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

The National Park Service has released its management plan for Agriculture in the Point Reyes National Seashore. That is right—agriculture in a national park system unit. The decision to continue livestock production in Point Reyes National Seashore demonstrates once again why allowing any commercial resource use in our parklands compromises the primary goals of our park system—which is to manage public lands for public values, not private profit.

One of our national park systems’ primary responsibilities is to maintain native ecosystems, protect biodiversity, and minimize human inference in natural ecological processes. The Park Service’s preferred management alternative compromises all these goals to benefit a handful of ranchers who have been eating at the public trough now for decades.

The Park Service’s management plan would:

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

To understand all this, one needs to know the history and context.

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

The peninsula’s outstanding biodiversity and scenic values were the prime motivation for protection efforts. Point Reyes is home to 460 species of birds, 876 plants, and many different marine and terrestrial mammals. The Seashore harbors a hundred listed rare, threatened, and endangered species, an incredible diversity given the seashore’s relatively small size.

This biological diversity prompted UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program to designate Point Reyes as an international biosphere reserve. California also gives the marine environment special recognization through its designations of the Point Reyes State Marine Reserve & Point Reyes State Marine Conservation Area, Estero de Limantour State Marine Reserve & 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, the ranchers and Marin County Supervisors opposed the creation of the seashore. Nevertheless, ranchers were paid a substantial amount of money for their properties, often millions of dollars per ranch acquisition.

In a generous concession, the occupants of these buildings and ranchers were not required to leave the seashore immediately. Indeed, they were given a reprieve of twenty-five years or upon the death of the primary owners (whichever came first) that allowed them to continue grazing and residing in the public’s property.  However, the intention was to sunset ag production at the end of that period.

But once given a reprieve, the entrenched ranchers successfully lobbied to remain on the seashore, and the twenty-five year grace period was extended several times.

This is in direct violation of the law creating the national seashore. The legislation requires that Point Reyes National Seashore “shall be administered by the Secretary without impairment of its natural values, in a manner which provides for such recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research opportunities as are consistent with, based upon, and supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area.” Permitting continued livestock operations in the park unit is not consistent with the stated legislative goals.

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

About one-third of the 71,000-acre national seashore is designated a “pastoral zone,” where 15 ranch operations graze approximately 6000 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.

Also, the buildings, homes, and other structures used by the ranchers (which we own) are within the seashore.  We, the taxpayers, pay for the maintenance of fences and roads on these properties. The NPS (i.e., taxpayers) receives about $500,000 in revenues from the ranch leases—less than half the Park Service’s spends to maintain them.

This lease arrangement with ranchers came to a head when drought conditions in 2012 to 2014 caused the death of half of the elk population who were trapped behind a fence constructed to keep elk confined to a small waterless 2000 acre parcel of the seashore. So the native Tule elk are sequestered on 2000 acres, while domestic livestock are given free rein on over 38,000 total acres 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 livestock production in the seashore.  As part of its settlement, the agency agreed to do 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. Also, for the first time, ranchers will be permitted to operate B and Bs using our property as well as farm stands—using our property. And finally, in another concession to private business interests, the NPS plans to shoot Tule elk annually to maintain a population that will not compete with livestock operations or antagonizes ranchers.

The collateral damage from livestock operations includes pollution of the park’s waterways. Indeed, one stream in the park has some of the highest coliform bacteria counts found along the entire California coast. A 2013 Coastal Watershed Assessment asserted that the principal threats to water quality on Point Reyes were bacterial and nutrient pollution from ranches and dairies. In particular, the Drakes Bay, Limantour, Kehoe, and Abbotts Lagoon areas were significantly polluted—remember these are state-protected marine zones.

The ranch operations also help spread exotic plants (weeds), and livestock consumes forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, including the Tule elk.

Another NPS study confirms that the livestock operations at Point Reyes are responsible for the vast preponderance ”of greenhouse gas emissions” at the park.

Of the public comments the NPS received regarding its management proposal, 91.4 percent opposed it. Still, the NPS reminded the public that their concerns are not as important as those of the ranchers who they believe they work for at the seashore.

This shameless capitulation by the NPS to the livestock industry reflects several issues.

The politically entrenched ranchers have significant support in Marin County. Some county residents argue 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,” though these dairy operations are operated every bit upon the “industrial farming” model, not some quaint throwback to the 19th Century.

Finally, it is a question of equity. The ranchers were paid handsomely for their properties. Some supporters argue that the past livestock production in the park entitles 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 permitted to continue to cut the old-growth forests because they once operated logging operations on these lands.

There are plenty of California places to grow cows, but few places to grow elk and other wildlife. It’s time for the National Park Service to do its duty and manage Point Reyes as directed by its founding legislation—that is, “shall be administered by the Secretary without impairment of its natural values.”

Permitting cows on the seashore’s public lands for private profit while trashing the public’s land and water and harming its wildlife does not meet this obligation.

 

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About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

24 Responses to Welcome to Point Reyes National Cattle Ranch

  1. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    Our public lands and forests have been treated as pasture by livestock producers for far too long. To treat this NATIONAL SEASHORE as pasture even though these “ranchs” have been bought & paid for more than 25 years ago, yet still remain there producing cattle, manure and pollution to a NATIONAL PARK? Why exactly werent these industrial farms forced to move? Historic – no. Factory Farming – yes.
    Most of bought and paid for property means the seller LEAVES! Why are US taxpayers still paying for these livestock operations? This frankly is the same kind of baloney being perpetuated on our public lands in the Western States.
    WHY??? If 91% of the public that commented on this opposed the continuation of the ranches — why werent they listened to?

  2. avatar Gail says:

    I will never understand why ranchers and farmers are hailed as heroes. Of course, some are – and we need them. But we don’t need ALL of them. We don’t need those who infringe on the RIGHTS of U.S. citizens. And we certainly don’t need or want those rebels who are nothing more than entitled squatters. I’m sure the country would be better off and could survive quite well without them.

  3. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    I honestly cannot understand WHY when these ranchers were bought out – SOMEONE didnt undertake the issue of moving them OUT!

  4. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    It truly is outrageous. I keep asking myself whether or not this is a serious proposal – bringing in more livestock and planting row crops? Killing the native Tule Elk at the only place on earth they live? Operating B & B’s? Should be completely stricken from the plan.

    It just sounds like they are going for everything they can, like in a contract negotiation, knowing that they won’t get it.

    Is it too late to sue them?

  5. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    ^^stricken with a red pen!!!!

  6. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    They do not own the properties anymore, so it is especially upsetting, they were bought out? Blatant dollars signs in their eyes to capture tourist dollars with farm stands selling artichokes, and B & B’s, and it probably would work! Neither scenario is good for the environment – tourist overrun and agriculture, and ‘oh look at the elk!’ a tiny maintained herd for the amusement of tourists, like a zoo.

    And in another inevitable drought, the Tule Elk will be the first to go, and the ranchers will need a bailout with taxpayer money.

    I hope there’s something that can still be done; the current operations are enough (some would say enough is too much) as it is!

  7. avatar Ida Lupine says:

    One more thing, if people will bear with me – I know I’ve commented a lot on this.

    I know the NPS is strapped for cash, always – is this the conservatives (and the Democrats too, apparently) way of making the parks more self-sufficient (and operating like a business) and to generate much needed money? Or do they get anything at all out it?

    I know that people don’t like to think about it, but Park entrance fees must be raised in that case, but isn’t that better than than what we’re seeing in Point Reyes?

    • avatar Chris Zinda says:

      The NPS is not strapped for cash. This is a myth created by the NPS to increase their budget and accommodate unlimited visitation.

  8. avatar Chris Zinda says:

    Curious how this is different than any USFWS NWR.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Yeah – why is that, I wonder?

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      None of it should be any more exploited IMO.

      But this instance involves agriculture in drought prone areas, which would seem to be very poor planning for the future. They really can’t be serious.

      I thought that the refuges did grow some crops supposedly with the benefit of feeding migrating birds, and the GMO crop testing too if you can imagine that spreading everywhere, outrageous and stopped by the court.

  9. avatar Gayle Cerri says:

    Ida- the NPS is not strapped for cash. Please read the recent funding bill that was passed.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/us/senate-national-parks-funding-bill.html

  10. avatar LONNA RICHMOND says:

    thank you for this article, mr. wuerther. the whole country needs to hear what is going on here at PRNS. the park service has definitely failed in their mission and they have failed the wilderness and wildlife they were entrusted with protecting. join us at ForElk.org to get involved and stop this travesty from actually becoming policy.

  11. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    I just went on Sen.Feinstein’s site & sent an email regarding this lousy idea. Below is my comment to her:

    “Frankly, my question would be: Why in the world would a Democratic Senator be sponsoring a bill to continue to allow livestock ranching on a National Wildlife Refuge? Point Reyes is already being destroyed by the cattle operations there. Incidentally, those same operations were BOUGHT OUT several years ago – yet are still “leasing” the same places they formerly owned! The idea that our native Tule Elk will be “culled” in order to provide more pasture for private ranchers is just a bit over the limit. To continue to allow these operations to do more destruction to a REFUGE boggles the mind. I would suggest your staff do more research into this whole idea before you finalize this bill. Dairy and beef industrial farming certainly does not belong on a wildlife refuge, nor do “farm stands” and bed & breakfasts! This is a bill that should be prevented from going further.”
    Dont know how much attention she or her staff will pay to a NY citizen but sure is worth a try, right?

    • avatar Ida Lupine says:

      Thank you very much! It’s especially galling when these ranchers do not own the land.

      I’m out on the East Coast too, but my husband’s family is from Northern California.

    • avatar Lisa Stanziano says:

      Thank you, Maggie! It’s absolutely worth writing to Feinstein. Point Reyes is a National park with visitors from all over the world. Feinstein should be thinking of the park’s purpose and the degradation that ranches are causing.

      • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

        Well – might have just been an empty gesture – got an email saying out of state comments get passed by (of course) However I could physically write a letter & mail it THEN someone would read it!
        Sorry – actually thought it might be successful.

  12. avatar Lisa Stanziano says:

    National parks are for the public, not for private ranching and dairy operations. Yet at Point Reyes National Seashore, one-third of the park—28,000 acres—is essentially denied access to the public because of the ranches/dairies. Recently, 7,600 public comments were submitted to the Park Service’s draft management plan for ranching at the Seashore. More than 90 percent of the comments opposed ranching or killing wildlife to accommodate cattle ranching (Plan B). But the National Park Service (NPS) is ignoring public sentiment.

    The NPS is failing in its mandate to protect natural resources and wildlife within the park. Cattle manure is sprayed on parkland and runs off into creeks and the Pacific ocean. Kehoe Creek is one of the most polluted creeks in California. It flows into the Pacific, impacting both freshwater and marine species. Cattle manure also carries a contagious fatal disease, Johne’s disease, that has infected Tule elk in the park. For this reason, the elk cannot be relocated.

    The largest elk herd at the Seashore—about 500 animals—is confined behind an 8- foot fence at the Tomales Point in order to prevent the elk from foraging on park grasslands ranchers say they need for their cattle. The fence prevents the elk from accessing fresh water and food. During the 2014-2016 drought, half the confined elk herd died from malnutrition and thirst. The NPS covered it up. The chosen management plan would allow NPS staff to shoot elk, on their own protected lands, if they encroach on the grass for cattle. This is not protection.

    As if the pollution and killing of native wildlife isn’t devastating enough, the NPS Proposed plan also expands livestock operations to other species (chickens, goats) and would allow row crops–in our national park. This is outrageous and unethical, and completely oppositional to the purpose of a national park. Please contact your elected officials to oppose the Point Reyes National Seashore management plan B.

  13. I presume (hope?) the Park Service has considered the negative genetic effects of isolating a herd of 500 Tule elk. There may well be at least a modest amount of inbreeding, diminishing overall herd resistance to disease or any other stress. There certainly will be a significant, continuing loss of genetic diversity (loss of unique alleles)with consequent loss of ability to adapt to environmental change and some unravelling of the wild genotype. Over time, ever more human intervention will be necessary to keep a semi-domestic herd of “wildlife” going.

  14. avatar Beeline says:

    Capitalism is a “sacred” cow. The United States was formed by using and abusing power to further capitalism. This attitude is entrenched and will not go away until there is a huge body of non-compromising protest.

    If there is to be anything left of North America wildlife habitat then the paradigm has to change. If not the U.S. and it’s empire will crash and burn and we will become like a 3rd world nation or worse. Park pigeons and starlings will be our inheritance.

    Just say no to livestock on public lands. NO COMPROMISE.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Absolutely “JUST SAY NO TO LIVESTOCK ON PUBLIC LANDS! Sounds perfect to me.
      Point Reyes is a small area (compared to other public lands) but its a perfect example as to what is being done to all of them. Either grazing, drilling or mining – or if that fails – developing residential areas! Native wildlife – oh heck we dont need any of that – just more cow manure – more cow forage – more cheat grass so theres more wild fires. And I could go on & on.

  15. avatar Maggie Frazier says:

    AND as an example of what happens when an honest BLM range manager speaks out?
    https://www.peer.org/blm-wont-stop-illegal-grazing
    Hopefully this link will work – if not – just check out the most recent PEER report.

  16. avatar Beeline says:

    Yep: An administration that has no integrity attacks those who do have integrity. Employees that do have integrity stand in the way of the fascist corporate agenda.

    Similar tactics were tried by the Reagan/Watt boys. One of the aims being to make public lands so undesirable to the general public,(through over use and abuse etc.) that concern for public lands would dwindle and the lands could then be sold to private corporations at a discount.

    And by the way the Obama administration Dept of Interior heads, reprimanded fisheries biologists for recommending the removal of dams in Oregon a few years back. While the current republican administration is more visibly and arrogantly attacking environmental law the democrats have also done there share.

    • avatar Maggie Frazier says:

      Yes, neither party has been very pro-wildlife. Sadly the head of BLM/DOI during Obama’s administration was just as pro-livestock! Its up to us to make our feelings about this known.

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