Welcome to Point Reyes National Cattle Ranch

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Drake’s Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo by George Wuerthner

The National Park Service has published its management plan for agriculture on the Point Reyes National Coastline. That’s right — agriculture in one unit of the national parks system. The decision to continue animal production at Point Reyes National Seashore demonstrates once again why allowing any commercial use of resources in our parks compromises the primary objectives of our park 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 interference in natural ecological processes. The Park Service’s preferred management alternative compromises all of these goals for the benefit of a handful of herders who have been eating at the public watering hole for decades.

The Park Service management plan:

  1. Kill Tule’s native and endangered elk if conflicts arise between private domestic livestock using public lands and public wildlife.
  2. Install a four mile fence to separate elk from domestic cattle using OUR public lands.
  3. Allow pastoralists to convert grasslands to cash crops in rows.
  4. Allow more domestic livestock to use OUR national park for private use.
  5. And of course we, the taxpayers, will pay for it all.

To understand all of this, you need to know the history and the context.

Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962 after years of lobbying and effort by environmentalists, including Conrad Wirth, who became director of the National Park Service in 1951. Before being appointed director, Wirth conducted an NPS survey of the peninsula to assess its potential as a unit of the park, which had recommended that it be protected as a national coastline.

The exceptional biodiversity and picturesque values ​​of the peninsula have been the main motivation for the protection efforts. Point Reyes is home to 460 species of birds, 876 plants, and numerous marine and land mammals. The coastline is home to around 100 listed rare, threatened and endangered species, an incredible diversity given 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 grants special recognition to the marine environment through its Point Reyes State Marine Reserve and Point Reyes State Marine Conservation Area, Estero de Limantour State Marine Reserve designations. 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. As might be expected, ranchers and supervisors in Marin County opposed the creation of the shoreline. Nonetheless, ranchers were paid a substantial sum of money for their properties, often millions of dollars through ranching.

In a generous concession, the occupants of these buildings and the ranchers were not required to leave the seaside immediately. Indeed, they benefited from a suspension of twenty-five years or on the death of the main owners (whichever came first) which allowed them to continue to graze and reside on public property. However, the intention was to stop agricultural production at the end of this period.

But once given a reprieve, the entrenched ranchers were successful in lobbying to stay at the seaside, and the twenty-five year grace period was extended several times.

This is in direct violation of the law creating the national coastline. The legislation requires Point Reyes National Seashore “to be administered by the Secretary without altering its natural values, in a manner that allows for recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretive and scientific research opportunities that are compatible with, based on , and in favor of the maximum protection, restoration and preservation of the natural environment in the region. Allowing the continuation of breeding operations in the park unit does not comply with the stated legislative objectives.

The word “must” is essential. “Shall” does not give the NPS the discretion to advance the interests of ranchers over the protection of the natural environment.

About a third of the 71,000 acres of national shoreline is designated as a “pastoral zone,” where 15 ranch operations graze approximately 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 by the sea. We, the taxpayers, pay for the maintenance of fences and roads on these properties. The NPS (that is, the taxpayers) receives about $ 500,000 in income from ranch leases, less than half of the Park Service’s expenses to maintain them.

This lease agreement with the ranchers came to a head when drought conditions from 2012 to 2014 killed half of the elk population that was trapped behind a fence built to keep the elk confined to a small patch without water. of 2000 acres of coastline. Thus, native Tule elk are sequestered over 2,000 acres, while domestic livestock have free rein on over 38,000 acres in total between the two park units (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 seaside animal production. As part of its regulations, the agency agreed to conduct an environmental review.

Along the Coastal Trail to WIldcate Lake, Point Reyes National Seashore, CA. Photo by George Wuerthner

Fast forward to 2020. The NPS released its final plan, which would give ranchers another twenty years of grazing, allow them to expand livestock operations to include chickens, pigs, goats and sheep. Additionally, for the first time ever, breeders will be allowed to operate guest rooms using our property as well as farm stalls using our property. And finally, in another concession to private commercial interests, the NPS plans to slaughter Tule elk every year to maintain a population that will not compete with ranching operations or upset ranchers.

Collateral damage to livestock operations includes pollution of the park’s waterways. Indeed, one of the park’s streams has one of the highest coliform bacteria counts on the entire California coast. A 2013 coastal watershed assessment asserted that the main threats to water quality at 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 significantly polluted – remember these are state protected marine areas.

Ranch operations also help propagate exotic plants (weeds), and livestock consume forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, including Tule’s 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 think they are working for by the sea.

This shameless capitulation of the NPS to breeding reflects several issues.

Politically entrenched ranchers enjoy significant support in Marin County. Some people in the county claim 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 maintain that their operations are “historic”, although these dairy farms are operated in every way on the model of “industrial agriculture”, and not on a picturesque throwback to the 19e Century.

Finally, it is a question of fairness. The ranchers were paid handsomely for their properties. Some proponents argue that past animal production in the park allows ranchers to continue their operations.

Imagine, if you will, what people would say if the former owners of the lands now protected in Redwood National Park and other redwood state parks were allowed to continue cutting old growth forests because they once harvested logging 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 legislation, meaning that it “will be administered by the secretary without undermining its natural values”.

Allowing cows on public seaside lands for private profit while ransacking public lands and water and harming their wildlife does not meet this obligation.

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