Cover Story: Riding Herd

Huffman bill dredges up cow vs. elk debate in Pt. Reyes National Seashore

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Jared Huffman’s been taking it on the chin from a few wilderness-promoting environmental groups after he announced, in late August, that he’d co-sponsored a bill with a Utah Republican to manage the Point Reyes National Seashore population of tule elk and the animals’ interactions with commercial cattle ranches in the federal park.

House Bill 6687 passed out of the Natural Resources Committee on Monday of this week—Huffman is the second-ranking Democrat on the committee—and now heads to the full Congress for a vote. From there it heads to the Senate and then to President Donald Trump.

The bill prompted the Western Watersheds Project and the Resource Renewal Institute to slam Huffman for, as they charge, selling out to commercial cattle operations in the park at the expense of the tule elk population. Those organizations are among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit whose settlement includes the general management plan now being undertaken. That suit followed on the recent eviction of Drakes Bay Oyster Company from the lands.

The bill, Huffman says, puts the necessary legislative muscle behind a 2012 pledge made by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to provide long-term leases for the score of cattle ranches operating on the vast and windswept land. The tradeoff between wilderness advocates and commercial interests during the deal to close Drakes Bay was the pledge of long-term leases for the ranchers.

Critics of Huffman aren’t buying it and say he’s gotten in bed with Utah Congressman Rob Bishop and will end up doing the bidding of current Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, and push a privatization agenda on Point Reyes National Seashore. The set-to evokes the recent and bitter settlement that attended the closure of Drakes Bay and its expulsion from Point Reyes National Seashore, and Huffman says his bill sets out, in part, to avoid future bad blood as a general management plan is sorted out. Critics of the cattle ranchers, who’ve been in the park since the middle-1800s (before it was a park), highlight the preferential treatment that’s given to a small group of dairy ranchers.

Huffman’s bill has a few moving parts: One section directs the secretary of the interior to manage agricultural properties “consistent with Congress’ longstanding intent to maintain the Seashore’s historic working dairies and ranches.” Another section “directs the secretary to manage the tule elk to ensure separation from working dairies and ranches on agricultural property to minimize conflicts.” It also authorizes Zinke to work with Native American tribes on an elk-management plan, and directs Zinke to “complete the park’s general management planning process, including National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] review,” as it authorizes the issuance of leases or special-use permits of 20 years.

There are three main groups of elk in the park, and two are free-roaming: the Drakes Bay herd, the Limantour herd and a herd in the northern part of the park whose numbers were decimated by the recent drought. Huffman’s bill is directed at the Drakes Bay herd, says Jeff Miller, conservation advocate and spokesman at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“That’s the one where the animals are coming on to the ranchland,” Miller says and adds that some beasts from the Limantour herd have also been moving into the grazing lands. Huffman’s bill, he says “would allow for the complete removal of the Drakes herd and ongoing culling of the Limantour herd.”

Miller charges that the ongoing management plan process that’s now underway has just been hijacked by Huffman’s bill. That process has gathered thousands of testimonials from the public and, he says, set out to determine what the ultimate outcome for the cattle-elk debate would be. Miller says that the range of options runs from having no cattle in the park to having no elk in the park, and that Huffman’s bill puts a thumb on the latter outcome, at least in the southern range of the park.

“This was supposed to be an in-depth, transparent process,” Miller says, “where the public had input and there was a range of options—partially removing the cattle, totally remove them, all the way up to expanding the cattle. Huffman’s made statements about how the process can still move forward—but his bill mandates an outcome. It’s a sham exercise. People can make their comments, but if the bill passes, the [National] Park Service can do what it wants.”

Miller’s also aghast that Huffman would put his name to a bill co-sponsored by Rob Bishop. “He is opposed to the public ownership of lands,” Miller says. “He wants to turn it over to the states or to private interests. Bishop is in the pocket with a lot of extractive industries. Huffman has been a public-land champion, and it’s troubling to see him line up with [Bishop.] He says that the process can go forward, but that’s a load of cow crap.”

Huffman says everyone needs to stop freaking out and appreciate that the 2012 deal brokered with Salazar has to be abided. He insists in an interview that the purpose of his bill is not to evict elk from from West Marin, but to make good on commitments made to legacy ranchers in the park following the shutdown of Drakes Bay.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a plaintiff in the 2017 lawsuit that seeks a management plan that protects the elk in the Point Reyes National Seashore. “What may be frustrating for the plaintiffs in the litigation” says Huffman, “is that while this doesn’t change anything about their settlement, it may frustrate their additional long-term plans to bring additional lawsuits. Everyone is going to pick the ag outcome, but they’re going to sue and sue again to make sure that these leases never get out the door. That’s unacceptable to anyone who wants some continuity in the West Marin agriculture community. This bill is not tampering with the process. I think it’s important to put [on] the congressional imprimatur.”

Huffman also pushes back on any suggestion that he’s breaking bread with the likes of Congressman Bishop. “I’ve been very careful to not compromise any standards here,” he says. “There’s nothing in this bill that is undermining of [the National Environmental Quality Act]—this is a very quality bill.”

The Environmental Action Coalition of West Marin (EAC) in Point Reyes Station has yet to take a stand on the bill, says Huffman, who was meeting with the organization this week to solicit their support. The EAC was a main driver behind the eviction of Drakes Bay Oyster Company after its lease ran out. The battle over Drakes Bay left a nasty aftertaste among environmentalists, and Huffman says that most of the EAC board members recognize that cattle ranching has a place in the national park. “A few are aligned with the plaintiffs,” he says, “but many on the board are supportive of what I’m doing here. I’m hopeful that they will get to the ‘support’ position,” Huffman says. “At the least I’d expect them to be neutral.”

Other supporters of his bill include the Marin Conservation League and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Marin County 4th District Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, whose district comprises the Point Reyes National Seashore, says in a statement that he supports Huffman’s bill.

The bottom line for Huffman, he says, is that there was never going to be an outcome in the management plan that would have evicted the cattle from the park, or the elk. Huffman was “agnostic” on the Drakes Bay Oyster Company battle, he says, because he didn’t want to be a part of the dispute that erupted over its fate. “I wasn’t cowering under my desk like a politician that didn’t want to make a tough decision,” he says. “I foresaw a way to bring the community together after the fact—and I’ve done that.”

He charges that a “handful of very zealous environmentalists” are trying to take the part of the Salazar deal that they like and get rid of the part that they don’t like. “That has the potential to drive a wedge in the Marin community when we are really trying to come together.”

As for his working with a staunch conservative in Bishop, Huffman says he barely has a relationship with the congressman but that there was some common ground on this bill at least, which he describes as a careful and narrowly tailored piece of legislation. What’s in it for Bishop? “You’d have to ask him,” Huffman says with a laugh, “but he may just like to watch me take the heat from the Center for Biological Diversity.”

On a more serious note, Huffman insists his interests diverge from Bishop’s, and doesn’t know if he’d “even go that far” to say the two have a bipartisan working relationship. “We have found an issue on which we can agree,” he says.

Miller remains deeply suspect of Huffman’s bill, he says as he notes that not much attention has been paid to the upper-park elk. He sees a larger stealth agenda afoot, given that no surveys have been taken on those elk since 2015, and that the National Park Service recently terminated its elk docent program “out of the blue.” The docent program was an educational program that among other enterprises, helped to keep track of the number of elk in the park.

 

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