Welcome to Point Reyes National Cattle Ranch
The National Park Service has released its management plan for agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore. That’s right — farming in a unit of the national park system. The decision to continue livestock production at Point Reyes National Seashore demonstrates once again why allowing any commercial use of resources in our parks undermines the primary goals of our parks system, which is to manage public lands for public values, and not for private profit.
One of the primary responsibilities of our national park systems is to maintain native ecosystems, protect biodiversity, and minimize human intervention in natural ecological processes. The Park Service’s preferred management alternative jeopardizes all of those goals for the benefit of a handful of ranchers who have been eating at the public watering hole for decades.
The Park Service Management Plan:
- Kill native and endangered Tule elk if conflicts arise between private domestic livestock using public lands and public wildlife.
- Install a four mile fence to separate elk from domestic cattle using OUR public lands.
- Enable ranchers to convert grasslands to commercial row crops.
- Allow more domestic livestock to use OUR national park for private purposes.
- And of course, we, the taxpayers, will pay for all of this.
To understand all this, one must know the history and the context.
Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962 after years of lobbying and effort by conservationists, including Conrad Wirth, who became director of the National Park Service in 1951. Before being named director, Wirth led an NPS survey of the peninsula to assess its potential as a national park unit, which had recommended its protection as a national coastline.
The exceptional biodiversity and landscape values of the peninsula have been the main motivation for protection efforts. Point Reyes is home to 460 species of birds, 876 plants, and many different marine and land mammals. The coastline is home to around 100 listed rare, threatened and endangered species, an incredible diversity considering the relatively small size of the coastline.
This biological diversity prompted UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program to designate Point Reyes as an International Biosphere Reserve. California also gives special recognition to the marine environment through its designations of Point Reyes State Marine Reserve and Point Reyes State Marine Conservation Area, State Marine Reserve d’Estero de Limantour and Drakes Estero State Marine Conservation Area and Duxbury Reef State Marine Conservation Area.
Beginning in the 1960s, the federal government acquired the private lands that occupied the peninsula. Predictably, ranchers and overseers in Marin County opposed the creation of the shoreline. Nevertheless, ranchers received a substantial amount of money for their holdings, often millions of dollars per ranch acquisition.
In a generous concession, occupants of these buildings and herders were not required to leave the waterfront immediately. In effect, they enjoyed a reprieve of twenty-five years or upon the death of the principal owners (whichever came first) which allowed them to continue to graze and reside on public property. However, the intention was to end agricultural production at the end of this period.
But once granted a reprieve, the entrenched herders successfully lobbied to stay by the sea, and the twenty-five-year grace period was repeatedly extended.
This is in direct violation of the law creating the national coastline. The legislation requires that Point Reyes National Seashore “shall be administered by the Secretary without detriment to its natural values, in a manner that provides opportunities for compatible recreation, education, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research. with, based on, and in favor of the maximum protection, restoration and preservation of the natural environment in the area Permitting the continuation of ranching activities in the park unit is inconsistent with the objectives legislative statements.
The word “must” is essential. “Shall” does not give the NPS discretion to favor the interests of ranchers over the protection of the natural environment.
About a third of the 71,000-acre national coastline is designated as a “pastoral zone,” where 15 ranching operations graze about 6,000 cattle (more than ten times the number of Tule elk) on 28,000 acres of parkland as well as 10,000 acres in the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
In addition, the buildings, houses and other structures used by ranchers (which we own) are located by the sea. We, the taxpayers, pay for the maintenance of the fences and roads on these properties. The NPS (i.e. the taxpayers) receives about $500,000 in revenue from the ranch leases, less than half of the Park Service’s expenditures to maintain them.
This lease deal with ranchers came to a head when drought conditions from 2012 to 2014 caused the death of half of the elk population who were trapped behind a fence built to keep the elk confined to a small patch with no water. of 2,000 acres from the seashore. Thus, native Tule elk are sequestered on 2,000 acres, while domestic cattle roam freely on more than 38,000 acres in total between the two units of the park (Point Reyes and Golden Gate NRA).
In 2016, three groups — Western Watersheds Project, Resource Renewal Institute, and Center for Biodiversity — sued the Park Service, alleging that an environmental impact statement was needed to address the impacts of livestock production on the shoreline. As part of its settlement, the agency agreed to do an environmental review.
Fast forward to 2020. The NPS has released its final plan, which would give ranchers another twenty years of pasture, allowing them to expand livestock operations to include chickens, pigs, goats and sheep. Additionally, for the first time, ranchers will be permitted to operate guesthouses using our property as well as farm stalls – using our property. And finally, in another concession to private commercial interests, the NPS plans to shoot Tule elk every year to maintain a population that will not compete with ranching operations or antagonize ranchers.
Collateral damage from ranching operations includes pollution of the park’s waterways. In fact, one stream in the park has one of the highest levels of coliform bacteria on the entire California coast. A 2013 coastal watershed assessment asserted that the main threats to water quality in Point Reyes were bacterial and nutrient pollution from ranches and dairies. In particular, the areas of Drakes Bay, Limantour, Kehoe and Abbotts Lagoon have been heavily polluted – remember these are state protected marine areas.
Ranch operations also help spread exotic plants (weeds) and livestock consume fodder that would otherwise support native herbivores, including Tule elk.
Another NPS study confirms that Point Reyes ranching operations are responsible for the vast preponderance of “greenhouse gas emissions” in the park.
Of the public comments the NPS received regarding its management proposal, 91.4% opposed it. Still, the NPS has reminded the public that their concerns are not as important as those of the ranchers they believe they work for by the sea.
This shameless NPS capitulation to the ranching industry reflects several issues.
Politically entrenched ranchers enjoy strong support in Marin County. Some county residents argue that the ranches provide “local” food. Never mind that California has more than 5 million cows and there is no shortage of places to produce “local” food. The ranchers also argue that their operations are “historic,” although these dairy farms are operated in every way on the “industrial farming” model, not a quaint throwback to the 19and Century.
Finally, it is a question of fairness. Ranchers were paid handsomely for their properties. Some proponents argue that past livestock production in the park allows ranchers to continue their operations.
Imagine, if you will, what people would say if the former owners of the now protected lands in Redwood National Park and other redwood state parks were allowed to continue cutting old-growth forests because they once logged forestry operations on these lands.
There are many places in California to raise cows, but few places to raise elk and other wildlife. It is time for the National Park Service to do its duty and manage Point Reyes in accordance with its founding law, which is “to be administered by the Secretary without detriment to its natural values.”
Allowing cows on coastal public lands for private purposes while trashing public lands and water and harming its wildlife does not meet this obligation.