If you follow Sir Francis Drake Boulevard down the Point Reyes Peninsula toward the lighthouse, beyond the now-vacated Drakes Estero, you might find yourself at Historic Ranch B, also known as Double M Dairy. Here, Jarrod Mendoza raises dairy cows on land his family has ranched for generations.
Despite its sweeping views and windswept vistas, the 1,200-acre ranch isn’t large by today’s standards. The certified organic milk from the 250 cows Mendoza manages usually only fills half of the refrigerated storage tank that is kept in a low-ceilinged room beside the milking parlor. When Jarrod’s father, Joey, ran the ranch using conventional methods, he grazed 500 cows at a time, and the tank was always full. Now, Mendoza sells his organic milk to Straus Family Creamery. The move to higher-priced organic has allowed him to produce less and give each animal access to more pasture during the winter and spring when seasonal rains bring the grass on his land to life.
In 2011, when Mendoza, fresh out of college, took over the nearly 100-yearold farm and bought a certified organic herd, his father remarked at how similar the new approach was to the way his own father, Jerrod’s grandfather, had done things. Mendoza took that as a good sign. And although he maintains ties with many of his father’s friends—conventional dairymen to the north and south of his ranch—he decided their approach wasn’t for him. “It’s just a very different system,” he says. “They try to get as much out of each animal as they can.”
When Mendoza and his wife, Kayla, first moved back to the ranch, the isolated location was familiar to him, but that didn’t make it easy. “You have to make sure when you go to town to get supplies that you make it worth it every time,” he says. “I grew up here, but it took Kayla a while to get used to it.” And while the coastal wind and fog aren’t always the most hospitable, he says, “I can’t think of a better place for a dairy operation than out here. This is cow weather.”
Mendoza’s is just one of six organic dairy farms in the Point Reyes National Seashore, where there are a total of 22 families running 27 ranches. Their presence pre-dates the area’s designation in 1962 as a national park. For decades, the families coexisted beside one another, borrowing tools and supplies on occasion, calling each other when, say, one ranch’s cows managed to slip into the wrong pasture. But ranching is demanding, full-time work that often keeps one confined to his or her own land, so they haven’t always been a close-knit group.
This year, all that changed. Since February, Mendoza and the other ranchers have found themselves at the center of a legal battle that is questioning the impact their operations have on the environment and—at the core—their relationship to the national seashore. It’s a very different scenario than the one that transpired at the Drakes Bay Oyster Company just a few years ago, but the ranchers are working together and bracing for a similar, community-wide battle.
Earlier this year, three environmental groups—Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watersheds Project—filed a federal suit in an effort to require the National Park Service to update its Park-wide general management plan and prepare an environmental impact statement. While the Park Service has spent the last several years developing a Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan and environmental assessment, the three plaintiffs say it’s not enough. The groups want to see the Park Service zoom out to focus on how ranching impacts the Park as a whole, and give the public a clear, transparent sense of that impact before they create a plan for the ranches.
They also call into question a number of elements in the proposed Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan, such as the ranchers’ ongoing petitions for the allowance of more farm diversity (including row crops, poultry and other livestock) and longer leases.
“The Park Service’s most recent general management plan for the seashore is 36 years old,” says Chance Cutrano of Resource Renewal Center, a small Marin-based nonprofit run by Huey Johnson, who founded the Trust for Public Land and acted as the California Secretary of Resources during the first Jerry Brown Administration. “The [plan] doesn’t address the current challenges—the 2.5 million visitors last year, the threats to endangered and native wildlife, the impacts of climate change, nor the new normal that is drought,” says Cutrano.
“The impacts of ranching have never been assessed in an environmental statement,” he adds. “It has only been piecemeal.”
The groups are troubled by the idea that ranching is an inherent part of the Park’s landscape. “There’s an assumption—if you look at some of the signs in the Park—that ranching is here for the future,” says Cutrano.
According to the Park Service—which declined to comment on the lawsuit for this story, but provides many current and historical documents on its website—the ranchers worked with the environmental advocacy organization the Sierra Club in the 1960s to reach a compromise for the creation of the Park at a time when residential development in the area was otherwise imminent.
“The compromise hammered out by Congress and signed by President Kennedy in 1962 explicitly provided for the retention of the ranches in a designated pastoral zone, with ranchers signing 25-to 30-year reservations of use and occupancy leases, and special use permits for cattle grazing. Over the ensuing 10 years, the National Park Service acquired the 17 remaining operating ranches and the property of the abandoned ranches,” reads the Point Reyes Nation Seashore’s website.
As Cutrano mentioned, the historic five-year California drought creates a dramatic backdrop for the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs have raised some big questions about whether the livestock can coexist with wildlife in the Park at a time of diminished resources. “If water resources are strictly going to [ranches] in the Park, and if they’re pumping it up from wells, streams and retention ponds, that leaves fewer resources for wildlife,” Cutrano says.
Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity who lives in West Marin, says his national organization has been “looking at Point Reyes for the last 10–15 years.” He says the group has long had its eye on the impacts of cattle grazing to salmon and steelhead trout in the Park, but they became “especially interested” once the conflicts between the Park’s population of tule elk (a species that exists only in the Point Reyes National Seashore) and cattle grazing started coming up.
“Our lawsuit doesn’t call for an end to grazing in the Park,” says Miller. But he and the other plaintiffs worry that the proposed Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan could further institutionalize ranching in the Park and help ranchers expand their operations.
“We see the proposed expansion of ranching out there as a problem given that the Park Service doesn’t have any kind of control over the current grazing that’s going on.” Miller likens expansion to a scenario in which “people wanted to start running off-road vehicles in the Park. I’m sure there’d be a huge outcry and people would want an analysis of the impacts before a special use permit was given out.”
In the press release issued by the three plaintiffs on the filing of the lawsuit, Karen Klitz, a board member at Western Watersheds Project, added: “Behind-the-scenes negotiations between a handful of ranchers and well-meaning conservationists is no substitute for an open and transparent planning process that includes public input.”
The Park Service, on the other hand, appears to have made an abundance of material available, including an ongoing record of their multi-year scoping process, as well as 3,000 comments from the public on their website.
“The Park Service has been doing their job in working toward the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan as part of the General Management Plan, which is their mandate,” says Claire Herminjard, the spokesperson for the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, which represents 21 of the 22 ranching families in the park. Herminjard is also the founder of the organic non-GMO beef company Mindful Meats and the wife of David Evans, who raises beef cattle and pastured chickens in the Park for his business Marin Sun Farms.
Evans’s great-grandfather purchased land on the Peninsula in the early 1900s and he says the area is well-suited to agriculture because it has been a pastoral landscape for millennia.
“All the ranches have good, cohesive working relationships with the Park Service,” says Herminjard. “And, ironically it’s a very good example of operating agriculture in conjunction with the National Park Service, so it’s confusing that they’re coming after the Park.
In mid-July, a federal court rejected a motion by the National Park Service to dismiss the lawsuit. Shortly thereafter, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association made a decision to intervene legally on the side of the Park Service. According to Herminjard, the intervention means that “the ranchers’ livelihoods, homes and businesses—as well as their contributions to the community—will all be the on the table for consideration during the litigation.”
Up until that point, the only interests that could be represented in court were the plaintiffs’ and the National Park Service’s. Now, however, “ranchers will be party to this lawsuit and our interests will be fully represented,” says Herminjard. The decision to intervene was a risk, she says, adding: “But we recognize that we needed to give ourselves the best opportunity for representation.”
Everyone involved recognizes that this lawsuit is inherently different than the battle that resulted in the closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company less than two years ago. But for the ranchers, and others in West Marin, this lawsuit may have an air of déjà vu about it.
“People think it’s a rehashing of that dispute,” says Cutrano. “But it’s a little different. [the Lunny family’s] lease was set to expire. The legal dispute at the moment is about making sure the Park Service does the job it is supposed to do and is transparent.”
“[Drakes Bay] was a long drawn-out battle,” says Evans. “It had deep and profound effects for people in a small community. I hope that this lawsuit against the Park Service does not bring further pain to our community.” […]