The Cows That Ate Point Reyes

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.

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.

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.

CALIFORNIA COASTAL COMMISSION

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.

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.

POINT REYES HISTORY

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

NPS PROPOSED MANAGEMENT PLAN

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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