The Public Wants Ranchers Out of Point Reyes National Seashore

The National Park Service recently released the public comments on how Point Reyes National Seashore should be managed and they show that the vast majority of the public wants beef and dairy operations booted off Park Service lands. Contrary to prevailing assumptions that local food culture overrides conservation concerns in the local area, some 91.4% of all public comments opposed ranching on the Park Service lands of Point Reyes National Seashore, while only 2.3% supported continued  beef and dairy operations, according to a volunteer-led tally of public comments supported by Resource Renewal Institute, a local conservation group.

At Point Reyes, there are private commercial interests, and there is the public interest. As the comment results show, on Point Reyes National Seashore they are in direct conflict.

The history of how the cattle producers overstayed their welcome is a fascinating one. It all started with the Miwok people, a tribe that lived in harmony with the native coastal prairies and abundant tule elk, animals sighted on Point Reyes by Sir Francis Drake during his maritime explorations of what was to become the California coast in 1579. As the agriculture industry invaded Point Reyes in the 1800s, the Miwok, the tule elk, and the coastal prairies were all pushed out. Today, cattle have destroyed the native coastal prairies, replacing them with annual weeds of European origin, and most of the tule elk are relegated to a small peninsula that lacks fresh water during dry years, confined behind a tall fence.

The National Seashore’s story began in 1961, with President John F. Kennedy signing a bill to establish Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco to provide public access to the California coast. This was prior to state legislation that mandated public access across private property to get to the beach, and real estate developers were salivating at the opportunity to make millions on ocean-view developments. It sounds like a classic opportunity for ranching to preserve open space in an area that, unlike most of the interior West, is in high demand for residential subdivision.

That’s not how it worked on Point Reyes. Prior to federal intervention, locals hoping to protect undeveloped coastline pushed through a county ordinance that blocked subdivisions smaller than 100 acres. One solitary rancher – Bill Strauss – supported the conservation zoning. All the rest opposed it, backing the developers. They wanted an opportunity to cash in. The conservationists won, the ranchers and real estate developers lost, and the zoning went into effect.

With real estate development effectively blocked, Congress stepped in with an opportunity for the Park Service to purchase the ranches at fair market value, from willing sellers. The money was generous – the equivalent of $384 million in today’s dollars was appropriated – and ultimately every single ranch took the buyout. They were allowed to stay on for a grace period, ultimately defined by law in 1978 as 25 years or the lifespan of the original owners.

Half of the ranchers took their millions and relocated to private lands elsewhere, living up to their end of the bargain. But thirteen ranchers continue to hold out beyond the expiration dates of their leases, pulling the levers of local politics to overstay their welcome.

Billed as “historic ranches,” some of the cattle operations are big enough to qualify as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. They create massive quantities of manure, which leaks into the streams that flow to public beaches, and is liquified to be spread on the hilltops. They harass the tule elk and try to fence them away from leased pastures. Rare birds, butterflies, plants, and salmon populations that should be protected under the Endangered Species Act instead are negatively impacted by cattle.

In response to ag industry pressure, local politicians were all too eager to stake out anti-environmental, pro-ranching positions on Point Reyes. In a 2018 public comment, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) wrote, “I am writing to once again express my firm commitment to ensuring that these historic working ranches remain a permanent part of the Point Reyes National Seashore.” By contrast, Huffman contended that tule elk were “a serious problem for ranchers now and will certainly lead to impairment of the historic values of the working ranches.” Huffman then sponsored legislation to mandate ranching on Point Reyes, but it died in the Senate.

Kevin Lunny has become the ringleader for the ranchers who stayed on and dug in for the long haul, forming a lobbying group in 2018 and hiring former Republican congressman John Doolittle to represent their interests. The group’s efforts to cultivate political backing on the right culminated in October of 2019 when Kevin Lunny was a featured speaker at a White House signing ceremony for unrelated legislation.

In response to all of this political pressure, the Park Service cooked up a proposed plan for Point Reyes that would not only extend dairy and beef operations, but would expand them to allow lessees to open up AirBnB-type operations in Park Service-owned buildings, and raise chickens and row crops. Meanwhile the native tule elk would be hazed away from Park Service lands rented for cattle grazing, or even shot.

As the realities of ranching-related environmental problems on Point Reyes have surfaced in the public spotlight, public sentiment has shifted in favor of protecting tule elk and giving livestock operations the boot. Among the subset of public comments advocating for a specific alternative for the Point Reyes management plan, 94.2% endorsed Alternative F, which prioritizes conservation and ends domestic livestock grazing on Point Reyes. And this tally doesn’t even include the nearly 700 public comments seeking an end to ranching on Point Reyes submitted to the Park Service by forELK, a local grassroots organization. The Park Service refused to accept delivery of these public comments, making up an excuse that they would only accept comments submitted by individuals, not organizations.

“It’s not a vote,” the Park Service responded in predictable fashion, as if the public interest should have no bearing on how public lands are managed. While the Park Service should not be compelled to make decisions that are popular, they have a mandate to manage to protect and preserve, and they can be compelled to follow the law. Environmentalists will be examining the final plan for Point Reyes very carefully with this in mind.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.