the ranches in Golden Gate National Recreation Area will soon follow. If we remain passive, that will surely happen. I suspect Mr. Jarvis' fingerprints are all over what is going on. It's time for a broad coalition of progressive environmentalists, agriculturalists, the sustainable food movement, people who insist on trust and accountability in government, and our elected officials, to stand up together and say no.

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