Point Reyes a National Seashore, Not a National Barnyard

By Erik Molvar

The newly-signed settlement between environmentalists, ranchers, and the National Park Service puts Point Reyes on the path to resolving conflicts between private livestock and public wildlife on the National Seashore. It requires a forthcoming planning process, during which the public can hold the Park Service to its obligation to manage these lands “for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration” and to its mandate to leave wildlife and natural resources unimpaired.

Point Reyes National Seashore a favorite recreation area for the more than 7.5 million people who live in the Bay Area, and its recreation value far eclipses the worth of livestock grazing. More importantly, livestock foul and trample beaches and waterways, degrading the natural beauty and health of the environment and harming native wildlife and fishes.

Only 14 ranching operations still graze their livestock on the public lands of Point Reyes. I don’t blame them for wanting to continue their sweetheart deal. It’s in their own self-interest. But it is the taxpayers who bought the lands that became Point Reyes National Seashore, and they should have the final say in what are the best and appropriate uses of their public lands. These ranching and dairying families sold the land years ago at fair market value, and it is long past time to transition the National Seashore lands over to uses that benefit the public as a whole.

Cattle at Point Reyes National Seashore © Erik Molvar.

There are plenty of nearby places to grow local food without imperiling rare tule elk and threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs on a National Seashore. The Bay Area sits at the doorstep of the Central Valley, one of the world’s most productive agricultural breadbaskets. Much of the food produced there is exported; there is more than enough to supply local markets. In addition, organic farms and artisanal agricultural operations up and down the coast yield an abundance of produce from private lands without infringing on the National Seashore.

While local agricultural lands are not in short supply, certain species of native fish and wildlife certainly are. Tule elk are trying to make a comeback at Point Reyes National Seashore, but ranchers are insisting free-roaming elk be removed, fenced out of lease areas, shot, or sterilized; park policy for the largest elk herd has been to keep them fenced on a peninsula that does not have adequate water and food sources during a drought. Although the Park Service has made progress fencing cattle out of critical streams for endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead trout, livestock operations in the park continue to accelerate erosion and degrade stream habitat quality.

The settlement puts an end to endless rubber-stamping of grazing lease extensions without assessing the environmental harms to wildlife and habitat, but it does not predetermine an end to livestock grazing on Point Reyes National Seashore. Instead, it requires an updated General Management Plan that analyzes the impact of cattle grazing on tule elk and other wildlife, and fully and fairly considers options that include no livestock grazing or reduced grazing. The four-year planning process will include public review and comment, and in the interim ranching operations can continue on a temporary basis.

Members of the public who love and enjoy the natural beauty of Point Reyes and who would like to see cattle-damaged lands recover will finally get their chance to weigh in on the best uses and management of the National Seashore.

Elected officials will have to decide whether to back the public interest in restoring the natural beauty and ecological health of Point Reyes, to side with a handful of ranchers who want to continue and expand their private commercial enterprise on our public land, or to simply stand aside and let the process work.

At Western Watersheds Project, we stand on the side of nature, and look forward to helping the just transition from agronomy to public benefit on the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and works as executive director for Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect western watersheds and wildlife. The view expressed in this column are WWP’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of our co-plaintiffs in the Point Reyes litigation.


  1. alf Avatar

    If I remember correctly, DINO U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein is a close friend of one of the multimillionaire hobby ranchers who has a grazing permit at Point Reyes, and in the past, she’s made it known that she approves continued grazing there. I suspect she’ll do every thing she can to continue the practice, even pulling strings after she leaves the senate (if she ever leaves it !)

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I’m sure we all remember this atrocity. Let’s hope that there’s a ‘balance’ of interests and a more collaborative approach:


  3. Elizabeth Avatar

    If the cattle are gone in favor of indigenous grazers are you also in favor of the top predators being returned to this place of public use? Are you aware that these lands were saved from rampant development because the families were assured that their vocations would be allowed to continue? Is an area to be completely stripped of it’s human and cultural history?

    1. Erik Avatar

      The top predators are starting to return already, having established a pack on the Lassen National Forest. Wolves are widely feared, but baselessly so: I have been between a pack and its pups of the year in Alaska, each no farther than 30 feet, and never was in danger. The indigenous history and culture (thousands of years’ worth) is hard to spot today; it seems likely that the historic ranch sites so well-marked on today’s seashore will remain, and active agricultural operations will continue on nearby private lands.

    2. Jim Coda Avatar

      Elizabeth, it is not true that these lands were saved from development because the ranchers were assured they would be allowed to continue ranching forever.

      The ranchers successfully fought the creation of the Seashore for several years. Finally, NPS agreed to legislation that only allowed NPS to acquire ranches from “willing sellers.” No condemnation allowed.

      After the legislation passed, NPS bought a couple of ranches and gave the sellers 20 year leasebacks. When the other ranchers saw that, they started selling to NPS and some also bought ranches outside the Seashore with the money they received. But there is nothing in the Seashore legislation that gives the ranchers any right to continue.

      All units of the national park system are to be managed primarily for the protection of natural resources, not ranching. In my mind, it’s hard to square ranching with that.

      As for stripping the Seashore of its human and cultural history in terms of ranching, there is nothing unique in that regard about ranching in the Seashore. It occurs in every rural area of the United States and in almost all cases is older and more historic than what is occurring in the seashore.

      As for your comment regarding top predators, there are black bears in California, including nearby Mendocino County and Sonoma County. There have even been reports periodically of black bear sightings in Marin County. The tule elk have no predators in the Seashore and I think reintroducing some black bears to the Seashore would be a good way to restore ecological some balance. Black bears are significant predators of elk calves in Yellowstone.

      1. alf Avatar

        Are there coyotes at Point Reyes ? I’d be surprised if there aren’t. Coyotes can and do prey on young elk calves.

        If or when the Tule elk population at Point Reyes outgrows the available habitat, isn’t there suitable unoccupied habitat that at least some of the surplus could be transplanted to ?

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Are multimillionaire hobby ranchers people whose livelihoods are threatened?

  5. Joanne Gura Avatar
    Joanne Gura

    I would like to see the public have the input and final decisions when it comes to public lands. We all have our own ideas about what is best, but it should be the public who decides, not private corporations who are using our lands when we may not want them to. I think our politicians have too many self interests to be in charge of our lands, they are making decisions based on what they want, not what we want. That is not good for any of us or the creatures who live on the land.

    1. alf Avatar

      Decisions on land use – and all other decisions for that matter, whether political, economic, social, or anything else – should be based not on short term interests or desires, and certainly not on the demands or special interest pressure groups, but on the long-term health of the land, and the communities it supports, PERIOD !

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