In the dramatic landscape of western Marin County, majestic tule elk graze near cattle amid dense, wafting fog. Lush pastures, dotted with occasional ranch houses – some inhabited, some abandoned – roll on for miles before dropping sharply to the ocean. And tourists who flock to the village of Point Reyes Station brush shoulders with ranch hands buying supplies at Toby’s Feed Barn one minute and browse for pricey art or prize-winning local organic cheeses the next.
West Marin’s landscape of contrasts – social and economic, as well as natural – is shaped largely by an unconventional deal struck with the federal government in 1962 as it was establishing Point Reyes National Seashore. Under the deal – the first of a handful that now permit agriculture in selected national parks – about two dozen active ranches on Point Reyes dating to the 1850s were sold to the government, but the ranchers were allowed to stay in business by renting back the land at very low rates.
That bargain has succeeded for more than four decades. In the early days, it helped to preserve the local economy, stave off sprawling planned commercial and residential development, and beat back an interstate highway planned to cut through rugged Lucas Valley and across another 20 miles of ranchland. As highly restrictive zoning took hold and the delicate relationship between ranchers and the park matured, the deal allowed organic agriculture to develop even as nearby real estate prices soared. Less than an hour’s drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, West Marin is now home to rock stars and CEOs; retirees, artists, and marketing executives; a newspaper heiress turned olive oil magnate; and more than a few environmental pioneers.
But the balance in West Marin is now threatened as locals debate the fate of an oyster farm on the southern shore of Point Reyes. In November 2012, after a brief visit, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opted not to renew the 40-year lease of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, exercising the discretion he had over all federal leases in national parks. Unlike the cattle and dairy ranches in the park, which occupy a pastoral zone that specifically allows farming, he said the oyster company was operating in waters designated as “potential wilderness” under the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act. (See Pub. L. Nos. 94-544, 94-567.)
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