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Get the Cows Out of the Parks: Why Livestock Grazing Should End at Point Reyes National Seashore



Point Reyes National Seashore, a national park unit, is one of the most iconic sections of the California coast. Lying just north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is a dynamic slice of the California landmass moving northwards along the San Andres Fault relative to the mainland.  The National Seashore includes isolated beaches, cliffs, flowery meadows, forested hills, and one of the nation’s few designated coastal wilderness lands (Phillip Burton Wilderness), as well as some of the most dramatic coastal landscapes in California.

Its ecosystems are as diverse and recognized for its unique character as part of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve—a global system of exceptional and unique landscapes.

Given all its superlatives, it’s amazing that exotic animals (cattle) that damage the landscape are permitted to continue grazing in a national park unit where native species and natural ecological processes are supposed to be given priority.


An important point that is often ignored or glossed over by livestock proponents is that the Point Reyes Act creating the park directed the Park Service to acquire all the private land from willing sellers. Over time the federal government bought out all the private landowners—under voluntary agreements–paying $20 million dollars or about 70 million in today’s dollars.

In a gracious nod by American citizens to the families that sold their property, the Point Reyes Act generously permitted (but did not require or mandate) private owners the option of continuing to occupy and use the private lands the land they had sold to American Citizens for 25 years or the life of the original owner and spouse (whichever was longer).  Despite that most of those original ranch owners have died, ranching continues unabated.


Today 13 ranchers graze their cattle on approximately 25% of the 71,000 acre park damaging many park features and wildlife, and amazingly the Park Service has never analyzed the environmental impacts of livestock grazing on the Park’s resources.

Ranching advocates purposely use of a verbal sleight of hand by referring to “grazing rights”, however, the truth is that grazing on all public lands is a privilege—and a privilege that can be revoked at any time.

In essence, ranchers are leasing these lands from the public, just as any business might rent a commercial building. And just as in any other part of America, if the property owner decides it wants to do something else with that land it has a perfectly legal right to do this. Furthermore, the NPS by continuing to allow livestock grazing in the park, is not abiding by the original intent of the park mission.  In this case, the public said when Point Reyes was established that it wanted its property to be managed “without impairment the natural values” of the unit.  Ranching, as a domestication of the landscape, does not foster “maintaining natural values.”

The fundamental question at stake is whether the domestication of the landscape by non-native livestock, along with the associated infrastructure including barns, fences, stock ponds, and on-going human manipulation of the landscape to help cattle, is appropriate in a national park, especially when it impacts natural ecological processes and native animals like Tule elk.

This is the question that Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biodiversity and Resource Renewal Institute are asking and forcing the National Park Service (NPS) to confront through a law suit. They want to force the NPS to fulfill its legal obligation of updating its General Management Plan which was written more than 35 years ago (GMPs are supposed to be updated every ten years) to reflect new concerns from the growing value of wildlands for biodiversity conservation to global warming to fostering restoration of Tule elk.

The plaintiffs are also asking the NPS do to an EIS to determine whether livestock grazing leases at the park should be renewed.  Despite the fact that the NPS has not updated its management plan in decades, the Point Reyes administration is moving forward with a Ranch Management Plan that could renew leases for another 20 years.

Not surprisingly the ranchers who for decades have had the opportunity to graze public lands for a pittance are fighting any efforts to shut down their operations. However, a surprising twist is that at least some support for continued livestock grazing comes from the local food movement in Marin County. Livestock proponents have ignored the ecological damage and use spurious excuses to support continued ranching at the park, while local food movement ignores the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for local food production to occur without having to compromise a national park.


Livestock advocates imply that ranching is one of the activities that was enshrined with park creation. Yet the Point Reyes Act creating the national seashore does not list ranching as one of the purposes of the seashore, nor does it require the Park Service to permit continued grazing.

It does require the Park Service to manage the seashore to preserve the land “without impairment of its natural values.”


Ranching at Point Reyes has many direct and indirect impacts to the public’s property. Trampled wetlands, polluted water from manure, soil compaction and erosion, the spread of weeds, consumption of forage that should be supporting the park’s Tule elk herd are only a few of the many impacts that livestock is having on OUR public lands. Of course, these are ubiquitous impacts that are associated with livestock production everywhere, but they are especially egregious when they occur in a national park unit.

On top of this, the ranchers pay below market grazing fees and taxpayers are left paying to restore and mitigate ranching impacts.  Amazingly the ranchers have the gall to demand that the native Tule elk be removed from lands grazed by their cattle.


Most advocates of continued ranching at Point Reyes argue about its importance for local food production in Marin County. But what does “local” mean?  It’s not like there is anything unique about grazing at Point Reyes, nor is there any need to continue ranching in a national park when there are numerous other sources for the same produce.

Everything produced at Point Reyes Is available locally elsewhere in the region, including in other nearby areas—many not any further from consumers in the Bay area. Ranching occurs on much of the private land in counties surrounding the Bay area, including Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Contra Costa, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties—all within a hundred miles or less of the Bay area. Someone consuming a steak or a hunk of cheese in a San Francisco restaurant labelled “locally” produced is not going to quibble about whether that steak came from cattle grazed in Sonoma, Napa, Santa Cruz or for that matter on other farmland in Marin County.

Arguing that we must continue to degrade a national park to provide a product that is widely available elsewhere is insane. One could argue that we should log the forests in Point Reyes or near-by Muir Wood’s redwoods so we can produce “local” wood. I like to think that most people would vote against this “local” wood production.


This is yet another excuse for ranching that doesn’t stand up to the laugh test. Some ranching proponents are arguing that cattle grazing is a “historic” use and therefore, should not be terminated. By that standard, many other non-conforming uses should continue or be restored to our national parks. There are many examples of private resource extraction that existed in other parklands prior to designation as a national park unit.  Oil and gas drilling once occurred in Glacier National, logging old growth forests in Redwood National Park and Olympic National Park was a “historic” use. Mining historically occurred in Death Valley National Park and in Wrangell St Elias National Park as well as in many other parks. John Muir accurately described the impacts of sheep grazing in Yosemite—why not bring the “hooved” locust back?  And historically slaves worked the fields at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Any number of uses “historically” occurred in our parks, but that is no reason to continue them.


Proponents argue that we need to graze an exotic animal—domestic cows—because these lands were grazed by Ice Age mammals like wooly mammoths and ground sloths.  This ignores some basic ecological truths. Plant communities evolve over time. They are not statistic. They respond to changing climate, and other environmental pressures. The climate and herbivory pressure is different today. The plant community assemblage has responded and is also different.

Furthermore, there are plenty of native herbivores though most ranchers either ignore them or are completely ignorant of their existence. For instance, grasshoppers often consume more grass biomass than large animals like cattle. Add in all the other herbivores from soil nematodes, bacteria and worms to other herbivore insects like beetles and caterpillars, grazing birds like geese, to mammals from gophers to ground squirrels to native Tule elk and there is no shortage of native species to graze the Park’s vegetation.

It is particularly ironic that some livestock proponents argue that cattle, an alien species, are needed to   remove alien plants originally introduced into California for livestock grazing. However, this overlooks the fact that Tule elk, a rare sub-species of native elk found only in a few places in California and recently reintroduced to the park, can have similar grazing affects.

Another argument in favor of grazing is that in its absence native shrubs will “invade” the exotic grasses and eliminate the grasslands. This is really a trick on words. It’s like arguing the elk will “invade” the rangelands now grazed by exotic cattle, and displace the exotic cattle. Who is to say that exotic grasses should be given preference over native vegetation?


This is yet one more argument that seems reasonable to anyone who doesn’t know much about grazing and/or fire. The idea that grazing will reduce fires has some intuitive appeal because most people assume that reduction in fuels will preclude large fires. Something like saying the sun circles the Earth because any fool can see the sun rises in the East and sets in the West—so what’s the problem? The problem is that large fires are climate/weather driven events, not fuel driven.

Under severe fire weather conditions, which includes high winds, blazes will burn through even heavily cropped grasslands, as well as, having wind-blown embers jumping as much as a mile or two ahead of the fire front. Thus severe grazing has little benefit at precluding such blazes.

In order to remove enough grass vegetation to have any effect on fire spread, serious collateral damage results. Cattle will basically graze off the other native plants which tend to be consumed in preference to the exotic introduced grasses, not to mention producing secondary damage like spread of weeds, serious soil compaction, and trashing of riparian areas.

Reducing the flammability of homes in the immediate surroundings of homes and buildings is far more effective at protecting communities than creating a delusion of fire proofing the landscape by livestock grazing.

Second, and perhaps a more important criteria in a national park unit, the underlying assumption behind the livestock grazing will prevent wildfires is the idea that somehow fires are undesirable.  Some people favor fire so long as it is of low intensity and does not kill vegetation, however, contrary to popular myth, many Point Reyes plant communities depend on hot, high-severity fires.

For instance, Bishop Pine, one of the rare tree species found here, has serontinous cones that open after hot fires. Thus Bishop pine is favored by periodic high-severity, stand-replacement fire. Bishop pine is far rarer in California than cows. Other park species like Pacific madrone enjoy a competitive advantage by hot stand-replacing fire.

Indeed, new research is demonstrating that even severe wildfires are critical to many species with the second highest biodiversity found in forests that have burned at high severity.

So if anything, the NPS if it is going to be true to its mandate to preserve “without impairment the natural values” of Point Reyes, it should be encouraging the hot high-severity fires that helps to perpetuate fire-dependent species.


Although tangential for most people advocating for continued livestock grazing at Point Reyes, the fact remains consuming livestock products is unhealthy for the planet and people. Cattle are among the major sources of greenhouse gas emission (GHG) through production of methane, a deadly gas that traps significant amounts of heat in our atmosphere. And there are plenty of studies demonstrating that consumption of meat and dairy products are associated with increased risk of heart attack and many cancers. In fact, meat and dairy consumption collectively kills more people annually than tobacco smoking, but there is a greater collective acceptance of meat and dairy than say tobacco smoking.  I wonder if the issue were about allowing tobacco growers to continue producing their product at a national park if the public acceptance might be different.


What seems to be forgotten by the livestock industry and the local foodies is that Point Reyes is a national park unit. It is land bought and paid for by all Americans and belongs to all Americans. These lands do not belong to Marin County or even the state of California, and certainly not to the private businesses that have been graciously given the opportunity to operate here for decades after we purchased these lands from them.

The US does not need more dairy and beef production. What we do need is more wilderness. More Tule elk. More wildlands preserved. More natural ecosystem processes to be maintained. If not in a national park than where?


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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