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National Park Service seeks to ease tensions with Point Reyes farmers

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Point Reyes National Seashore's dairy farms and ranches have many grievances against the U.S. government
The ill will directed by locals at Point Reyes National Seashore is the worst anyone can remember

Point Reyes National Seashore is unusual among U.S. parks. Its shimmering coastline and velvety hillsides make for a majestic Marin County landscape — and its two dozen commercial dairy farms and ranches make for one of the nastiest disagreements in the national park system.

Farmers and ranchers here have a list of grievances against a federal government they say burdens their operations with needless red tape. Worse, they believe park officials secretly want to force them to shut down, and they complain that little has been done to rein in tule elk that graze on land meant for livestock.

As for tourists, they are another species not always welcomed by the locals.

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FOR THE RECORD:
Point Reyes: In the May 27 LATExtra section, an article about tensions between ranchers and park service managers at Point Reyes National Seashore misspelled the last name of rancher Jolynn McClelland as Clelland. —

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"We tolerate the tourists because we know our home is more than a tourist destination," the Point Reyes Light newspaper wrote.

Fed in part by a vitriolic dispute between the federal government and a rancher who also runs an oyster farm, the ill will here directed at the park is the worst anyone can remember.

"There is a level of intensity here that I've not seen before," said park Supt. Cicely Muldoon, 48, a longtime resident of Marin County who this month launched a "truth and reconciliation" campaign to try to ease tensions.

The discord dates from the establishment of the seashore in 1972, when the National Park Service bought out dairy farms and cattle ranches, then leased the land and homesteads back to the families who now live in the park at favorable rates.

The existence of commercial livestock and dairy operations is rare in the national park system. But at Point Reyes, their existence was enshrined in the federal enabling legislation. Congress intended agriculture to remain in the park, a landscape normally set aside for day-use tourism and sightseeing.

National parks are strictly managed. During the last four decades farmers and ranchers have been subjected to rules that govern nearly every aspect of their operations. They have long complained of feeling the tug of the park's short leash.

Kathy Lucchesi, whose family operates the Home Ranch, wryly joked recently that the park service won't have to kick them out. "They will force us out with all the paperwork we have to fill out," Lucchesi said. "By the time they approve a project it's too late."

On the other hand, the operators have a pretty good deal. The park service charges ranchers a grazing fee of just $7 a month for a cow and a calf. That fee on private land in neighboring communities ranges from $16 to $25. The homesteads where some ranch families live are leased to them by the park at less than market rates.

The uneasy truce mostly held until recent years, when oysterman Kevin Lunny challenged the government.

Lunny and his family have long operated a ranch in the park. In 2005, he bought an oyster farm at Drakes Estero, taking over a 40-year lease that was set to expire in 2012, when the Estero would be managed as marine wilderness, as set out by federal law.

Lunny sought to extend the lease, to no avail. Two years ago, after he was ordered to close the oyster farm, his supporters rallied around him, portraying him as a little guy getting kicked around by an insensitive bureaucracy.

The park largely — and some say clumsily — did little to defend itself with the locals.

Lunny took his argument to court, aided by attorneys for conservative political organizations. He has lost at every turn and finally appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is now considering whether to hear the case.

Despite the difference between the lease for the oyster farm — which was granted with the understanding that it would expire — and the leases for farming and ranching — which are renewable and guaranteed by the enabling legislation — many of Lunny's neighbors concluded that the government has an agenda to eradicate agriculture from the park.

Aware of those concerns, in 2012 then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order spelling out the park's intention to continue hosting the cattle ranches and dairy farms. It did little to calm the fears.

So as part of Supt. Muldoon's outreach, she and other parks officials are working to formalize Salazar's order and craft new 20-year leases for dairy and cattle operators.

The government is reviewing rules governing agriculture in the park, including whether farming rights must be kept within a family, as is now the case, or can be sold to anyone. Another issue of importance is the desire of some operators to expand their operations to grow row crops and raise poultry.

Although agreement on those issues seems likely, other complaints from the locals seem intractable. The most acute problem is elk that have wandered off the park's popular Tule elk preserve to get to lush cattle pastures. The migration has been increasing for more than 10 years.

"They talk, they are all great words," Lucchesi said. "Meanwhile, their elk are out there eating our grass."

Tule elk are found only in California. In 1978, park workers reintroduced a group of 10 elk in a fenced area on Tomales Point designated as an elk reserve. The herd has since grown to 300 to 500 animals ranging widely beyond the designated zone, intruding onto ranch pastures, trampling fences, drinking from stock ponds and eating grass meant for cattle.

Park managers have tried capture and relocation, which was largely ineffective. They tried hazing. They are considering culling, an approach that will undoubtedly draw criticism from animal-rights groups.

Muldoon acknowledges that the problem is of the park's making. She says her staff has been consumed by the Lunny lease dispute but now must turn its attention to ranchers and farmers, calling it "the most important issue facing the park."

Now with Lunny's case apparently near a conclusion, Muldoon is reaching out, saying she invites opportunities to clear the air.

"I think that intensity is fundamentally a good thing — passion beats apathy any day of the week," she said. "Happily, apathy is not in the lexicon of west Marin."

Hours before holding an open meeting with ranchers this month, she said the outreach campaign is an opportunity "to demonstrate that there is no secret plan, that the park service has always supported agriculture and will continue to do so.

"You have a national park and you have working ranches, and it should be absolutely the best there is, because it's in a national park," she said.

The meeting drew an overflowing and boisterous crowd. With park employees standing by to make note of the public comments and suggestions on sheets of paper tacked to the walls, the locals had some fun, suggesting an "Elk community bar-b-que."

Jolynn Clelland, 31, a fifth-generation dairy farmer who attended the forum, said only time will tell whether park officials earn her trust.

"The bottom line is they are our landlords — we have to find a way to get along," Clelland said.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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