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Lawsuit Brings Out Environmentalists on Both Sides of Debate Over Cattle Ranching at Point Reyes

The Point Reyes National Seashore is at the center of another bitter legal battle.

Two years ago the fight was over an oyster farm.

Now it’s over cattle, and the future of the cattle-ranching families who call Point Reyes home.

Bill Niman may be the most famous rancher in the Bay Area. His Niman Ranch was founded in the 1970’s on land that’s now part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. (The seashore was founded in 1962, and Niman’s land was later added to the park.)

“Actually if you could fly, we’re eight miles from San Francisco,” he says.

Cattle have grazed Point Reyes since the 1800s, and many ranching families go back generations. But livestock is now at the center of a heated dispute - with environmentalists speaking out on both sides.

“No impacts of ranching have ever been conducted in the national seashore,” says Chance Cutrano, director of special projects and strategic initiatives at Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute.

The Institute and two other environmental groups - the Center for Biological Diversity and the Western Watersheds Projects - are suing the National Park Service.

They want a full accounting of the impact of cattle ranching, and they say a General Management Plan is long overdue to guide the preservation of the park.

”When you haven't come to understand the impacts at all, if those haven't been assessed, it's very difficult to try to create a positive dialogue outside of, say like a courtroom, when you can't get that information,” says Cutrano.

The plaintiffs are also concerned about the health of Tule elk. The National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife re-introduced the native species and now Tule elk graze alongside cattle in some areas, despite calls for elk fences.

Michael Wara, an associate professor at Stanford Law School, says a U.S District Court judge in San Francisco will likely take into account the location of Point Reyes, which is unusual among the national parks.

“The Point Reyes National Seashore is kind of an odd duck in the national parks system,” he says. “It’s really close to a major urban center, so the visitation patterns are probably very different than they would be for Yosemite, or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.”

In addition, Wara says the seashore’s unique history will also be important in this case.

“The usage, the fact that there is this historic usage is really different,” he says.

Nicolette Hahn Niman, Bill Niman’s wife, is a former environmental attorney and a vegetarian, but also a defender of beef.

“The people who are on these ranches are very passionate about the environment,” she says. ”“When ranches are well stewarded they are a huge economic but also ecological beneficiary for an area. When environmental groups are attacking ranches they're alienating an absolutely necessary ally.”

There is no doubt, there are strong feelings on all sides about this local, and national, treasure.

The National Park Service does not comment on pending litigation.

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