Point Reyes National Seashore Capitulates to Ranchers

Is this kind of damage from private livestock the kind of impact the National Park Service should permit? Photo George Wuerthner 

The final Record of Decision (ROD) on livestock operations management at Point Reyes National Seashore was released this week. Unfortunately, and as feared, it not only maintains the ongoing degradation of this national park unit by privately owned domestic livestock, but it expands the opportunities for a handful of ranchers to do even more damage to the public’s landscape with additional lands opened for grazing, as well as the planting of row crops.

As in the draft document, the final management plan proposes to kill the native Tule elk if their populations grow beyond what the ranchers believe (as the NPS jumps to) is undesirable. The public submitted some 50,000 comments opposed to continued ranching and the killing of rare native Tule elk. Point Reyes Seashore is the only national park where Tule elk exist.

Tule elk are a rare subspecies of the animal only found in California, and Point Reyes is the only park that holds Tule elk. Photo George Wuerthner

Among the impacts caused by the ongoing livestock operations is the pollution of the park’s waterways, increased soil erosion, the spread of exotic weeds, the transfer of park vegetation from wildlife use to consumption by domestic livestock,  the use of public facilities j(the ranch buildings, etc. are all owned by the U.S. citizens but are used just as if they were private property, hindering public access to its lands.

The NPS plays up the fact that farming/ranching was a historical use of the area justifies the continued degradation of the park based on “historical and cultural” preservation. Photo George Wuerthner

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. Likewise, enterococci bacteria were up to 300 times the state health standard at Kehoe Lagoon.

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 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. A total of 24 ranches operate on these public lands.

Should the NPS restore or allow the continued historic resource extraction at other parks? Logging in Redwood NP, oil wells in Glacier, and fur trapping in Grand Teton because it was part of the historical landscape? Photo George Wuerthner

Proponents of continued ranching/farming in the National Seashore argue that ongoing livestock operations maintain a “cultural” and “historic” landscape. Imagine if we applied these same criteria to other national park units. Domestic sheep once heavily grazed Yosemite. Redwood National Park’s old-growth forests were once logged. Fur trapping was once a prevalent occupation in Grand Teton National Park. Oil and gas exploration and operating wells were historically common in Glacier National Park. And, of course, the killing of wolves occurred in Denali and other park units. Gold mining was common in Yukon-Charley National Preserve. Should we permit these “cultural” and “historic” traditions to occur in these parks?

The NPS strains credibility when it claimed the “No Grazing” alternative would harm the park’s biological features by suggesting that the park’s plants and animals can’t survive without livestock impacts. One has to wonder how the flora and fauna survived all the thousands of years without cows?

Even though alternative F eliminates all ranching and would reduce ranching impacts to water resources, air quality, and soils, it was not identified as the environmentally preferable alternative because the elimination of livestock grazing would have widespread ecological impacts from the removal of the primary disturbance regime that has been present for more than 150 years and the park would not be able to mitigate these impacts across the entire planning area. Over time, formerly grazed lands would likely convert to shrub or forest habitat which could adversely affect wildlife and plant species dependent on grassland habitats (e.g., burrowing owl, grasshopper sparrow and tricolored blackbird). As part of the Section 7 consultation, USFWS identified a number of species which benefit from grazing activities to reduce competition from non-native invasive species (e.g., federally listed plants such as Sonoma alopecurus, Sonoma spineflower, and Tiburon paintbrush) and other species such as Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly whose host plants and food sources are also dependent on well-managed grazing regimes. Finally, complete removal of grazing would also result in an increase in fuel loading and fire risk in the planning area.”

It should be pointed out that there are numerous opportunities outside of a national park unit to produce beef and dairy. For example, more than 5 million cattle (dairy and beef) graze California private lands where ongoing livestock operations are permitted. Therefore, we don’t need to compromise a national park unit to produce something available elsewhere.


In the 1950s, seven NPS studies concluded that a national park unit in the Point Reyes peninsula would provide the vulnerable landscape from future development. Point Reyes is a spectacular landscape of open prairies and patches of woodlands home to 460 species, 876 plants, and many different marine and terrestrial mammals. In addition, 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.

The lagoons and esteros of Point Reyes are of international significance but polluted by domestic livestock. Photo George Wuerthner

In 1962 when Point Reyes National Seashore was established, the federal government purchased the ranches found on the peninsula at fair market value. As a result, ranch owners received hundreds of millions of dollars. Some used the money to buy property in other parts of California so they could continue to farm. But some of the ranchers lobbied for and got a generous 25-year extension to operate using the publicly owned property. After that time, they were supposed to leave the park.

However, when the allotted time for vacating the public’s land, they balked and managed to get another extension. This lease extension has been repeated several times for nearly 60 years, and again the NPS is bucking to political pressure to extend the leases for another couple of decades.

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.” Therefore, permitting continued livestock operations in the park unit is not consistent with the stated legislative goals.

For more details on this arrangement, see my previous commentaries.


Point Reyes is one of the few portions of the California coast where natural processes and native species are supposed to be given priority. Still, unfortunately, the NPS is failing in its mission to do so. Photo George Wuerthner 

I am extremely disappointed in the National Park Service for this decision and that the Biden administration upholds it. I can only assume that there is an underlying political motivation. If we can’t maintain a national park unit as a sanctuary for wild nature, where can we?

One idea suggested to me is that Governor Gavin Newsom up for a recall vote put pressure on the administration to maintain the current dairy and livestock operations to avoid greater controversy for Democrats in general. Of course, I am not privy to any insider’s knowledge, but certainly endorsing private businesses and environmental destruction of public property for private financial gain is not the usual NPS management philosophy.

Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Resource Renewal Institute have previously sued to get the NPS to consider all the ecological values that are impaired and to follow the law. Let’s hope that a court will agree that the NPS is not following the legislative mandate to protect the park’s natural values and vacates this plan that is demeaning to the public and the reputation of the National Park Service.


  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Well, to be very coarse – WTF?
    I find it extremely hard to believe that after the public outcry – these BUSINESSES are allowed to have the final say on a NATIONAL SEASHORE! If indeed you are right & the lack of speaking out & oversight by this administration is only because of their fear of backlash against Democrats? That makes it even worse! To slaughter native animals in order to put more non-native livestock in a Park? How far indeed will this administration go in order not to “create controversy”?

  2. cynthia brown Avatar

    get rid of the ranchers they only think of themselves and nobody or anything els.

  3. Laurie Avatar

    Biden and Interior Scty Deb Haaland are massive disappointments. I would had voted Republican if I’d known how bad they’d be.
    Those derelict NPS individuals need to be publicly shamed.
    It’s pure corruption how the bureaucrats are caving into the demands of the few self-entitled, greedy ranchers while ignoring us, the many thousands, screaming out against this total abuse!

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      I dont think this is either a Dem or Repub issue – it was 1962 when these ranchers were bought out – 25 years later they should have been gone. Really, both parties politicians are guilty of allowing this to continue all these years. Bureaucracy – oh yes!

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        This is the terrible thing; there doesn’t seem to be anyone to turn to politically for environmental issues anymore. Or very few.

  4. Makuye Avatar

    Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately) as you most likely know, great deference to US representatives in their Districts, and to Senators of the state, occurs by ALL administrative agencies.

    Jared Huffman, our long coastal district Rep was somehow to my mind corrupted by that SMALL dairy and cattle industry in Marin county.

    Marin is the most populous and wealthy county in Huffman’s district, and he comes from there.

    While he is a strong champion of environmental preservation issues, he SEVERELY compromised , . With UT Rob Bishop, he negatively influenced USDI NPS decisionmaking onn this issue. I’ve only scanned this post so far, but the original agreement establishing Pt Reyes included a land sale of ALL farms/ranches to NPS in 20 years that latter transfer was to occur near 40 years ago. Ranchers- such a tiny number that industry wise it is miniscule beyond insignificant, perhaps because of Am Federation of Farm Bureaus, and Cattlemen’s Association lobby, may have decided that they would experience loss everywhere if they accepted removal/ “loss” in this trade.

    Nevertheless, Huffman betrayed, or compromised his ethics. I repeatedly lobbied him over years to revers his decision, as did regional preservation orgs. Although I demanded answers on this issue he NEVER condescended to return or speak a word.
    This ethical failure , even to argue his rationale indicates some flaw in representational validity.
    Huffman’s however has been a champion for the indigenous, for wilderness and coastal aquatic ecosystem protections. this single egregious compromise is unfathomable to me, and I have years of psychological training.

    Having no insight, I can only recommend that his constituents continue to verbally express outrage. This past drought year, a significant proportion of the Tule Elk died.

    NPS has also unethically been involved in “culling” proposals. The history of this tragedy is long and involved, unapproachable in a comment.

    We NEED far more vast Tule Elk habitat. They are a lowland species (although the alien introduction to Owens Valley, where they did spread up the river, and retain their native cognition about seasonal migration. Too much info, but unfortunately hunting is “management” in the Owens Valley herd.) No other large population or habitat is designated,and the few areas are completely isolated from one another.

    Once, Cervus canadensis nannoides was abundant in a CA coastal valleys south of the big redwood country where Roosevelt Elk occur. All of the vast seasona wetland and Oak savanna of the Central valley had Tule Elk. Bushmeat was the common US food resource in the 19th century, and the US acquisition of CA, with gold discovery by 1848 caused a huge influx of quite brutal individuals killing everything in sight.
    The California Brown Bears/Griz the largest bears south of the other salmon bears now only extant in South Alaska, were so quicky gunned down to extinction that not even a word is raised by conservationists. the immense migratory birds of the Central Valley flyway through which they came from subarctic and arctic to the once-rich Colorado river delta of Baja CA Norte/Sonora wiped out by the levees and drainage of the late 19th early 20th c.

    Tule Elk were named from wetland rushes/sedges, but also subsisted on Oak mast – acorns and other foods. There would appear to be viable habitat inn San Benito and other counties for Monterey to Santa Barbara, and what BLM pubic lands occur inn Sierra foothills up to Redding area.
    North and higher, Rocky Mt Elk, C c nelsoni, were introduced into Modoc/Siskiyou, and intermingle with roosevelti -the largest elk, though more adapted to dense Pacific forest with narrower, smaller antlers.
    Other issues , such as wolf recovery must remain relevant to discussion: Wherever elk are allowed to re-establish, their habits can be destructive as domestic cattle when predators are absent.
    (It is always wonderful to find traces of big Roosevelti with nearby stalking mountain lion prints, even right near the summer-overdensely visited coastal Redwood national Park. Remedy? PURCHASE MORE Redwood land from the three redwood-extracting lumber companies – Mendocine/Humboldt Redwoods, Sierra Pacific, Green Diamond).

    Purchasing the oak savanna terrain now used for grazing around the Sacramento Valley and perhaps whatever could be found in San Luis Obispo county (remember the Salinas Valley is a major supplier of people green food, converted from wild habitat – THIS feeds much of the USA vegetable market, and such land will not be available.
    Nor will the heavily urbanized San Joaquin region, though from eastern Santa Clara County south both contains some protected reservoir surrounds and other viable habitat, reasonably connectable as the few east-west roads are not massive freeways.)

    Apology for the vagaries, this is done amid other activities.

    The dangerous disease, TAHD, , Treponeme-Associated Hoof Disease, originaly appearing in west Idaho spread across WA, and occurs in OR, with a case or two as far as Del Norte county- Roosevelt elk habitat, is exacerbated or occurs due to the sedentism occurring when predators – wolves are not allowed presence and freedom from persecution.

    While this has not yet penetrated Northern California, the debilitating spirochete disease is, like the Human-implicated 100% fatal prion disease affecting the northern Rocky elk populations, creeping west. Only wolves and other obligate predator/carrioneaters can prevent these diseases.having stronger digestive acids breaking down proteins .
    As you know, CWD Chronic Wasting Disease is invisible in onset, the distorted proteins affecting most cells. At present ungulate DNA and proteins differ sufficiently from human, but Mad Cow disease a similar (do I HAVE to discuss proteomes and the electrochemical issues of prions?) disease kills over multiyear to decadal timeframes.

    Prions are persistent in soils and anywhere good UV does not strike them, and so salivated-on bushes and so on retain dangerous infectiousness Disinformed and deceptive assertions are rampant in pro-exploitative humans, such as hunting groups, and other poiticizing individuals and orgs.

    But wolves, a species with whom I have experimented cognitively and behaviorally, are quite evolved to consciously detect and choose very subtly affected vuerabilities of their prey.

    My point ?
    Wolves are essential land managers, NOT us.

    I have explored tule elk and mountain/desert ovids because I love each wild individual and the whole. Restoration of Tule Elk must become active agency mandate, and laissez-faire allowance of wolf return, well-favored by the California human population can follow.

    Down in the oak counties, introduced wild pigs occur- mixes of domestich and introduced European wild boar. They occupy some of Tule Elk trophic niche. While the former is fierce, I am sure that wolf recovery can manage them

    THe wolf visiting San Benito and SLO – and part of Monterey County, did not find a mate, of course, and may have been poached in SLO county. No info is up to date.

    But the astonishing vagility of crossing the west’ s most crazily dense freeway lends some optimism.
    Fighting specific battles, like NPS in Pt Reyes abdication fo their National Park MANDATE, may be valid, but true strategy MUST be to recover Tule Elk over aas wide a range as possible, and protect, rcover wild habitat through land purchase.

    Much of California is good habitat, whetehr oak savanna or presenty privately owned forest of logging companies..
    The fights against Mendocino/Humboldt Redwood violating their promises to leave mature redwood alone can only really be ended by purchasing their holdings for high-preservation public lands.
    All else is pissing away our own lives.
    Far-ranging agreements of wildlife, wildland connectivity and water, and forest and desert environmental protection orgs is essential.
    In Asian steppe, once grassland, which habitat conversion i won’t note here, the cold-adapted Saiga (which once lived in North American prairie in the Pleistocene!) also hosted wild horse species.
    High desert of northern Nevada and some parts of eastern CA contain right now the feral wild horses originally brought by Coronado that indigenous learned to use for vehicles.
    The whole BLM horse roundup thing is another related issue because the big healthy Mongolian and other Steppe Wolves managed horse s as their food.

    We can assist in restoring the once-serengeti-like world through rewilding our perceptions, and through working together to restore reintroduce widife to rebalance the world – the management job of Wolf , and finally not of escaped tropical primates.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      So much information and obviously, experience! Diane Feinstein is also a guilty party in this present debacle.
      The present goal of far too many Western states is to eradicate every predator from the face of the earth – which of course is idiotic & stupid! If only the re-wilding effort in Europe would catch on here. So much to think about!

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Thank you for your comments above about congressman Jared Huffman. It sounds like he is as hard to fathom up close as he is at my distance. However, it then appears to me that he must have a personal interest. For example, a family connection to a dairy, or a prior financial interest.

  5. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    How sad. Well, it’s not surprising. 🙁

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Based on what the ranchers believe? That’s no better than wolf management.

    Can any remedy be found in court?

  7. Beeline Avatar

    In the U.S. and within the present economic system agribusiness gets what it wants. Wildlife species are considered an economic ‘externality’ because they cannot enter directly into the economic chain of producing dollars. Agribusiness also has the organization to backup its claims on resources and economic opportunity.

    Recently the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota was in the news- not because of native wildlife species but because 58 cows died from unknown causes in a short period of time on refuge lands that were leased out for grazing. It did not take very long for the ranching block to come up with $40,000 as a reward for information leading to finding the cause of the cattle deaths. Do conservation organizations do the same for wildlife? Not that I have seen.

    The hypocrisy is ingrained in the system; Under refuge uses one paragraph states that the refuge was founded in part for “use as an inviolate sanctuary or for any other management purpose for migratory birds”. In another part of the FWS website they advertise for what they call “Cooperative Agricultural Opportunities”. So even though cows do not have wings (probably a good thing) and migrate, they get to use our public land. The cattle industry as well as the rest of agribusiness can enter into mainline capitalism and defend there place in it and use public resources.

    When the regulating capacity of the federal government was undermined during the Reagan/Watt administration it spelled doom for our native wild heritage which was already on the ropes.

  8. Linda Avatar

    This is a fine example of the attack on the environment by both political parties because both cow-tow (no pun intended) to the cattle industry and big ag. The Dems scream loudly (progressives) about the Green New Deal which is at this point pie in the sky politics but say nothing about the degradation of wildlife and plant species. Wolves for example. I’m discouraged and worried sick about the future of wildlife/plants on this planet. Whales starving to death a few months ago from overfishing, the oceans becoming more acidic, Idaho slaughtering 90% of the wolves in their state…it never ends. What can be done??

  9. Rich Avatar

    The words found on the top of an entrance arch into Yellowstone Park are:


    The entrance into PRNS should read:


    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Perfect sign to be installed at the entrance!

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