California Coastal Commission On Point Reyes Ranching

Dairy and beef cattle are grazed at Point Reyes National Seashore sixty years after the properties were purchased by American citizens. Photo George Wuerthner 

Fences. Everywhere I went during a recent trip to Point Reyes, I encountered fences. Why are there fences in a national park unit? They exist to facilitate the private use of public lands for a personal profit with the full blessing of the Point Reyes National Seashore administration.

Fences are symbolic of the controversy surrounding this park area. There are over 300 miles of barriers in the park. The controversy surrounding private ranching in a national park illustrates the problems created when personal profit and “cultural” preservation trumps the other values national parks are supposed to preserve.

Fenceline contrast showing how livestock destroys native vegetation in the park. Photo George Wuerthner

Livestock grazing in the park significantly degrades natural values, which the NPS is supposed to protect. This includes damage to streams, pollution of waterways, and harm to native fauna and flora.

Like zombies rising from the dead, every time the grace period for ranchers to operate on these public lands has ended, another grace period is initiated. A controversial new management plan by the NPS calls for renewal of rancher’s grazing privileges in the park for another 20 years, expansion of agricultural crop growing, and the killing of Tule elk, a rare subspecies of elk found only in California, so they do not compete with domestic livestock within Point Reyes. It would also permit installing a four-mile fence to separate elk from domestic cattle using OUR public lands. Allow ranchers to convert grasslands to commercial row crops. And expand the number of livestock permitted to graze the park.


Official NPS sign that calls attention to the “historic” ranch in the park, but never mentions the historic destruction of park values that comes with livestock. Photo George Wuerthner

The National Park Service considers the fences part of the “cultural heritage” of the area they suggest needs to be protected. The NPS is protecting private use and the degradation of public assets to benefit a small but vocal group of ranchers and their urban supporters.

It is evident when you travel to the park where the NPS stands with regards to ranching. Interpretative signs tell you that ranching is “historical” (so was slavery in other parks, but we don’t maintain slaves for “cultural” reasons), and we are told how much milk or meat is produced to “feed the nation and other “facts” designed to put Ag use in a positive light.


Recently the California Coastal Commission (CCC) issued a tentative approval to an NPS plan to expand livestock grazing in the park under the guise of preserving the “cultural heritage.” The CCC 5-4 vote for the “conditional concurrence” did put some sidebars on its approval.

Some of the worse polluted streams along the entire California coast drain Point Reyes National Seashore. E coli levels are far above state maximum standards. Photo George Wuerthner

The NPS must come up with, in one year, a plan to reduce (but not eliminate) water pollution in the park. It specifically halts final approval of the NPS plans to extend grazing privileges until the CCC approval of the water quality proposal. And it only allows a five-year period to implement and improve water quality rather than the ten-year proposal made by the NPS. The NPS must also produce a climate action plan.

The Superintendent of Point Reyes objected to the amendments but finally agreed to produce the materials in the timeline required.

Several proposed amendments failed, including one that would have prevented the Park Service from killing Tule elk. Another amendment offered would have prevented the Ag interests from diversifying their operations with other crops. A CCC member from Marin County opposed both.

Point Reyes is one of the few places where native Tule elk are found in California. In 2020, approximately 300 elk were fenced in at Tomales Point, and another 300 or so free-reining elk concentrated at  Drakes Beach area and Limantour-Muddy Hollow-Glenbrook area. More than 5700 cows in OUR park.  Isn’t there something wrong with this picture when domestic animals outnumber native wildlife species nearly 10 to 1 in a national park?

When you drive to Point Reyes, you pass dairy and cattle farms almost continuously. There is no shortage of cattle/cows in Marin County or Sonoma County, or California. California is home to more than 5 million cattle- the 4th highest in the entire country. Why should we allow private individuals to graze domestic livestock, a commodity abundant on private lands throughout the state and nation, in a national park unit?

Ironically, most of the support for continued livestock grazing in the park comes from liberal Marin County residents who believe there is no place else in California to produce dairy products or beef except in a national park.


Controversy over livestock grazing in the park has existed since its inception. When the National Seashore was first incepted, the entire Point Reyes peninsula was originally private farmland.

The Point Reyes peninsula is one of the few California coastal areas that are specifically protected for native plants and animals. Photo George Wuerthner

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 in 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.

An interpretative sign promoting the livestock industry as an economic force. Photo George Wuerthner 

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.

It is obvious that livestock grazing is severely alternating the native vegetation of the park as this fenceline contrast demonstrates. Photo George Wuerthner 

This plan 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 protecting the natural environment.

About one-third of the 71,000-acre national Seashore is designated a “pastoral zone,” where 15 ranch operations graze approximately 5700 cattle (more than 10 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. A total of 24 ranches operate on these public lands.

In addition to being permitted to graze livestock on public lands in the park, ranchers are allowed to “lease” the houses, barns, and other structures owned by Americans for rock bottom prices. Photo George Wuerthner

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. These leases do not include the grazing of livestock, but the occupation of homes, use of barns, and other buildings. When you consider how much housing in Marin County costs, the 24 ranch operators are getting a substantial public subsidy.


Elk-proof fence on Tomales Peninsula designed to imprison native Tule elk to keep them from interfering with livestock operations within the park. Photo George Wuerthner

This lease arrangement with ranchers came to a head when drought conditions from 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. Most of the native Tule elk are sequestered on 2000 acres, while domestic livestock is given free rein on over 38,000 total acres between the two park units (Point Reyes and Golden Gate NRA).


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.

Tule elk, once abundant in California, are now relegated to a few preserves which includes Point Reyes. However, many are fenced in a portion of the park to prevent them from competing with domestic livestock operations. Photo George Wuerthner 

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. For instance, a recent survey found E. coli bacteria concentrations up to 40 times higher than state health standards. Enterococci bacteria were up to 300 times the state health standard at Kehoe Lagoon.

Abbotts Lagoon, one of the waterways significantly polluted from livestock operations in the park. Photo George Wuerthner 

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.

Livestock at Point Reyes are responsible for Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Photo George Wuerthner

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

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.

As I explored Point Reyes encountering fences all over the national Seashore, I kept thinking about Ronald Reagan’s admonishment about the Berlin Wall to Mr. Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall.’ I feel compelled to shout to the Point Reyes Superintendent, “Mr. Kenkel, tear down those fences.” Like the Berlin Wall, park wildlife should be free to roam. Something is wrong when native animals like elk are given second priority to maintain private operations in a national park.


  1. Kenneth Bouley Avatar
    Kenneth Bouley

    Thanks George, great article — spot on. Representative Huffman said the GMPA process regarding ranching in Point Reyes has been “really inclusive.” The facts are, the NPS was sued into having to do the EIS in the first place, and the > 50,000 comments submitted by the public to the NPS and CCC were overwhelmingly (>90%) against the plan and in favor of shutting down the operations. But the Park Service is going to go ahead anyway. This is apparently how our representative (which maybe should be in quotes, “Representative”) defined “inclusive.” We all know the fix was in from him and Feinstein some time ago, and the agencies are just checking boxes to ram it through. We are being “participated.”

  2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    So the American taxpayer, the OWNER of this beautiful National Seashore, has to subsidize these ranchers so they can continue to occupy this Park! Sounds just like the issue of livestock on our Western Public Lands, doesn’t it? Same deal. In order for these livestock producers to make a profit from their BUSINESSES, we, the owners of the land, must pay for their privilege to do so! In my mind, if a business isn’t able to keep afloat on its own recognizance? Then possibly its time to quit. Exactly why should a few individual residents of Marin be able to dictate to US taxpayers?

  3. cynthia brown Avatar

    the Tule Elk should out number the cattle in national parks this is plain wrong to deny these animals food and
    water in their own habitat. This place is for wild Elk and
    other animals not a dariy b usinees

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Can anything be done to stop this? It’s bad enough that lease agreements are renewed and extended, but any expansion should not. Tule elk should never be harmed in a place where they have historically lived.

    Farm stands and B&Bs should not be patronized if they ever do go ahead with this poorly planned and unsustainable idea.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Ida::: Deb Haaland, as Sec. of Interior could stop this destructive anti-wildlife “General Plan” with one stroke of the pen…. Otherwise, bring on the lawyers!

      1. cynthia brown Avatar

        These Elk shouldn’t to destroyed this is their home and
        their land. Cattle should get out

  5. Helen McGinnis Avatar
    Helen McGinnis

    I am a native of Marin County, in which the national seashore is located. When I was a child/teenager in the 1940s and 1950s, my parents would take us on drives through the area. At the time, it was filled with dairy farms, which hardly exist as such in the country today. Also, by the 1960s, major suburban developments were planned in what is now the National Seashore. I suspect conservationists were willing to concede to the dairy farmers to prevent something worse. In fact, in part of the area, access roads for the developments had already been constructed and still can be seen. The Sierra Club published a book as part of their efforts to save it from the suburbs. Not that I approve of what’s going on now–just some background.

    1. Makuye Avatar

      Unfortunately those inland farms were replaced by huge population explosion and winos.
      In regard to the latter, please explore this very recent (not yet peer-reviewed) observational research on alcohol. I’ve looked it over and the numerous statistical tools used have made for some of the most excellent work I’ve seen on the subject. It also parallels my experience watching winos age. And by winos, i mean everyone having two glasses per day.
      Get WINE out of redwood country.

  6. Edward Heisel Avatar
    Edward Heisel

    In a world with nearly 8 billion humans, about a billion cattle, and far too few parks and wildlife refuges, I agree it’s time to turn these public lands back to nature.

    1. cynthia brown Avatar

      Edward I agree this should a park for Tule Elk and other
      other wildlife not cattle ranches. Let it go back to nature and be a wildlife refuge

  7. Terri Ducay Avatar
    Terri Ducay

    what can we do to correct the mismanagement of Point Reyes? To bring down the fences, restore the land to health, protect the elk, clean the water and allow everyone who pays taxes to benefit from it? Call our representatives? Is there a bill that will be passed? What can each of us do? Thank you

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Since this is a federal land issue, any political decision would have to go through the US House and Senate (not the State of Calif).

      Unfortunately, the Pt.Reyes, CA area Congressman – Jared Huffman and also Senator Dianne Feinstein are solidly in the camp of the private livestock businesses, including approving of the fencing out and even killing the native tule elk to protect the coastal grasslands for these private enterprises illegally located on our Public Land.

      The Biden administration with the newly installed Sec. of Interior Deb Haaland could reverse this anti-wildlife anti-nature General Plan, so I would try and put pressure on Deb Haaland and the Dept. of Interior to let science take center stage and end the political favors to 20 or so private businesses that are severely damaging the Pt. Reyes Nat. Seashore environment.

      And, the last step would be to “sue the bastards”, as the saying goes.

      1. Suzanne Gooch Avatar
        Suzanne Gooch

        How do we appeal/approach Deb Haaland on this?

    2. Sue Fischer Avatar
      Sue Fischer

      For more information on how you can become involved in this effort to save PRNS and the Tule Elk go to: and

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    The congressman from this district protects the dairy farmers. He is Representative Jared Huffman (Democrat). He gets away with his pleading in favor of the dairy farmers by supporting environment initiatives of his party such as the Green New Deal.

    1. Helen McGinnis Avatar
      Helen McGinnis

      Surprised that Marin County residents would let this happen. When I last lived there (2001) they were fiercely protective of at least some of their undeveloped scenic areas.

    2. Makuye Avatar

      e is quite good ordinarily on environmental and wildlife issues. The problem with him is Marin and Sonoma. I wrote extensively to him against continuing the farming, and against the ridiculous idea of permanent daylight savings time. NO on each, but reps fear farming/ranching coalitions, who would never vote Dem in any circumstances (about 98% of US cattle are raised in the Plains states, and all public lads and mountain valley ranching SHOULD be ended).

      Tule Elk were originally decimated by the Spanish, then moreso by the channeling of the Sacramento/San Joaquin wetlands well beyond a century ago.
      The crazed and murderous miners who came in 1848 and since (you must study their history to understand my antipathy. to this day “hobby miners” ravage streams and, just as antiwolf euros, will never cease to attempt to continue destroying spawning), nearly extinguished the species.
      Originally Cervus canadensis nannodes lived in EVERY coastal valley south of this area – Humboldt county, where the large Cc roosevelti are slowly returning, though targeted by gunfire.
      Since the native tribes all down the state had separate word for Wolf , distinguishing it from coyote, it was clear that outside the Brown bear, the wolf was well-suited to control nannodes, who also loved Oak mast in season.
      The single wolf exploring San Benito, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties could live with Tule Elk in those counties, which have some rugged area, but so Far CA is not releasing the growing elk population into previous but viable habitat, only killing them.

  9. Terri Ducay Avatar
    Terri Ducay

    Contact Secretary Haaland by phoning and writing to her office. Each call makes a difference. Here is her contact information

    Also, contact Fienstine and Rep Jared Huffman and let them know you are not happy with their representation of our land.

  10. Oscar Mace Avatar
    Oscar Mace

    The policy that promotes welfare subsidies for ranchers will only increase the rate of environmental degradation and decrease the profitability of the cattle and dairy operations. If ranchers want to preserve their lifestyle then they should become less greedy with natural resources and subsidies. And the power of consumers is their choice for greener consumer pastures so I’ll just boycott beef and dairy products from these ranches.

  11. Debra Ellers Avatar
    Debra Ellers

    Ask Secretary Haaland to put this federal land into trust, to be transferred back to the indigenous peoples it was stolen from.

    Indigenous stewardship would be much more appropriate than this travesty going on under NPS. And it’s a matter of restorative justice to get tribal lands back.

    1. Makuye Avatar

      Three tribes on the continent were traditionally antiwolf, and San Carlos Apache is also, ENTIRELY due to profitable trophy hunting guiding.
      Even the Ojibwe, who most profess to love Wolf as relative have been infected by farming and other profiting, which has divided the tribe. Do NOT expect that indigenous is heavenly (- I grew up with them).
      This MAY seem to readers as digression, but exploitation is rampant in the modern human world, and one must not be naive.
      The final problem is extreme excess human population, which should be addressed.

  12. Mark L Avatar

    I’m curious if the dairy farmers are arguing from a financial point of view (which could be easily mitigated, or resolved through land exchanged) or are saying they have a right to the land through seniority. Arguing that dairy cows can’t be relocated is laughable, arguing that Tule elk can’t is reasonable

    1. cynthia Avatar

      I think the cows must go and the Tule must stay it is their home no the cattles.

    2. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Mark: The cattle owners who are leasing the land at Pt. Reyes Nat. Seashore are not arguing from a financial point of view, except to say that they want 20 year leases instead of 5 year leases, nor are they saying they have a “right to the land through seniority”. They were bought out over 60 years ago for MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. They simply like to be given 1,000 acres of Marin County coastal land (each) at a monthly rent of only about $2,000, which also includes a house and out buildings (also owned by the US Government). The cost of a 1 bed apartment near Pt. Reyes that has NO LAND associated with it, costs about the same, $2,000 per month, so why should these cattle lease-holders want to go anywhere else??

      The Nat. Park Service is perfectly happy to go along with the cattle owners – at the expense of the native tule elk and other native wildlife. The cattle owners say they have been there for so many years, that they should be allowed to continue living there, no matter what the mission of the Nat. Park Service is.

      The Nat. Park Service is truly abdicating its responsibilities and unfortunately, it looks like the courts are going to have to be the ones to finally get the cattle leasees out of Pt. Reyes for many legal reasons.

    3. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      I believe 25 years ago, the rancher’s land AND the buildings on it were BOUGHT by the government & those businesses were supposed to have been moved! They now lease the buildings and land, but apparently refuse to leave.

      1. cynthia Avatar

        I think they need to relocate their cattle and homes
        and give the land back to the TULE ElK and then leave them

  13. Nate Berkowitz Avatar
    Nate Berkowitz

    before taking shots at either the US Park Service or the milk farmers it is suggested that you spend time on Pt Reyes and West Marin. The mix of farms and a unique landscape has value. The loss of the Oyster Farm demonstrates simple solutions to complex scenes. Sorry, folks.

  14. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Nate: 90% of the people who commented on the Pt. Reyes Management Plan want the cattle removed and most of these people are from the Bay Area and know Pt. Reyes and West Marin.

    There is nothing special about having private cattle inside a National Seashore – just the opposite actually… and mixing farms in with the coastal landscape actually causes degradation to what should be a pristine naturally wild landscape. There are millions of cattle and dairy cows on private lands in California and all over the U.S…. And that is where they should stay – on private land.

  15. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    And many of them did and still have connections there. Still, it is the public lands – and the public has an interest and should be represented, especially not for those on borrowed (or stolen) time.

    Also, any expansion of what is already there should be out of the question.

    Denying water to and killing wildlife, Tule elk in this case is, or should be, unconscionable and inhumane – especially for the Park Service who is supposed to represent all aspects of public lands.

  16. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    The worst thing, to me, is the expansion. So okay, they have cattle there. But to now want to have row crops that demand even more water, and accommodations for tourists is just too much. Even if the Park Service softens the blow by saying requests will be ‘reviewed on a case-by-case basis’. It is not private land!

    To provide the Tule elk and other wildlife just that mere trickle of mud is disturbing. It is simply unethical, immoral and I would expect much more from the Park Service than to just be an advocate of the ranchers on the public lands.

    1. cynthia brown Avatar

      I agree.These ELK should not be restricted to a muddy
      patch of land and Should have all the food and water they

  17. Steve A Sciallo Avatar

    Please read this press release that we(Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin) put out in partnership with the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity on this very important topic. Kind regards.

  18. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    All I can say is that I am so pissed off by endless political power of this arrogant band of polluters who make the world’s harshest on the climate agricultural product — beef and cow’s milk.


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George Wuerthner