A disservice to the community; Rely on the science instead.

*** The following letter by Sarah Killingsworth was originally published in the Point Reyes Light. It is reprinted here with the permission of the author. 

Dear Editors –


In their opinion piece supporting ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore (Point Reyes Light, July 9, 2020), Sue Conley and Albert Straus make the following statement in the penultimate paragraph, “Cows keep grasslands healthy by stimulating pasture growth, fertilizing the soil, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.”  That sweeping statement is simply not true of the ranches and dairies in the National Seashore.  And claiming that ranches and dairies promote “healthy grasslands” in the Seashore highlights a problem in the dialogue about the General Management Plan for the Point Reyes National Seashore: value judgments masquerading as factual statements.  Statements about the Seashore ranches and the culling of the Tule elk include value judgments. For example, whether ranches should be preserved and continue to operate in the Seashore is a value judgment.  Whether habitat for endangered species should be compromised to allow human economic activity in a National Seashore is a value judgment. Whether native wildlife in a National Seashore should be killed to promote human economic interests is a value judgment.  


There is ample scientific data about the impact of ranches and dairies on the Seashore’s wildlife, lands and water.  And those studies contradict the statement in Ms. Conley and Mr. Straus’s piece.  A summary of the negative impacts of ranching activities in the Seashore can be found on pages vi and vii of the Executive Summary section of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (available on the NPS website) in the discussion of the alternatives that include ranching.  Mowing silage has been shown to be detrimental to wildlife [See DiGaudio, R. T., Humple, D. L., & Gardali, T. (2015). Estimating Impact of Mowing in the Silage Fields of Point Reyes National Seashore on Breeding Birds: Final Report to the National Park Service. Point Blue Conservation Science].  Ranches and Dairies pollute waterways in the Seashore.   Waterways near Kehoe and Abbotts, among others,  consistently test below standards with excessive levels of e. coli and low oxygenation as a result of ranch nitrogen runoff. [See, for example,  (2013) NPS Coastal Watershed Assessment].  The ranches are falling below standards set for them by the NPS [Bartolome, J., Hammond, M., Hopkinson, P., & Ratcliff, F. (2015). 1987-2014 Residual Dry Matter Analysis Report and Updated Rangeland Monitoring Guidelines for Livestock Grazing Grasslands within Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. University of California, Berkley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management].  And there is abundant literature on the negative impact of cattle ranching on global warming and release of carbon into the atmosphere.  In short, while Ms. Conley and Mr. Straus may personally value ranching above the competing environmental interests, ranching and dairying is not keeping the park “healthy” as it is currently practiced. 


Regardless of the values being espoused, we should make sure our statements are based on real data and facts about what is happening in our Seashore.  Denying the negative environmental impact of the ranches and dairies on the Seashore is no different than denying the existence of climate change or claiming that COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax.  It precludes a meaningful discussion of how to move forward because it denies the existence of the present reality.  We need to rely on scientific data in our policy making and in our conversations.   Misinformation campaigns may be popular on a national level, but locally we can and should do better.  The Seashore is a magical place, and generalizations that are not based on scientific data do a disservice to this community. 


Sarah Killingsworth


Sarah Killingsworth is a Northern California-based wildlife photographer and a Wildlife Educator with Project Coyote. A frequent public speaker about coexistence with wildlife, her photography has been published in both local and national media, in print and online.  Sarah is also an attorney and mediator whose practice focuses on dispute resolution.






  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar

    Wow, really good intelligent, scientific, backed-up answer to people who still are under the impression that livestock – as practiced in Point Reyes AND our public lands – is in any way beneficial to the environment – ours or other species!!
    Way to go.

  2. Swede George Avatar
    Swede George

    I would argue that excluding the value of preserving historic ranching operations(which are in no small part to be thanked for the lack of development on the Peninsula) and the detrimental effects of removing ranches would have to the regional agricultural industry(one of the most progressive in the world) is, in itself, a value judgement. Humans have made choices about land and vegetation management since the first day prehistoric peoples lived here.
    The grassland imagery of Pt Reyes that so many identify with would to a large extent disappear without cattle. Elk are and will need to be managed even if all the cattle were removed. The management and maintenance of the ranching infrastructure will be left to the already over taxed NPS. This is a human landscape already. But the humans who live there love it.

    I am for more prescribed grazing, more of a balance with the elk and a more holistic approach to managing the greater PRNS ecosystem. But cessation of ranching will certainly lead to more management hurdles.

    Read The Paradox of Preservation Laura Watt

    1. Hiker Avatar

      I seem to remember some agreement to phase out ranching there. Somehow that was violated again and again.
      If it’s history you want, why not choose one ranch house and turn it into a museum? Otherwise maybe we should have millions of Bison on their plains of old, hunted in the old way by Natives. Maybe issue live ammunition to Civil War reenactors.
      History should not get in the way of Preservation.

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar

        Bison? Absolutely! Maybe live ammunition to civil war re-enacters possibly a bridge too far???

        1. Hiker Avatar

          Obviously ridiculous. That’s my point. Historical ranching is equally ridiculous.

          1. Maggie Frazier Avatar

            Yes I agree! The idea that “pasturing” livestock on public lands – especially arid, forested or mountainous public lands is equally ridiculous.

      2. Swede George Avatar
        Swede George

        Some agreement? Cite specific passage and sources.

  3. Beeline Avatar

    We live in an empire of illusion and illusion is much more popular than science. At least part of the illusion is that public lands are cow pastures. They were grazed historically as part of a “manifest destiny”, cowboy economy, so that must mean that grazing is compatible on public lands today. Hollywood featured cows and cattle drives etc in a number of westerns. Folks at large have absorbed this propaganda for the past 80 years so their first instinct is to believe that cows are just part of the “old west”. It is also a form of racism. Cows must be better than buffalo or deer because cows “fit” into the commodification of our corporate economy.

    Scientifically speaking cows do not really have any particular value for the land/vegetation complex on public lands but their presence is accepted and permitted under public law. Cattle generally set back ecological succession so if one uses tunnel vision then you might say that cattle can maintain a grassland. But that does not mean that the habitat is at all useful to indigenous species. And who really wants to go to a special public lands area and experience a close “mowed” lawn with cow pies and flies.

    So as H.L. Mencken said “It is a natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to over come this tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true (only); it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false”.

    So if your arguing on the side of science- “Give them both barrels”.

  4. Rich Avatar

    Swede George – Your comments raise the question of why the grasslands found in Yellowstone, Yosemite and other national and state parks have not “disappeared” without the “management and maintenance of the ranching infrastructure” and invasive cows? Seems like your argument relies more on bovine scatology than on science.

    1. Swede George Avatar
      Swede George

      Yellowstone is home to a herd of 3,000 bison, a species whose diet is neary 100% grass. Not to mention a number of other grazers and browsers that rely more on shrubs. I don’t know about the historical vegetation dynamics there but pleae provide your scientific evidence that it hasn’t lost grassland. As for Yosemite, what grasslands? The remaining meadows are a shadow of pre-european fire maintained labdscapes. Heres some evidence for type conversion of coastal prairie:
      Landscape scale vegetation-type conversion and fire hazard in the San
      Francisco bay area open spaces Russel & McBride, Landscape and Urban Planning 2003

      1. Hiker Avatar

        Comparing cattle to Bison is like comparing apples to manure. Bison, when allowed their freedom, naturally move around the landscape. There’s plenty of grass for them in Yellowstone.
        There’s also a lot of grass in Yosemite. But that park is so different than Yellowstone. It really has nothing to do with this discussion.

        The fact is that cattle are way more destructive than any natural grazer.

      2. Rich Avatar

        I didn’t contend there were more or less grasslands in Yellowstone only that there are abundant grasslands throughout the park as well as many other parks in response to your unscientific assertion those grasslands would disappear w/o management by ranchers and invasive cows. Nature evolves over time depending on many factors – some favoring grasslands some favoring forests or other landscapes. You apparently want to keep nature static by using invasive cows to displace native animals and plants. In your value system cows should have permanent use of Point Reyes National Seashore for the economic benefit of a few ranchers at the expense of American taxpayers and the detriment of native wildlife. Your personal values are not necessarily what is best for the our public lands such as Point Reyes National Seashore.

        You cite an article on open space planning in an urban setting. What is your point? Hopefully you aren’t suggesting that those studies be a guide for management of public lands set aside for our national parks, monuments and seashores. BTW you were apparently completely unaware of the fact that taxpayers have paid for our public lands to remain public at Point Reyes National Seashore. Unfortunately the ranchers took the money and now refuse to honor their agreements and commitments. If you bother to read any of the articles you requested and Hiker provided, hopefully you are now better informed. As stated in the opinion written by Sue Conley and Albert Straus – “Denying the negative environmental impact of the ranches and dairies on the Seashore is no different than denying the existence of climate change or claiming that COVID-19 is a Democratic hoax.”

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It was a terrible thing to deny over 250 Tule Elk access to water and let them die. If ranchers have a ‘lease’ there, they should try to take better care to have their activities more harmonious with nature. It is a National Seashore.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar

      Yes & somehow, my picture of a National Seashore does NOT have cows & fences & MANURE in it!!
      course, thats just me.

  6. diane gentile Avatar

    Illusion, indeed! We’ve been conditioned to believe that we need the cattle to maintain balanced grasslands but common sense tells us otherwise. You need look no further for an explanation than this article by Laura Cunningham: https://nobullsheet.net/author/coastalprairie/


Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox