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Opinion: Marin Countywide Plan

Should farmers and ranchers be forced to put public access onto their lands?

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On Sept. 11, the Marin County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to include maps in the countywide plan with proposed trails through working ranches and farms without landowner permission. The plan calls for 126 miles of new trails. There are already 840 miles of public trails in the county, and the proposed trails in the plan put an unrealistic burden on ranchers.

It mattered not that environmental groups, including the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Sierra Club and Marin Audubon, spoke against the proposed trails. It mattered not that the 50 or so ranchers present spoke out against trails through their land. Not one person spoke in favor of having trails go through working ranches and farms.

Public access through working agricultural properties can disrupt operations, introduce animal disease, degrade sensitive wildlife habitat, increase the chances of theft and vandalism and could lead to insurance claims against landowners if accidents occur.

The majority of the supervisors seemed inclined to remove the language in the plan that would allow the county to obtain public trails through eminent domain. However, District 4 supervisor Steve Kinsey insisted that the language remain in the plan, as he did not want to tie the hands of future supervisors. What is a rancher to think of that?

If the county wants to dedicate a trail, the threat of eminent domain hangs over ranchers heads like a guillotine.

All who testified were against the trails, for one reason or another. So why do we have ranch trails on maps for inclusion in the Marin countywide plan? Who wants them? And more to the point, how is the decision made to approve something that most people are strongly opposed to?

One argument made by Supervisor Kinsey was that the 1994 plan included many of these trails, so they had to include them. In this case, we wonder why we have an update to the countywide plan at all. If a part of the plan does not make good sense, is this not the time to remove or change it?

There is another way. We support voluntary agreements between the county and agricultural producers on a case-by-case basis, the proverbial willing seller and willing buyer. If a rancher wants to dedicate a loop trail on his property, great, but his neighbors should not be pressured into dedicating a trail as well, no matter how many trails it would link up.

We support improved trail access for Marin's citizens, but it shouldn't come at the expense of local farmers and ranchers, especially when we have better trail access in Marin County than any other in the Bay Area.

We ask the supervisors to re-examine the county's approach to improving trail access in Marin County. Please remove the proposed trails going through ranch and farmland from the maps unless approved by the landowners, and change planning direction toward a system that encourages voluntary trail easement dedication rather than coercion.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, the Board of Supervisors chose to ignore the public's overwhelming opposition to the county trails plan. We ask them to listen more closely and reconsider their decision.

If you agree that the trail maps should only show trails that landowners have agreed to and that all agreements should be voluntary, please contact the Board of Supervisors at 3501 Civic Center Drive, Room 329, San Rafael, CA 94903, or call 415.499.7331.

Remember, we will only get the plan we want if we ask for it.

Mike Gale is the president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. Frederick Smith is the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. The Bohemian welcomes feedback. Write The Byrne Report returns next week.

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