Ranchers win advocate for longer leases (Point Reyes Light, 01.15.2008)

img_3392The director of the National Parks Service has authorized the extension of ranch leases in the Point Reyes National Seashore from five to ten years. In a letter sent to the ranching community last week, United States Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote that Mary Bomar would also consider diversification plans and encourage better communication between ranchers and the park.

Though the specifics have not yet been worked out, for ranchers the move is a victory. The current 5-year leases make it difficult for the 26 dairies and beef ranches to obtain funding and plan for the long term.

“These families have been here for several generations. They have really deep reasons for wanting to feel secure,” said local historian Dewey Livingston.

Twenty percent of Marin’s agriculture happens in Point Reyes. “We desperately need to keep that alive,” said Jeff Creque, a range land ecologist. “Agriculture can be a positive force in ecosystem management. I think this is a very positive step. Hopefully it will be the first of many such steps.”

In 1962, President Kennedy signed legislation that created the national parks. In the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS), existing ranches were accommodated. “The plan was that agriculture would have a place in the park, but that has shifted over time,” said Laura Watt, a professor of environmental studies and planning at Sonoma State University. “Having the park service offer longer-term lease permits is a step back into that original direction.”

At first, Reservations of Use and Occupancy allowed the former owners to continue as if nothing had happened. “What they did was, in a sense, rent the ranches for a period of time, and the rent was deducted away from the purchase price,” Livingston said. Ranchers could stay for a fixed period of time—in PRNS, most ranchers chose 20 years and in Olema Valley, most ranchers chose 25 years. “Congress supported the economic and cultural reasons for not pushing them out of the park.”

When the reservation agreements started expiring in the 1990s, ranchers were given 5-year leases that were renewable up to a certain amount of time and were more restrictive than the previous agreements. “It makes it hard for anybody with capital to make improvements, get loans or feel like they can actually stay in business,” Livingston said. “Longer leases allow ranchers to have a sense of security and make profit in this business. Repairing infrastructure, improving herds or going organic are big expenses that are hard to do if you only have a couple years on your lease.”

In order to quality for certain grants for land improvement work, ten years of tenure are needed, disqualifying 5-year projects. “These ranchers want to be good stewards of the land, but that’s been made impossible for them with these short-term leases. They need the time to capitalize, but they can’t get the grants,” said Judy Teichman from Save the Future of Aqua/Agriculture in Rural Marin.

“Short-term leases made banks timid—it wasn’t enough time to get money back, especially with the ups and downs of the industry,” said Dominic Grossi, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau.

With such short-term leases, it was also difficult to make plans for transitions and successions. “When the kids who grew up on the ranches become adults, does it make sense for them to make a commitment to stay on the land with only a 5-year lease?” Teichman asked.

Teichman ran into Feinstein at the Sand Dollar Restaurant in Stinson Beach last fall. She mentioned her concerns, which stemmed from her childhood on a farm in the Midwest. Now in the Bay Area, Teichman was still sensitive to pressures on the agricultural community. “You can take the girl out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl.”

Feinstein and her aides met with several ranchers at the end of last year, gathered information and discussed it with Bomar. “We are most grateful to the senator. This is a huge state and we only have two U.S. senators,” said JoAnn Stewart of the Stewart Ranch. “She paid attention to an extremely small puddle.” The letter sent to ranchers last week was the result.

“The Special Use Permits which allow you to operate at Point Reyes need to be issued for longer periods of time than five years,” Feinstein wrote in the letter. “[Bomar] has provided the legal authority for Special Use Permits to be granted for ten years with the option of an additional five years. In addition, the Park Service will grant longer-term Permits when there is an additional need to secure and amortize a loan or receive grants for specific large-scale capital improvement.”

Ranchers’ abilities to expand their operations and infrastructure was limited by the fear that their lease could expire soon. “Now they can feel like they’re not on tenuous ground any longer, that they can do their business without worrying that the land will be pulled out from under them,” said Nancy Gates, a member of the Marin County Farm Bureau.

Stewart’s grandfather bought their property in Olema Valley in 1924. “After our agreement expired some time ago, we just kept renewing. This made us feel very vulnerable,” said Stewart. “With the feeling of impermanence, you wonder if it’s worthwhile doing anything.”

img_2372Now she is looking forward to planning longer-term projects. “With a lease and option total time of 15 years, we feel like it’s worthwhile to fix up buildings and do the things we should do,” Stewart said. She plans to get water to cattle under proper conditions in order to control erosion and decrease E. coli problems. “We badly wanted to do it, but because of the short lease, we haven’t,” Stewart said. And she hopes to add more cross fences in order to rotate cattle through the small pastures and do a lot more seeding of pastures.

When the park purchased the land, ranchers were allowed to continue their operations but not diversify. In recent years, some ranchers have wanted to diversify in order to supplement their income, but they were even unable to plant row crops if they were only permitted to raise cattle.

“I think it’s important that we are able to grow artichokes, raise chickens and hogs or whatever is necessary in order to stay financially solvent,” Stewart said.

Other than encouraging lease extension and diversification, Feinstein’s letter expresses the hope that ranchers and the park service will improve their communication. “The Director has mandated that local park officials begin regular meetings with ranchers and other interested parties in an effort to broaden lines of communication,” her letter read.

“What’s key is getting out of the mindset that agriculture and wilderness are oppositional,” Watt said. “We’ve made that split in our mind, and to me, this is an opportunity to start healing that split. Step out of the equal and opposite or mutually exclusive mindset and think about how we can protect resources and have natural places to visit while keeping that human connection as well.”

“Until Mary Bomar puts something into writing, we don’t know the specifics,” Grossi said. “There will always be people who want to expand wilderness and there will always be pressure on agriculture in that respect. Pressures will arise again, and we’ll continue to battle them.”

~ by Janet Fang on January 18, 2009.

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