Ranchers hire ex-lawmaker brought down by Abramoff scandal

Ranchers hire ex-lawmaker brought down by Abramoff scandal
National Parks, Monday, April 2, 2018

By Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E News reporter

Ranchers at the iconic Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco have hired a former congressman as a lobbyist, opening a new front in their yearslong battle with environmentalists.

Former Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who retired while under investigation for his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, has been hired by a newly formed sustainable agriculture group, according to lobbying registration forms.

Doolittle’s involvement comes as the National Park Service works to update a management plan for the seashore after settling a controversial lawsuit brought by three environmental groups last year.

Seashore rancher Kevin Lunny, who is part of the new Resilient Agriculture Group, said there is significant concern that the Park Service could side with greens who want to kick the approximately 20 ranching operations off the seashore.

“We’ve seen environmental reviews by the Park Service go south,” he said. “We also know that this is the opportunity for the anti-ranching groups to put on heavy pressure. And they are.”

But other observers, including the area’s congressman, Rep. Jared Huffman (D), were quick to question who is behind the new group.

“Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on with this group and their methods,” Huffman told E&E News.

Huffman, a former Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, has generally supported the continued ranching operations in the park. But he said the lobbying hire is not the way to move any legislation forward in Congress on the issue and called it “surprising, if not upsetting.”

“Hiring a Republican lobbyist and going behind the back of your representatives is not a good start,” he said.

Point Reyes, 80 miles of pristine coastal bluffs and beaches, is considered a gem of the park system and has seen several controversies in recent years.

Lunny has been a principal actor in all of them. Interior ultimately shut down his Drakes Bay Oyster Co. farm within the seashore in 2014 after a prolonged and contentious fight that turned into a national referendum on federal land policies.

The current dispute centers on historic ranching operations.

Dairy and beef cattle ranches existed in the area before Congress established the seashore in 1962. The government ultimately purchased the land from the ranchers, giving them 20-year leases to continue their operations.

The Park Service carved out about a quarter of the park’s 71,000 acres as a “pastoral zone” for cattle grazing. It’s an unusual arrangement; very few other national parks are home to private agriculture, and none on the scale of Point Reyes.

The cows have come into conflict with tule elk, which the Park Service reintroduced in 1978.

Once numbering as low as 22, the population of elk exploded to more than 500. During the recent drought, some 250 fenced-in elk at the park died, while free-ranging elk ventured into the grazing zone and competed with cows for food and water. Ranchers pressed the Park Service for a more comprehensive plan to contain the elk (Greenwire, April 17, 2015).

Fearing that the agency would cave to the ranchers, three environmental groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal Institute and Western Watersheds Project — filed a lawsuit in early 2016. It called on the service to update the park’s general management plan, which hasn’t been revised since 1980, and consider whether the cattle grazing is impairing the natural resources of the park.

The lawsuit quickly divided Marin County, probably one of the country’s most environmentally conscious communities and the birthplace of the farm-to-table movement. Many environmental groups and Huffman backed the ranchers, citing their history at the seashore on sustainability practices (Greenwire, March 14, 2016)

CBD and the environmental groups settled the lawsuit with the Park Service last July. The agreement mandated that the agency abandon a ranching plan it had been working on and update the general management plan within four years.

It also required that some alternatives — including no ranching, no dairying, reduced ranching and various elk management plans — be considered.

The Park Service anticipates beginning a 12-month environmental impact statement process in the fall in order to meet the four-year deadline in the settlement.

That appears to be the motivation behind the agriculture group’s hiring of Doolittle.

According to two registration forms, he’s working for the Resilient Agriculture Group as well as Phyllis Faber, who appears to also be behind the group. Faber is a biologist who has served on the California Coastal Commission and previously established the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. She is admired by some in the Marin community, but is also distrusted on the ranching issue by other environmental groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity.

Faber said in an email that the group was formed because of “concerns” the park service will “try to drive ranching out” of the seashore “using elk as a weapon.”

Asked who is funding Doolittle’s activities, Faber replied: “Concerned citizens of Marin County.”

Laura Watt, a professor at Sonoma State University who has written a book on Point Reyes, said Faber contacted her recently about joining the new group.

Watt has supported the ranchers, and said the goal of the group is to break a cycle of their operations perpetually getting challenged by environmental groups.

“There’s a decadeslong history of a variety of different groups using the planning process to try to get rid of the ranchers, back to the ’90s or earlier,” she said. “And I honestly don’t see any end to that process.”

Watt said that even if the Park Service opted against the reduced or no ranching alternatives, she would anticipate groups like the Center for Biological Diversity would sue again.

“Once they get their teeth in an issue, they doesn’t let go,” she said.

That’s why the group is pushing for a legislative fix and hired Doolittle, who sat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

“We support, and are seeking, a narrowly tailored amendment … that will require the preservation or such uses and activities,” Faber said.

Doolittle could help with the Park Service, Lunny said, and “if a legislation idea were to come around, he could help us with where that might be placed.”

Lunny also said that if the group “did anything with that, they would be working with Congressman Huffman and [Democratic California Sen. Dianne] Feinstein.”

Huffman said the group had not contacted him directly and was instead lobbying Republicans.

“In fact, we ended up reaching out to them to encourage them to communicate directly with us,” Huffman said.

Lunny said he did not know who is funding the group and Doolittle’s lobbying activities. Doolittle declined to comment. And a public relations firm working for the group also did not answer a request for that information.

Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said the seashore’s enacting legislation “doesn’t say anything about establishing ranching in the seashore, or mandating it continue.”

“There is nothing in there that can be construed as protecting ranching,” he said, so any attempt to amending that legislation wold be a major change.

Learning of Doolittle’s activities, Miller said they have heightened concerns that the Republican-controlled Congress could slip a rider into a spending bill or other piece of legislation that could thwart the process laid out in the settlement.

“We’re always watching for that, especially under this Congress,” he said. “It’s always a concern.”

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.