Point Reyes Management Plan Sued by Environmental Groups

Approximately 5700 cows graze national park lands at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo George Wuerthner

A federal lawsuit against the National Park Service (NPS) at Point Reyes National Seashore was filed on January 10th by four environmental organizations. The lawsuit contends the National Park Service in a new management plan for the Park is putting the private interests of local ranchers ahead of the public interest.

Coastal Trail along Point Reyes scenic wild shoreline. Photo George Wuerthner

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.

Sunset over Drake’s Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore. The park protects approximately 100 miles of shoreline. Photo George Wuerthner

While the peninsula possesses unquestioned scenic value, Point Reyes National Seashore’s ecological significance is recognized by its designation as an international biosphere reserve, part of the UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.

Drakes Estero is a state marine conservation area. Photo George Wuerthner

California also gives the marine environment special recognition 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. In addition, some 32,000 acres of the seashore are part of the National Wilderness system.

National Park Service interpretative sign promoting livestock grazing at Point Reyes. Photo George Wuerthner 

The controversy over livestock grazing and ranching in the Park has existed for decades. The origins date back to the original creation of the Park in 1962 when the Enabling Act directed the federal government to acquire ranches, paying fair market value for their lands (around 100 million in today’s dollars). In an act of generosity, the Park Service even acquiring the property permitted ranchers to continue using their homes and ranches for 25 years or upon the death of the owner/spouse. However, when the 25 years were up, some of the ranchers used their political power to garner additional decades of continued grazing in the Park.

Elk are trapped behind a fence in part of the park where hundreds have died from thirst during a drought. 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 trapped behind a fence constructed to keep elk confined to a small waterless 2000 acre parcel of the seashore.

Approximately 28,000 acres of Point Reyes and nearby Golden Gates National Recreation Area are leased for livestock production. Photo George Wuerthner

Point Reyes National Seashore currently leases 28,000 acres of Point Reyes and nearby Golden Gates National Recreation Area for dairy and beef production.

Even the presence of fences is an impact that inhibits wildlife movement, as well as access to publicly owned lands by the public. Photo George Wuerthner

Recently, with the vocal support of Congressman Jared Huffman and Senator Diane Feinstein, as well as “foodies” in the Bay Area, the ranchers have successfully garnered another reprieve for an additional 20 years in the new management plan.

In addition, the new NPS plan also allows the ranchers to operate other commercial ventures on the public’s land, including row crops and operation of bed and breakfast (using the publicly-owned houses for this purpose).

Cow damaged landscape in Point Reyes. Photo George Wuerthner

The NPS has created a 28,000 acre “pastoral zone” grazed by 15 ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore with another 9 ranchers using 10,000 acres in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Park Service interpretative signage promoting ranching as a “historic” activity– so was whaling, beaver trapping, and many other economic activities, but we don’t promote them in our parks or anyplace else. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Park Service justifies this private use of public lands to maintain a “cultural” and “historic” ranching landscape. As if the 5 million other cows currently grazed on 38 million California acres isn’t sufficient to maintain the “cultural” and “historical” value of ranching.

The continuation of ranching at Point Reyes is a direct violation of its Enabling Act mandate. 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.”

Livestock use of the park does not provide maximum protection restoration and preservation of the NATURAL environment as mandated by the Enabling Act. Photo George Wuerthner

It is bad enough that, like many federal grazing programs, the ranchers don’t pay nearly enough to cover the administrative costs of the Park grazing program. However, the public is also denied access to a third of the Park controlled by the ranchers. In other words, the public cannot enjoy the lands they paid for and own.

Worse from an ecological perspective is the grazing at Point Reyes is not preserving the natural environment as required by the original legislation. One of the most polluted streams on the entire California coast flows from this national Park into the ocean.

Abbotts Lagoon, one of the estuaries of the park polluted by livestock manure. Photo Geogge Wuerthner 

Water pollution because of livestock use of the Park is an ongoing impact. A 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.

A January 2021 monitoring of surface waters in the Park concluded that: ”bacteria contamination of surface water significantly exceeds applicable water quality criteria despite the reported implementation of cattle waste management actions.” The report goes on to conclude that: “Imminent human health risks exist regarding exposure to bacterial contamination in surface water, particularly for locations with documented or likely direct water contact.”

Elk are not free to wander the National Seashore but are sequestered behind fences to keep them away from livestock operations. Photo George Wuerthner 

Tule elk, a rare subspecies native to California, nearly extirpated across the state, reside n the Park. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where Tule elk are found. But according to the NPS plan, they will be killed by the NPS if their numbers rise above a few hundred to keep them from competing with the private cows for forage.

Tourism, including the more than 2 million visitors to Point Reyes accounts for far more of the income generated in Marin County than Agriculture that provides less than 0.2% of income. Photo George Wuerthner  

Even though of the 23,000 comments on the proposed EIS for the Management Plan received by the NPS, 90% opposed extending ranching at the Park and supported protecting the elk.

Though the NPS suggests that ranching is an essential component of the local economy, all Ag, which includes more than just livestock grazing, in Marin County accounts for only 0.2% of income. At the same time, Leisure and hospitality, including 2 million visitors to Point Reyes, contributed to 10.8% of all income.

Flowers at Kehoe Lagoon where monitoring has shown E coli bacteria to be 300 times the legal limits. Photo George Wuerthner

Fortunately for the public, Western Watershed Project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Resource Renewal Institute, with the legal help of the Advocates for the West legal team, is suing the Park Service over its management plan. Let’s hope they prevail, and Point Reyes is restored to its highest value as an ecological and wilderness preserve



  1. Pamela W Avatar
    Pamela W

    I am so happy to hear that a lawsuit is in the works. The Point Reyes debacle is one of the most egregious abuses out there — and that’s saying plenty. Cultural tradition, my ass.

  2. Robert Goldman Avatar
    Robert Goldman

    What took so long for lawsuits to enforce the original Enabling Act decades ago? Why such suffering and death year after year of Tule Elk, so much damage to other native beings, the grasses, and all the polluted water? Why are we supporting wildlife and earth protection organizations who fail to do their jobs decade after decade, year after year, in such a special place as Point Reyes NATIONAL SEASHORE, when our side has the law fully on our side???

  3. Robert Raven Avatar

    Excellent article and pictures about PRNS and the lawsuit.

  4. Kat Avatar

    We should do everything to save our native species! 🙏🐾❤️

  5. laurie Avatar

    Thank you, George, for your great articles. I’m so glad that a lawsuit against the NPS is happening, but also wonder why it has taken this long.

  6. Beeline Avatar

    Sounds like the stagnant paradigm of colonial capitalism and ‘business as usual’ is being challenged. That sounds positive on the surface but the federal government is pretty much immune to legal action except in certain specified areas. They know this and that “tons” of public funds will help them in their defense. If the individual managers had to risk their own resources, we would see an immediate response to clean up their act.

    Despite the picture that the NPS tries to paint, Point Reyes has become another symbol of ‘colonial’ profiteering and cultural, economic bias at the public expense. The Tule elk are kept in a concentration camp like an Indian reservation and the cattle are allowed the “freedom” to pollute while they utilize public forage at a huge discount, making profit for the few. It is a rather mafia like system.

    It is quite unfortunate for us today that the Reagan/Watt administration flushed regulating authority down the political toilet to permit the augmentation of corporate plunder. We now see it escalating on our public lands to the point where once again everything is valued only for profit. Little wonder that this paradigm is spilling over into the population at large and causing violence and depression etc..

    There are a few positive signs such as the case of Juliana VS United States over the global warming crisis that went to the supreme court. And there is some legislation in the works such as HR 6327 (the Constitutional Accountability Act) that will hold police accountable if they violate a persons constitutional rights.

    But what of the ‘rights’ of plants and animals to be part of our natural ecology and do the work that the great spirit laid out for them. Will we ever be able to visit a real wildlife refuge that is not grazed by cows, cropped with GMO’s and sprayed with pesticide? Will people even know what natural law really means?

    1. paul dominguez Avatar
      paul dominguez

      Well said Beeline! It seems to me that the greedy profiteers don’t want “nature” to get in the way of their bottom line. I especially despise people who use phrases like “treehugger” to disparage folks who are just trying to do the right thing.
      Without folks such as yourself the natural world hasn’t a chance.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Thank you!

  8. Janelle Ghiorso Avatar
    Janelle Ghiorso

    I am happy that the Park Service is being sued finally. What has happened to our public lands, parks, native species and the environment is inexcusable. We are seeing a mass extinction that will continue as long as these government agencies promote the status quo. The masses are tired of being ignored while a few ranchers are given free reign to destroy any animal in their way, including wild horses and burros, tule elk, wolves, cougar, prairie dog and other wildlife across the west, for their own gain. It’s past time to put a stop to the decimation of the West! This is a “tradition” that a few greedy families have enjoyed for far too long already. We have laws for a reason!


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George Wuerthner