Ranchers battle drought and bureaucracy


Life hasn't changed much since the first settlers brought their cows to Western Marin County.

"We've been into for 140 years, my ancestors down to myself," says cattle rancher Ted McIsaac.

Ted McIsaac's family ranch has been operating in what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for four generations. But for the this first time in 160 years, cows on the McIsaac ranch may graze no more.

"Our problem is this drought. We call it not so much a water drought as a grass drought," says McIsaac.

March, April and May have gone down as the driest months on record. No rain means no food for cows in the area. The grass should be knee high this time of year.

"We are looking at the pure hard cold facts here that we're either going to have to liquidate half our herd or liquidate the entire business," says McIsaac.

The McIssacs aren't alone. Nearly two dozen cattle ranchers in the area and many more around the state are struggling to feed their livestock.

Hay prices have skyrocketed. So many ranchers are hoping they can move their cows to greener pastures, but when you're in a national park, it's not that easy.

McIsaac saw hope just over the fence -- former grazing land adjacent to his ranch. The land was grazed up until 11 years ago, but because it is managed by the national park service, McIsaac can't touch it.

"I approached them and asked if we could use that property for six months, we could open the gate, push half of our cattle into that pasture, let them graze for six months. By December we should have a new grass season started, put them right back where we started from and basically just continue on," says McIsaac.

The park service said no.

"We feel for the ranchers and we'd like to help them, but at this point in time there aren't any options," says John Digregoria with the National Park Service.

The park service says ranchers can't just open gates and let their cattle graze.

"These are areas that haven't had cattle on them for 10, 20, maybe 40 or 50 years, some of them. Is there forage? Sure there's forage. Is there infrastructure to support grazing? Absolutely not," says Digregoria.

Fences will need to be repaired. Water rights will need to be established. There are also concerns about the impact runoff could have on some of the region's environmentally sensitive streams, home to endangered Coho salmon. Such studies can take as long as six months to complete.

Environmentalists worry about the strain spreading cattle may have on the entire ecosystem. They say the cows aren't the only ones struggling because of the lack of rain.

"It's a very widespread problem. Every rancher in the area has a problem. All the native species, the deer, the frogs, everyone's got a problem. It's really dry," says Gordon Bennett with the Sierra Club of Marin.

The Sierra Club of Marin says they'll support economic relief to keep the ranches running during these lean times.

"We've had lots of droughts here before. There's standard processes for how to handle it. What they need is those processes accelerated and help doing that," says Bennett.

Agricultural officials around the state are now pleading for aid. But for ranchers like Ted McIsaac, it can't come quickly enough. This isn't just about keeping his cows alive, it's about keeping a way of life preserved for another generation.

"I am the fourth generation to come along this ranch. I've got three adult kids -- they all want to continue it. It (would) probably be a whole lot simpler for me if they didn't, but this business is in their blood as bad as it is mine," says McIsaac.

McIsaac says if he doesn't get some help within the next week he'll be left with little option but to sell his cows. He says if he does that, more than likely, it will be the end of cattle ranching on his farm.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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