Ag Today Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ag Today

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


San Francisco Chronicle

Water crisis not on presidential candidates’ radar

By Carolyn Lochhead

WASHINGTON — The 20th century dams and canals that gave birth to modern California — to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to the San Joaquin Valley farms that feed the nation — are near the end of their engineered lives. The rivers and aquifers they tap are, simply, tapped out.

The state’s record drought, only dented by last winter’s rains, comes amid a 16-year dry spell in the Colorado River basin, which provides 16 percent of California’s water. The basin’s giant reservoirs are dwindling and may never fill again, even as the nation’s population continues to shift relentlessly into the arid West.

So far, the three major presidential candidates have hardly noticed these problems as they barnstorm the state heading into the June 7 primary.

“One of every three Americans now lives in the West,” said Stanford University historian David Kennedy, a scholar at the university’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. “One out of every eight Americans lives in California.”

Lake Mead, the reservoir behind Hoover Dam serving 25 million people, is at 37 percent of its capacity, he noted.

“If that isn’t an alarm bell going off, I don’t know what would be,” Kennedy said. “Whoever is elected next — the next several presidents actually — will be sorely lacking in guts if they don’t take this issue on.”

California has allocated five times more water to human uses than exist in the state’s rivers. The federal government operates a big chunk of the state’s plumbing through the Central Valley Project, and has the big pockets that could help the state deal with the slow-motion disasters that droughts are.

Building new reservoirs

A basic question facing policymakers is whether to try to squeeze more water out of rivers. That would mean building new dams and reservoirs, and potentially overriding protections for several endangered fish, including native salmon and delta smelt, that now are on the brink of extinction.

New dams and reservoirs would cost billions of dollars but produce scant new water, because the river systems are already over-exploited. The most promising ideas for new reservoirs entail recharging natural aquifers, a cheap alternative to dams with enormous environmental benefits.

Another option is to find new sources of water through such things as recycling wastewater, capturing urban storm water runoff, conservation, efficiency and desalination. All of these efforts are under way in the state, but could be accelerated with federal help.

“There’s a big role for the federal government to play on a variety of fronts,” said Leon Szeptycki, executive director of Stanford’s Water in the West program. “The West’s water infrastructure is old, and it needs not just to be renewed, but it needs to be renewed with an eye to what the future of water management is.”

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump drew thousands to a rally in Fresno on Friday, where he also met privately with officials of the Westlands Water District, a deep-pocketed farming colossus that is lobbying Congress to squeeze more water for its farmers from California rivers by overriding the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re going to open up the water, very simple,” Trump told a crowd. “There is no drought,” he added, dismissing the delta smelt as “a 3-inch fish.”

The Bernie Sanders campaign did not respond to repeated requests for the candidate’s position on California water issues.

Role for cities, farmers

The Clinton campaign offered a response Hillary Clinton made to a Southern California television reporter asking whether she thinks more water should be sent from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farms and cities in the south.

Clinton said she has received briefings on the California drought. “I have followed it from afar,” she said.

“What I do believe is that we have got to seriously address the California water situation, because I know how difficult it has been,” Clinton said.

“I’m not going to prejudge anything,” she said. “There has to be a role for cities, there has to be a role for agriculture, of course, but let’s figure out what are the best ways of doing that. And I can’t, standing here today, tell you what it is other than to say I am going to support as strongly as I can a process of Californians to reach (those) conclusions. And if there is a role for the federal government to expedite that, to support that, I certainly will be open to it.”

Both Sanders and Clinton have proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in new infrastructure spending that could update the West’s water systems, as well as aggressive plans to battle climate change, which intensifies Western droughts.

Sanders, D-Vermont, is a big backer of dairy subsidies. Dairy farms are far and away one of the largest users of water in California. Sanders has also expressed support for fixing aging dams, but little else in the form of solutions.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, a water think tank in Oakland, said the candidates should acknowledge the need to protect both human and environmental water uses.

“We can’t ignore the environment anymore,” Gleick said. “That’s what we did in the 20th century, and it led to a lot of the problems we have today.” Gleick wrote an open letter to the candidates offering 16 recommendations on water that start with developing “a 21st century national water policy.”

Delays with new dams

Dan Beard, former head of the Bureau of Reclamation during the Bill Clinton administration, said one of the most important numbers to come out of the drought is the 1.2 million acre-feet of water that Californians conserved last year, many times more than the 125,000 acre-feet of water that some dam proposals offer.

Any new dam would “take 25 years before you got the first drop of water,” Beard said. “In the meantime, the citizens of cities and towns have put into the system 1.2 million acre-feet and done it at virtually no cost.”

Last year, he proposed tearing down Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River, a radical idea that is catching on in the media. Its reservoir at Lake Powell is emptying, and evaporation losses could be reduced if the water were sent downstream to bolster Lake Mead, the linchpin of the basin’s water supply.

Beard said a test for how far presidential candidates in California might go would be to see whether they would support tearing down O’Shaughnessy Dam and the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite that supplies San Francisco’s water.

“That’s the one dam removal that has not received the serious attention that it needs” from public officials, Beard said. The idea has won past Republican support from the San Joaquin Valley, mainly because it takes aim at San Francisco, the source of much criticism of agriculture’s water use.

Carolyn Lochhead is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: Twitter: carolynlochhead



Los Angeles Times

In agricultural heartland, Trump sides with California farmers over environmentalists

By Michael Finnegan and Kurtis Lee

Donald Trump waded into California’s perennial water wars Friday, taking the side of agriculture and vowing to boost the state’s farmers even if it means cutting back environmental protections.

“If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive, so that your job market will get better,” Trump told a few thousand cheering supporters at a sports arena in Fresno.

After a private half-hour meeting with farmers, Trump said the group told him there was no drought in California, but rather a failure to preserve and wisely use the water the state has on tap.

“You have a water problem that is so insane,” he said. “It is so ridiculous, where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”

He mocked environmentalists for “trying to protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish,” repeating an apparent reference to the delta smelt, a fish on the verge of extinction that is regarded by scientists as a barometer of California’s environmental health.

Trump’s remarks at an exuberant rally in the state’s agricultural heartland came a day after he delivered an ardently pro-drilling speech at a petroleum conference in North Dakota.

It also marked a day when — for a few hours at least — California enjoyed a flurry of candidate activity more typically seen in such early-voting states as Iowa and New Hampshire.

While Trump staged rallies in Fresno and San Diego, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, met with community activists in Oakland and her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, hopscotched between stops in the Los Angeles area.

For more than a century, competition over California’s often scarce water supply has pitted a wide array of powerful forces against one another — big cities, the agriculture industry and conservationists among them.

As with many of Trump’s promises, such as forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall, or reversing years of job losses in the U.S. manufacturing industry, he offered no specifics for how he would achieve these policy goals. Rolling back environmental protections would require changes in both state and federal environmental regulations, which enjoy strong backing among California voters and many lawmakers.

Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports research and other projects, said Trump’s comments mischaracterize and oversimplify the situation.

“Playing off ‘farmers versus fish’ is a sound bite but isn’t a solution to any real-world problems,” he said. “It’s just an old, tired bumper-sticker way of talking about California’s water problems.”

He took issue with Trump’s claim that “they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.”

“It’s not a waste of water,” Snow said, noting freshwater runoff to the Pacific Ocean helps prevent saltwater intrusion, which could contaminate groundwater supplies.

Much of Trump’s hourlong speech consisted of stock lines, though he made a boastful vow to put heavily Democratic California in play in November.

“If I don’t win, they are gonna spend one hell of a fortune fighting me off,” he said.

He bashed Clinton for using a private email server as secretary of State and recalled the Whitewater real estate scandal dating from her husband’s years as Arkansas governor. “She’s always skirted the edge,” Trump said.

He drew laughter and tears as he continued mocking Clinton as “screaming into the microphone all the time.”

“Actually, that’s why I turned it off last night,” he said of a Clinton television appearance. “It wasn’t that she was lying about me in every single corner. I just couldn’t stand it.”

Noting his strong support among male voters and his unpopularity among women, Trump said: “I love women. Believe me, I love women. I loooove women. And you know what else? I have great respect for women. Believe me.”

His Fresno appearance drew about 200 peaceful demonstrators. In San Diego, several hundred protesters gathered in the downtown Gaslamp District, their access to the convention center blocked by dozens of police officers.

Janitors from a local union waved mops, mothers pushed strollers and Latino activists blasted Trump with pinata effigies and Spanish-language chants.

“El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!” (“The people united, will never be defeated!”) they yelled.

“Speak English,” some Trump supporters hollered back.

Inside, Trump nodded to the region’s large military presence, inviting veterans to join him on stage. A crowd of thousands sprawled across the vast convention floor cheered wildly as he denounced illegal immigration and trade deficits with China, Mexico and Japan.

He also rambled at length about his upcoming civil fraud trial in San Diego federal court over his defunct Trump University. Students allege they wasted their savings on worthless real estate courses.

Trump blasted the judge overseeing the case, Gonzalo Curiel, drawing loud boos when he mentioned he was appointed to the bench by President Obama.

“The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican, which is great — I think that’s fine. You know what? I think the Mexicans are going to end up loving Donald Trump when I give all these jobs, OK?… I think they’re going to love me.”

“I’m getting railroaded by the legal system,” Trump said. “Frankly, they should be ashamed.”

Clinton, by contrast, held a low-key meeting with supporters in Oakland.

Welcoming her to the Home of Chicken and Waffles, a local soul food institution, Mayor Libby Schaaf alluded to Trump’s recent description of the city as one of the most dangerous in the world.

“We are incredibly proud to have Secretary Clinton here in Oakland today,” Schaaf said. “Despite what some people say about the level of safety in this city, Oakland has made incredible gains…. We have become a tremendously safer city.”

The lengthy discussion that followed was more policy-oriented than overtly political — though Clinton implicitly hit on a recurring theme that Trump is a divider rather than uniter.

“I want to be a champion for Oakland and all the Oaklands of America, places that have challenges like any part of our country and any kind of human endeavor, but places that are coming together,” Clinton said. “We’re stronger together when we work together, when we come up with these approaches and we bring everybody to the table.”

Later, Clinton talked about the downsides of gentrification, a growing Bay Area concern post-Great Recession as middle-income and even relatively well-to-do residents are finding themselves priced out of the economically booming region.

“There’s advantages, of course, to fixing up neighborhoods and making them attractive and all the rest of it,” Clinton said. “But I think it’s a big price to pay if we displace everybody who has been there and who has gone through the bad times and deserve to be part of the good times.”

Sanders made several stops across Southern California, starting with a morning rally in San Pedro, where he delivered a fiery rebuke of both major political parties.

“It is too late for establishment politics, establishment economics — we need a political revolution,” said Sanders, with the towering cranes at the Port of Los Angeles as his backdrop. “We are tired of politicians in both parties hustling money from the wealthy and the powerful.”

As he has in recent days, Sanders steered away from criticizing Clinton, apart from a passing reference to her support from a richly funded political action committee. Instead, he focused on the backing Trump has received from Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson.

“It’s an absurdity when you have a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson contributing large sums of money to another billionaire like Donald Trump,” Sanders said. “What a joke … our message is, billionaires are not going to run this country.”

“The American people are sick and tired of the status quo,” he said, and the crowd outside the Los Angeles Maritime Museum shouted back, “We’re not going to take it anymore!”

Later, though, Sanders took direct aim at Clinton in an interview on “The Young Turks,” a left-leaning leaning political Web series recorded in Los Angeles.

“Can she lose? Absolutely she can lose,” Sanders said of a prospective Trump-Clinton matchup in November. “The reason I’m here, the reason I’m running all over California, is because I think I’m a much stronger candidate.”

After Friday, Sanders will have the state to himself for at least the next few days. He plans a weekend excursion through the Central Valley as well as stops in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.

Clinton’s stop was her last scheduled appearance in California after several days of campaigning in the Bay Area and Southern California. She planned a weekend off in New York.

Trump, who has no more California events on his public schedule, was going to head East for a visit Sunday to the Rolling Thunder motorcyclists’ rally in Washington and a veterans event Tuesday at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

Finnegan reported from San Diego and Lee from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco, Richard Marosi in San Diego and Chris Megerian in Sacramento contributed to this report.,, Twitter: @finneganLAT, @kurtisalee




San Luis Obispo Tribune

Looking for political common ground in barren fields outside Fresno

By Victoria Billings

“CONGRESS CREATED THE WATER CRISIS” the billboard practically shouted. The field around it, full of dry grasses and the occasional scrubby bush, spoke just as loudly. It had been years since I’d driven the stretch of Highway 41 between Paso Robles and Fresno, and it was almost unrecognizable.

Gone were the rows and rows of lettuce, spinach and strawberries I’d watched woosh by the car as a kid. Instead, I drove through a scene right out of a Wild West film, tumbleweeds and all.

Billboards dotted the barren landscape, with phrases like “NO WATER = LOST JOBS” and “NO HAY AGUA.” But the one that stuck with me was the accusation in red block letters that Congress was to blame for all this.

“That’s not right,” I wanted to say. “You just don’t understand! It’s a drought! We’re all suffering.”

As if to answer me, a billboard of a quizzical child appeared, with the simple question, “Is GROWING FOOD a WASTE of WATER?” Put that way, the drought and frustration with agriculture didn’t seem so simple.

I’ve done my fair share of railing against California agriculture. Like most San Luis Obispo County residents, I’ve shortened showers and eschewed landscaping and grumbled about those water-guzzling scoundrels — the almonds. It was so obvious who the villains were here: Urban water use accounts for only 10 percent of California water consumption, while ag is as much as 40 percent. That’s 80 percent of water for human consumption, and we have to be the ones cutting back? No fair.

And at the same time, the government has been canceling water deliveries to farms, farmers have been letting their fields go fallow and farmworkers have been told there’s nothing for them to do for the foreseeable future, sorry, wait it out. It was obvious from the brown valley all around me that I wasn’t the only one making sacrifices.

Sadly, our current political climate doesn’t encourage much nuanced thinking. Everything right now seems to be starkly us vs. them. Thirsty cities vs. thirsty crops, Republicans vs. Democrats, Christians vs. LGBT people, black vs. white. No one could disagree that the battle lines are sharply drawn and not to be crossed.

Driving home past field after empty field, I realized how sorely compassion is missing from our politics. When was the last time we sat down with the opposition and said, “All right, tell me your point of view. Tell me your experiences and how they inform your decision. Let me understand you better”?

I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but his supporters gravitate to him because they see something in him. They feel hopeless and unheard, and he gives them hope. He’s a sexist, xenophobic jerk, and he brings out the worst in his fans — but maybe the hatred seen at Trump rallies be diffused by listening, understanding and seeking to solve the problems of his supporters, like the unemployed Republicans in Cave Junction, Ore., dealing with the harsh realities of logging industry regulation and lost jobs.

I’m not saying abandon all your values. I don’t have to agree with Trump or his supporters, or the authors behind North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill. I don’t even have to agree with California’s agriculture industry.

But I can come to the table with open ears and an open heart and seek to understand. Perhaps, maybe, that desire to understand will inspire others to do the same.

If we all stop yelling at each other for a moment and listen, don’t you think we can find some common ground? I found mine on the drive from back from Fresno.

Victoria Billings is a copy editor at The Tribune. Reach her at



Bakersfield Californian

Sanders visits Delano home of UFW, calls for fracking ban to improve local water quality

By John Cox

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, on a stop Sunday at the original Delano headquarters of the United Farm Workers union, called for renewing efforts to help Central Valley ag laborers, such as improving drinking water quality, raising wages and limiting exposure to harmful pesticides.

The Vermont senator said corporations growing food, as well as those buying it, should be held responsible for the plight of farmworkers. He also expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform, along with a path to citizenship, “as quickly as possible.”

“It’s high time that we pay attention to those who actually grow the food,” he said.

Asked what he would do to address poor water quality in local cases not associated with pesticide contamination, Sanders reiterated his support for a nationwide ban on fracking, the controversial oil well stimulation technique also known as hydraulic fracturing. He additionally called for more work to slow climate change and conserve water during the drought as ways to improve local drinking water.

He did not explicitly link fracking with poor local water quality, but he clearly implied it.

No connection has been established between fracking and local drinking water contamination. Regulators have expressed concerns about improper permitting of underground injection of oil and gas wastewater, which is separate from fracking. But even such disposal activity has not been found to have harmed California aquifers containing potable water.

The day before, Sanders hosted a town hall event at the Kern County Fairgrounds where people shared concerns about what they saw as a connection between poor drinking water quality and fracking by local oil and gas producers. The event preceded a rally attended by more than 3,000 supporters at the fairgrounds.

On Sunday, wearing his usual light-blue work shirt and black slacks, the Vermont senator toured UFW property with Federico Chavez, nephew of UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez. Chavez emphasized he was representing only himself, not the labor union. No one attending the event represented the UFW, which has endorsed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sanders’s competitor in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The two men walked the grounds of Agbayani Village, built in part by Federico’s father, Richard Chavez. The property opened in the mid-1970s as a retirement complex for Filipino farmworkers. Agbayani is adjacent to Forty Acres, the UFW’s headquarters in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Federico Chavez, a Berkeley resident who has done work for Sanders’s campaign in Iowa and Nevada, said he was honored to see Sanders acknowledge the UFW’s work and recognize the suffering on farmworkers.

Sanders called the village “an historic area” and said he was honored to be there. He noted Agbayani was the site of the union’s early struggles, including Cesar Chavez’s famous hunger strike.



Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Point Reyes ranchers at center of debate over nature of national parks

By Guy Kovner

Storm clouds shadowed Ted McIsaac as he shifted his battered 1994 Chevy pickup into four-wheel drive and bounced along a muddy track over hills cloaked in brilliant green grass.

His border collie Rollin trotted alongside while McIsaac made a morning recon of his 2,500-acre Point Reyes ranch to scan the slopes near and far for his 160 head of pure black cattle. To the west, the dark spine of Inverness Ridge framed the horizon, and 2 miles beyond winter surf pounded a wild coastline.

“You rely on Mother Nature. She rules your day,” said McIsaac, 65, a lean, sturdy man with a creased face and square jaw. A fourth-generation rancher, he’s accustomed to the vagaries of weather, especially spring rains that can make or break a cattleman.

But a much larger storm now hangs over the remote Point Reyes peninsula, where a legal fight triggered by three environmental groups has profoundly unsettled life for McIsaac and 23 other families who operate ranches on the federally protected landscape.

Theirs is a way of life often as rough as the relentless waves crashing at the edges of this timeless headland. And they believe the future of ranching is at stake in the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, where pasture for beef and dairy cattle exists side by side with wilderness, both shielded from development in a unique preserve established by the federal government at the ranchers’ behest more than 50 years ago.

President John F. Kennedy, convinced it was some sort of charmed West Coast Cape Cod, created the national park after ranchers and environmentalists fearful of intense development pressures banded together to stop the encroachment of subdivisions on Point Reyes.

As part of the deal, the ranchers insist they were made a promise specifically designed to endure: They could remain as long their families were willing to work in the wet, cold and wind of an unforgiving landscape.

Point Reyes National Seashore is now at the center of an unfolding dispute that ultimately seeks to define the nature of America’s national parks: Can the treasured public scenery accommodate the country’s ranching tradition?

Lawsuit targets ranches

The lawsuit, which has drawn wide attention to the region, does not directly seek removal of the ranches but raises fundamental questions about the purpose of the seashore. It claims the ranching that began here more than 150 years ago — and continues under leases with the federal government — is harming the wildland and wildlife the park is also supposed to safeguard.

If studies show cattle are harming the seashore they could be prohibited, said Jeff Chanin, a San Francisco attorney who represents the plaintiffs.

The park, just an hour north of San Francisco, includes thick conifer forests, miles of unspoiled beaches, wetlands teeming with birds and coastal bluffs where herds of massive tule elk roam. About 2.5 million visitors, including hikers and backpackers, are drawn to the spectacle every year.

Over decades, thousands of grazing cattle have trampled that habitat and polluted those waterways, according to the environmental groups that sued the National Park Service in February. They say none of the ranch leases, many on one-year terms, should be renewed without further study of their impact.

“That’s a public landscape,” said Huey Johnson, a former California secretary of resources and founder of the Trust for Public Land. He now heads the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute — one of three parties that filed the lawsuit.

Johnson said the Park Service’s management of the ranches is a travesty.

“We’ve got pastures of mud and manure instead of wildflowers,” he said.

However, for the park’s ranchers and their many allies, who extend from West Marin to Capitol Hill, the lawsuit threatens not only a way of life but a nearly unprecedented experiment in the history of the national park system — the same network that includes beloved spots such as Yosemite and Yellowstone.

With the exception of an Ohio park, no other place in the country allows working ranches within national park boundaries.

The pivot by some environmentalists against ranches in the seashore threatens to undermine the foundational deal on which the park was established, said Rep. Jared Huffman, whose North Coast district takes in the park.

He called the lawsuit a “frontal assault on any continued agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore.”

“We are not going to let these ranches and dairies go on my watch,” said the Marin County Democrat, a former environmental attorney.

Ranchers diversifying

Were it not for the lawsuit, this would be a pretty good season for Point Reyes ranchers. The wet winter and spring have delivered a plentiful grass crop to feed their herds and a respite from the worries of several drought-plagued years that nearly doomed some outfits.

In spring 2014, McIsaac came within 45 days of going broke after buying hay most of the year to feed his cattle. Late-March rains bailed him out.

“We raise cattle but what we really do is harvest grass,” he said.

McIsaac, who carries a cigarette pack in the pocket of his fleece vest, is the great-great-grandson of a Civil War veteran who came to the Point Reyes peninsula in 1865 as California’s dairy industry — now a $9 billion a year enterprise — was getting rooted in a lush landscape once described as “cow heaven.”

Home for his family is a pale-green, two-story farmhouse, part of it built in the 1880s, all of it crying for a coat of paint. One end of the house burned in 1955 and was upgraded, but since he sold the ranch to the government in 1983, McIsaac, like the other ranchers on short leases, has little ability to borrow money and gains no equity from making improvements.

Ranchers throughout the park are in the same boat, and few complain about it. Instead, they put greater stock in their ability to diversify and broaden their future agricultural options, adding other consumer products to bolster their finances.

As far back as the 1920s, Japanese farmers grew peas and Italians raised artichokes on what is now parkland next to Drakes Estero, the large tidal waterway at the heart of the seashore.

Fast-forward nearly a century and the larger region is renowned in the food world for its grass-fed beef and organic dairy goods, launching famed Bay Area labels such as Niman Ranch, the natural meat purveyor, and Cowgirl Creamery, the artisanal Point Reyes cheesemaker. But without 20-year leases, ranchers say, they are unable to borrow money to make the improvements needed to cash in on such trends in agriculture. Jarrod Mendoza, who milks about 200 cows on B Ranch near the tip of the Point Reyes peninsula, said he needs financing to rebuild an old wooden barn that blew down during a storm in March.

“You don’t want to see the book closed,” said Mendoza, whose great-grandfather acquired the 1,200-acre ranch in 1919.

The trio of environmental groups suing the Park Service, however, claim that a broader range of farming at the seashore ranches ­— including chicken, pig and row-crop production, for example — could result in more conflicts with wildlife and wilderness in the park.

Their lawsuit has targeted the renewal of ranching leases they fear could pave the way for larger agricultural operations.

That process, said Jeff Miller of the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, another of the plaintiffs in the case, is “predetermined” to favor awarding the ranchers with the long-term leases they seek.

“It hasn’t asked whether ranch leasing is appropriate,” he said.

The suit, citing reports by the Park Service, contends that grazing cattle have polluted waterways such as Drakes Estero with manure and degraded the habitat of threatened or endangered species, such as coho salmon and California red-legged frog.

Ranchers bristle at claims their operations are damaging a landscape their families have occupied for generations.

“Human activity isn’t hostile to the principle of preserving the land,” said Nicolette Niman, who runs 175 cattle on a 1,000-acre ranch in Bolinas at the southern tip of the seashore. The prehistoric Coast Miwok maintained the peninsula’s coastal prairies by setting them on fire, and cattle grazing continues that purpose, said Niman. An end to ranching would diminish the landscape and the community, she said.

Allies in the worlds of land conservation and academia have chimed in to support the ranchers’ place in the park.

“You can have wild spaces and agriculture side by side,” said Laura Watt, a Sonoma State University environmental historian whose 15-year study of the seashore has focused on the region as a working landscape, with human uses and wild habitats closely intertwined.

The opposite view, one held by the plaintiffs, Watt said, is an “absolutist” division of farm- and wildland that insists parks must minimize human presence to ensure “zero impacts” on the landscape.

The mix of ranching and wildland is “part of the charm at Point Reyes” and ought to be preserved, she said.

The prospect of a smaller footprint for ranchers in the park, or more constrained operations concerns many in North Bay agriculture.

The seashore’s ranchers were pioneers in open space protection in the 1960s when they agreed to sell their land to the government. Farm fortunes were waning at the time and the urban Bay Area was booming, putting immense pressure on peninsula landowners to sell out to developers.

But Prominent Marin County conservationist Phyllis Faber, who co-founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, now fears that move may turn out to be the “death knell” for the ranchers.

Agriculture’s place in park

On a clear day, Rich Grossi and his wife, Jackie, can see the ocean from the picture window of their home on M Ranch — one of 14 historic “alphabet ranches” in the seashore.

When the fog rolls in, as it does about 200 days a year, visibility shrinks to a few feet and patrols of 1,200-acre spread become a bit dicey.

A visitor would call the setting spectacular, but Grossi, hardworking at 76, scans the terrain with a different eye, seeing ranch chores almost everywhere he looks. Fence repairs are endless.

“One night I lay in bed and tried to figure out how many gates we had,” he said. “I lost count.”

Still, the business is one the Grossis plan to pass down in their family. Their daughter, Diane Turner, lives in the house next door and represents the fourth generation on M Ranch.

“We’re growing food for people,” said Turner, 50. “Not like living in town. It’s a whole ’nother world.”

The Grossis admit to being rattled by the standoff over ranching in Point Reyes. It is the latest place where tough-minded environmentalists have called for greater scrutiny over livestock grazing on public lands in the western United States.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the more successful and well-known among those interests, specializes in lawsuits aimed at protecting endangered species. The group’s website touts that 93 percent of its cases “result in favorable outcomes.”

The third plaintiff involved in the Point Reyes suit, the Western Watersheds Project, includes among its litigation victories a 2007 federal court ruling that threw out rancher-friendly grazing regulations established by the George W. Bush administration on more than 160 million acres of public lands in 11 states.

“They’re not playing games,” said Mclsaac, who serves as president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association. “That’s worrisome.”

Of particular concern for the ranchers and their allies is the Park Service’s shifting stance on the place of agriculture in the seashore. The worries were fueled by a bruising, two-year battle the agency fought to close a popular oyster farm in the seashore in 2014. The case, which oyster farmer and Point Reyes rancher Kevin Lunny lost, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That case was different because Lunny purchased the property knowing his lease would expire. Still, it proved a searing, divisive experience for a West Marin community that prides itself on the value of both locally grown food and wild places.

Ranchers steer clear of faulting the Park Service, which is their landlord, but their allies question its commitment to agriculture. Lunny’s farm, they say, was railroaded out of the seashore after the agency became determined to end an 80-year history of oyster cultivation in 2,500-acre Drakes Estero.

Nevertheless, the parks agency, even during that prolonged fight over the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., has sought to clarify that the seashore’s ranches are not in its sights and have a solid place in the park.

“Ranching is integral to our history and to our future here at Point Reyes National Seashore,” Park Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said in a press release in April 2014 at the start of a lengthy planning process.

The pact struck by ranchers years ago in the seashore’s formation ought to provide some reassurance that grazing and wilderness can continue to exist side by side, Muldoon said in an interview. “I don’t see it as a conflict at all at Point Reyes,” she said.

Success of 1996 lawsuit

Environmental groups have succeeded before in removing cattle from a national park in California. A 1996 lawsuit by the National Parks Conservation Association culminated in a settlement that stopped grazing on Santa Rosa Island, which had become part of the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara County 10 years earlier.

The association, a group that acts as an environmental watchdog, parks lobbyist and sometime-litigant against the Park Service, said cattle grazing in that instance was harming the island’s ecology.

The group also pushed aggressively for the ouster of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., noting that the estero in which it operated was designated to become wilderness in 2012 when the farm’s 40-year permit was set to expire.

But in the current case, the group is backing agriculture in the ranch planning process.

“We support the combination of ranching and the seashore,” said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association. “We think that’s possible.”

Also supporting the ranchers is the powerful California Cattlemen’s Association, which represents the state’s $3 billion beef cattle industry.

The group has “butted heads plenty of times” with the Center for Biological Diversity in and out of court, said Kirk Wilbur, director of government affairs.

The latest lawsuit was no surprise, he said, in the wake of the oyster farm’s ouster. “It’s a pretty transparent attempt by radical environmental groups to get grazing off the landscape,” he said.

The plaintiffs insist that is not the goal of their lawsuit, calling such assertions “sensationalist.”

“There’s no call to an end to ranching in the litigation,” said Chance Cutrano of the Resource Renewal Institute, the group headed by Johnson, 83, the former state resources secretary and a widely respected figure in environmental circles.

Instead, the claimants want the Park Service to assess the impacts of ranching and devise a plan to address them, Cutrano said.

Whether ranching continues and what the conditions might be is “not up for us to decide,” he said.

Backcountry remnants

When the national seashore was established in 1962, there were ranches and roads throughout the peninsula. Many have since been erased by the Park Service.

Today, hikers heading to the park’s four backcountry campgrounds feel they have found an untrammeled refuge, but all of them are located on the site of vanished dairies. At Sky Camp, located near the summit of 1,407-foot Mount Wittenberg, large fir, cypress and eucalyptus trees mark the location of a dairy that milked 75 cows and made a ton of butter a month in 1901, according to local historian Dewey Livingston.

Wild or not, it was a landscape and a way of living that called McIsaac back four decades ago, a few years after he had bolted from the family ranch, convinced he never wanted to look at another milk cow.

He returned in 1975, working for his father, and he took over the ranch about 15 years later.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said, his stained work jeans and worn ball cap evidence of long days spent outdoors.

The rhythms of daily life for McIsaac and fellow park ranchers are largely imposed by sunup-to-sundown chores and the harsh elements. Point Reyes is the second-foggiest place in North America, behind Grand Banks, Newfoundland, and the windiest spot on the Pacific Coast.

But beyond the weather, when ranchers find time these days to meet up, their talk inevitably turns to the lawsuit over their leases.

The discussion is filled with uncertainties, weightier even than those that usually dog them. Families with four and five generations of working the land worry that their dream of passing it on to their children and grandchildren won’t come to pass.

Rich Grossi, who has no plans to retire, said his family has put off talking about who will take over M Ranch when he does step back. “We’re kind of cooling it now to see if we’ve got a leg to stand on,” he said.

Settled in the comfortable ranch house kitchen, Jackie Grossi said the future is out of their hands.

“We don’t know where it’s going to lead,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.



Wall Street Journal

Supreme Court Allows Challenges to Clean Water Act Restrictions

Case involves company seeking to harvest peat from Minnesota wetlands

By Brent Kendall

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for landowners to contest the federal government’s ability to regulate their property under the Clean Water Act.

The court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, sided with North Dakota-based Hawkes Co., which wants to harvest peat from wetlands in a northern area of Minnesota. Those plans got off track when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the property contained waters of the U.S., a finding that triggered application of the Clean Water Act.

Hawkes said the land was far away from the Red River of the North and had no connection to navigable waters. The Army Corps said the wetlands were of exceptional quality and had a significant nexus with the river, one of the components for claiming oversight.

If the Clean Water Act applies, Hawkes would need a permit from the Army Corps or it could face significant financial penalties if it disturbed the land without permission.

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether Hawkes could proceed immediately with a lawsuit that challenges the Army Corps’ claim to jurisdiction over the land, or whether it must go through a potentially lengthy and expensive permitting process before it could bring a case.

The court, in a 10-page opinion, said Hawkes could bring the challenge now. Chief Justice Roberts said landowners shouldn’t have to wait until the end of the permitting process, which “can be arduous, expensive and long.”

Six other justices joined the chief justice’s opinion, while a seventh, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined most of it.

The court rejected arguments by the government that lawsuits shouldn’t be allowed until after the Army Corps brings an enforcement action.

It isn’t a viable option to go forward without government permission because of the threat of criminal and civil penalties, the court said. Hawkes shouldn’t have to assume such risks while waiting for U.S. regulators “to drop the hammer in order to have their day in court,” the chief justice wrote.

Hawkes’s arguments attracted a broad array of support from home builders and other business groups, as well as from organizations representing state and municipal governments.

Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer M. Reed Hopper, who argued the case for Hawkes, said the ruling “marks a long-awaited victory for individual liberty, property rights and the rule of law.” An Army Corps spokesman said the agency was reviewing the decision and its potential impact.

The case is a sign of the broader muddled state of U.S. environmental law on water regulation.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, noted the reach of the Clean Water Act remained “notoriously unclear.” The law “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the nation,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

Determining whether federal environmental officials have jurisdiction over a particular tract of wetlands can be a complex task, and the Supreme Court hasn’t made things any easier.

In a major case a decade ago, no five justices could agree on the scope of federal authority, leaving the court without a majority opinion.

Chief Justice Roberts at the time said the “unfortunate” situation would leave landowners and lower court judges “to feel their way on a case-by-case basis.”

The Environmental Protection Agency last year issued a new regulation that attempted to clarify—and broaden—what wetlands and smaller waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act, but the agency’s effort attracted many legal challenges and courts have put the regulation on hold while litigation continues.

Write to Brent Kendall at