On the April 25th I participated in a guided botanical walk in Point Reyes National Seashore, led by paleontologist and author, Laura Cunningham. We were joined by by the likes of members of the California Native Plant Society, Marin Environmental Action Committee, Parks Commission, pro-ranchers and anti-ranchers.
In the presence of such a knowledgeable and diverse collection of people our eyes beared witness to undeniable land damage and a shocking overtake of invasive species of plant directly related to ranching activities and grazing. Native plants were found almost exclusively in non-grazed areas, but the introduced plants were spreading to these areas as well.
At one point Laura commented, "The management of land here in the seashore is worse than any public lands I've ever seen". The crowd responded with shocked silence until one pro rancher stated, "Yeah, but it's not illegal."
As the tour continued, every disturbing scene we witnessed, every statistic that was provided, was countered with, "but the ranchers have a waiver for that, but legislation says they can do that, it's up to the park's discretion to address the issue," etc. The conversations quickly turned to debates over whether the ranchers were even still on the land legally and if Congress's original intent was for ranching to be permanent in the seashore.
It seemed that the ranches would be defended no matter what atrocities we saw that day. But what really resonated with me was a final conversation of the day, in which I was advised "to be careful, don't push the ranchers too far or something bad might happen". 'Something bad', vague and ominous...what was this, a mafia of some sort? I reflected on the rumours I had heard of death threats going around during the legal battle that ultimately led to the shut down of Drake's Bay Oyster company, owned by one of the Point Reyes Ranchers. I then thought of my own recent experience in which our film festival encountered hostile actions, such as tearing down signs promoting the event and even a threat of blackmail to the venue, stating that they would lose funding from the local community if they chose to host the event. Following the event, the festival organizer suffered discrimination from the local veterinarian who withdrew his services to her sanctuary animals due to her affiliation with dairy alternatives. Most people I approached in the making of my film, even those passionately against the ranching, were reluctant to speak on the record, siting that things could get difficult for them since they lived in the community.
So I went ahead and asked it, "What do you mean by something bad?" He replied that, "They would flex their financial power in Congress." Considering how horrific the Huffman bill was I felt like they had already flexed their power and I wondered how much worse it could get.
Exactly who were these people? According to agriculture-friendly media, these were just small, honest, family businesses struggling to make a living. So...small, struggling families were flexing their muscles in Congress, hiring lobbyists, forming associations and trusts, had their own PR firm, and intimidating locals into silence?! It didn't add up. And I was to get a taste of this myself a month later, when I was seen filming the silage harvest in Point Reyes, and a rancher tracked me down in the South Beach parking lot and attacked me.
Seems like I've been hearing about the struggling farmer who deserves our empathy since I was a child growing up in the midwest, but now that I think about it, even then they were the richest people in town. Embedded deep in our psyches is a notion not to say anything that could be considered offensive or seen as an attack on farmers and even now I feel awkward suggesting that we might possibly need to reconsider all this. Why is it that an industry that is so unsustainable that it requires billions in government subsidies each year, is the leading cause of planetary habitat destruction and greenhouse emissions, all while exploiting animals, can simultaneously be the industry we're all supposed to fall over backwards to make sure survives?
The rest of us are expected to adapt to challenges, to change with the times, to make sacrifices. We have to go back to school, take a second job, change careers, move to an affordable location we don't want to move to, etc....but not ranchers. For some reason the industry that kills our wildlife, reduces wild habitats to barren pastureland, and produces food we shouldn't even be eating while costing this nation billions in tax dollars each year, is the industry we bow to.