Point Reyes National Feedlot

What would you think if you bought a house and after paying for the property, the current owners refused to vacate the property? Worse, yet, the previous owners continued to run their business utilizing your property for their private profit, while degrading the property’s value? Would you not be outraged?


That is exactly what occurs at Point Reyes National Seashore. The ranchers using Point Reyes were paid millions of dollars 40 years ago by taxpayers to acquire their properties and generously given occupancy to continue running their ranches for the rest of their lives or 25-years, whichever came first to provide a “soft” landing.


The 25-year grace period was passed long ago, yet the ranchers continue to use the land for their own business interests—at the expense of the public’s parklands. Indeed, some of these ranchers live in homes owned by all Americans. Imagine getting to reside in a national park —talk about a sweetheart deal.  Not to mention that the private use of these lands precludes the public use of OUR property. Visitors to Point Reyes are not permitted to hike, camp, or otherwise enjoy THEIR property.


However, the worse part of this arrangement are the impacts to our national park.  Heavy grazing and mowing have converted many of the native bunchgrass prairies to fields of exotic weeds.


In fact, to feed the livestock, hundreds of acres of our park is annually plowed up to create fields of exotic invasive silage crops that spread to other parklands. This destroys the native prairies but also harms nesting birds and small mammals when these crops are cut and harvested.


Due to the heavy livestock use, Point Reyes National Seashore has been one of the 10 most feces-contaminated locations monitored in California since 2012. Kehoe Creek has one the state’s highest reported E. coli bacteria levels. And this is permitted to occur in a national park?


Other negative impacts on the public’s property include the spread of exotic weeds, destruction of native grasslands, and the well-publicized death of Tule elk.


The effect on Tule elk is particularly disturbing. The endangered Tule elk, historically very numerous throughout much of California, are now limited to a few select areas in the state, including Point Reyes. However, the elk are trapped inside a small 2, 600-acre enclosure by an 8-foot-high fence designed to keep these native animals off of parklands so as to facilitate domestic livestock production.


The on-going saga about ranchers using OUR lands in a national park unit for their private profit got a new face recently when the local Ag interests hired disgraced former Congressman John Doolittle to lobby on their behalf. Doolittle resigned from Congress in disgrace after it was disclosed he had close ties and business connections to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, you may recall, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion.


Now the ranchers who are using our national park as an open-air feedlot to further their business interests have hired Doolittle to help them maintain their grip on the public’s property. Doolittle is attempting to intimidate the Park Service who are obligated to manage these lands for the greater American public, not the financial interests of private business.


The issue of Point Reyes is about public values. There are few large public holdings like Point Reyes near large urban areas and along the California coast where people can enjoy natural landscapes. On the other hand, there are plenty of private lands in California available to produce meat and milk.


Some of California’s politicians like Senator Diane Feinstein and Representative Jared Huffman appear ready to support legislation that would legalize the continued use of our national parklands for private Ag interests. This is what the Bundys unsuccessfully tried to do when they took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuges. Do these representatives really want to be doing the bidding of private interests who covet our public lands?


Point Reyes should not be run as a private feedlot.  It’s time to permanently remove the livestock operations at Point Reyes and restore native prairies, wildlife, and public access to our property.



  1. Chuck Avatar

    Respectfully, I always appreciate your posts, your zeal, and your commitment to the environment, but I’m compelled to play devil’s advocate here and suggest that maybe this is one of those “pick your battle” moments. Pt. Reyes is a unique situation and perhaps deserves unique mitigation. Imagine what that land would be like if those families hadn’t acted back in the 1960s–either covered in luxury sub-divisions or fenced off as some mogul or robber baron’s personal fiefdom. Without a doubt, there are issues–but rather than boot out these families eeking out modest livings, what if the hostile energy and outrage was channeled into projects to deal with the manure, the run-off, the riparian zone damage. I honestly can’t believe I’m speaking up for cattle on public land, but in our age of Trumpian vitriol towards uses for public resources for purposes other than extraction, maybe a place like Point Reyes can serve as a template for other forms of protection. One example off the top of my head: what if a collective of northern tier farmers wanted to pool together large parcels of wild country but wish to continue living there and pursuing traditional agriculture–small livestock, market gardening, maple syrup? I’m sure someone smarter than I could think of something better. I hate cows, but I’m much more concerned about protection rollbacks and extraction beyond the possibility of restoration–a very real and sinister reality to inarticulate, narrow-minded Appalachian folks like me. Point Reyes struck me as an idyllic balance between farming and protection that fits right into a Wendell Berry narrative. Come visit West Virginia and see if you still feel like a few thousand head of cattle still seems like a gravely dangerous eco-catastrophe.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Every National Park is a “unique situation”. Grand Teton allows elk hunting. Yellowstone has snowmobiles. Yosemite has a tent city at the base of crumbling cliffs. Parks can change, they have many times in the past. The stated purpose of the National Park Service is to protect and preserve the park for the enjoyment of this and future generations. Having cattle does not fit this goal. It’s hard enough to preserve when millions visit every year. There’s a time and place for cattle. Public land, which is owned by every citizen, is not the place.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Well, I don’t like to see Tule elk dying in large numbers from lack of access to water because it is marked for the cattle ranchers and they are fenced out?

    After 250 of them had died, it’s a little late for the Park Service to talk about drought and possibly bringing water in? I hope they have addressed this problem since. Doesn’t sound very idyllic to me:


  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise”. Aldo Leopold

    Remember-America was established by rabid capitalism. One could make a good argument that America was founded on the graves of Indians, the bones of the buffalo, the extermination of the passenger pigeon, the skins of millions of fur bearing mammals and the plumes of birds. Plus side line enterprises such as egg collecting for the black market and poaching which is still a multi million dollar business. So what was ever great about America that Trumps boys want to do over?

    Our water and air are polluted and there are specifically at least 102 bodies of water here in Montana that have fish consumption warnings. Is that making America great again or is it just helping to fill corporate bank accounts?

    Since being a biologist put me out the field a lot- I was once given an assignment to locate and describe the condition of small isolated parcels of public land. They were easy to find-they were all used a garbage dumps. I also reported a number of agricultural trespasses on BLM managed land. Typically an adjacent farmer would plant a crop on BLM land and get away with it. The BLM noted that wildlife habitat was not really worth anything at all but if a farmer “improved” the BLM (public) parcel by planting a crop then there was nothing they could do to remedy the destruction of “worthless” habitat.

    Capitalism is a religion. A dark and savage religion with no saviors walking out of the desert. Not much time left.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine


  4. Jeremy B. Avatar
    Jeremy B.

    Point Reyes is largely the reason I decided to go back to school for a graduate education in natural resources. I moved to Oakland in 2000 while my wife attended graduate school in Berkeley, and spent much of my free time wandering around PR National Seashore. At the time I knew next to nothing about the management of our public lands, but I’d already come to appreciate that Point Reyes “management” was crazy– native elk fenced off to protect cows, non-native deer protected by NPS policy — even to a novice it made no sense. Nevertheless, I grew to love that place, and spent countless hours photographing elk, coyotes, raptors and the occasional landscape. If nothing else, Point Reyes is a great example of what conservation by compromise gets you — i.e., compromised conservation (which, admittedly, is better than no conservation at all).

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner