How not to build consensus




At the Ranch Plan Workshop last night in Point Reyes Station sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and other groups, Nita and Will Vail told the story of how their family ranching operation on Santa Rosa Island was ended about 7 years before their lease with the NPS expired.  Their tale followed the talk by Tim Setnicka, given on October 23, in which Tim portrayed the NPS as bringing in various State and Federal agencies to harass the Vail ranch with environmental quality demands (water quality, species protection). Nita and Will did not repeat these details, but instead looked forward in time and recommended to the audience of local ranchers and others that, to improve the ranches’ position in the park planning, we need to:

1. Find a leader to bring people together.

2. Identify the objectives of the NPS in the Seashore and try to show that ranching can help to meet some of them.  These are sensible suggestions.


Their talk was then followed by a Q&A period. Corey Goodman denounced Neil Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association for suing the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. and hastening their demise.  He also demanded that Neil, in the audience, take an oath that his organization would not sue the ranchers in the Seashore or the NPS to restrict ranching operations.  Corey and an attorney who had represented the Oyster Co. in their efforts to extend their lease had suggested that environmental groups take such an oath in their op ed piece in the Light on November 11.  Neil said that Corey was being “ridiculous.”  Many in the audience urged Neil to respond to this out of order challenge from Goodman.  Neil then spoke briefly, stating that his organization supported ranching in the park. This was only the warm up, however.  Phyllis Faber then spoke, saying that Neil “had always been an A-hole,” referring I presume, to the Oyster Co. struggle.  Neil did not respond to this provocation.  From all this, it seemed to me that the meeting was a set-up to defame Mr. Desai.


I have extensive experience in meetings with opposing interest groups concerning urban transportation lawsuits in which I was an expert for the environmental side, and have never seen such counterproductive and insulting behavior.  This display of emotional outbursts by two leading citizens can only damage the reputation of the ranchers in the park and the Chamber.  It is obvious that damning your opponents, especially in public, will not lead to consensus on issues being contested.  The meeting was televised and will be on local radio, too, as well as in the local papers.


I suggest that future meetings on this issue be chaired by someone with experience and that the rules be agreed on at the start.  Speakers who will not be positive should be cut off and invited to leave.  Otherwise, meetings degenerate and are not productive.


Referring to the Vail’s recommendations, the ranchers clearly need better leadership and they also need to get over the last war and focus on the NPS’ objectives in the upcoming Ranch Plan.


Robert A. Johnston, Emeritus Professor, U.C.