How the Park Service Sold Out Point Reyes National Seashore to the Livestock Industry

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo: Erik Molvar.

Thirteen ranchers won a sweeping victory this week, defeating the interests of three million annual visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore, by securing a plan amendment that extends their commercial livestock operations on Park lands for at least 20 years. The plan amendment – the first epic public lands fail by the nascent Biden administration – sells out native ecosystems, rare wildlife, and the beachgoing public. The plan extends beef and dairy operations well beyond the terms well Congressional intention for the Seashore’s establishment in 1978, which prescribed livestock leases for “a definite term of not more than twenty-five years, or, in lieu thereof, for a term ending at the death of the owner or the death of his or her spouse, whichever is later.”

Let’s call it the Point Reyes National Scandal.

With its decision, the National Park Service perpetuates the following 12 environmental problems, indeed enshrines them in future park management. The Park Service ignores the overwhelming proportion of public comments urging the agency to solve each one by the simple act of ending the leasing of Park Service lands for commercial agriculture. Each one of the following major problems, by itself, presents sufficient cause to compel the Park Service to end commercial ranching on Point Reyes National Seashore for good.

1. Harassing and killing the rare tule elk. For decades, the Park Service and ranchers leasing National Seashore lands have harassed and killed tule elk, because they view these native wildlife as competing with livestock for forage. Ranchers build cattle fences taller than necessary to keep the native herbivores off public lands, and these pasture fences entangle elk, sometimes maiming or killing them. When the elk manage to get past these migration barriers, ranchers chase them off with ATVs. The Park Service will even go so far as to kill the elk under the plan if they repeatedly try to return to their natural habitats presently leased for cattle ranching. Thus, the new General Management Plan makes harassment and killing of tule elk the official government policy.

2. Blocking natural migrations and recovery of tule elk populations. The main tule elk population on the Seashore is imprisoned behind an 8-foot-tall fence on a narrow spit of land called Tomales Point, which is known to have soils deficient in key nutrients and inadequate fresh water to sustain the elk. The Tomales Point vegetation, growing on nutrient-deficient soils, is insufficient to sustain the herd when droughts hit. As a consequence, every five years or so, there is a major elk die-off where hundreds of these charismatic animals perish, and all because they are not allowed the freedom to migrate naturally to lands which have the water and forage they need to survive. The new plan extends the life of this fence, instead of doing the ecologically responsible thing and tearing it down. It is unprecedented for a Park Service unit to artificially confine native wildlife and restrict their natural movements for any reason, let alone to perpetuate commercial livestock operations.

3. Polluting streams and causing a public health menace. Cattle pump out huge quantities of urine and feces each day. Much of it washes straight into the waterways of Point Reyes National Seashore, creating fecal coliform pollution levels that violate the Clean Water Act in streams and estuaries on popular recreational beaches. Kehoe Creek, which drains into one of the most heavily-visited beaches on the National Seashore, is also known to be one of California’s most-polluted waterways based on Clean Water Act standards, and it’s all because of the livestock. Estuaries have occasionally become so polluted by cattle effluent that they are closed due to public health hazards. The new plan amendment includes only token measures to address these problems, and do not guarantee event the basic level of compliance required by federal law.

4. Destroying native ecosystems. Point Reyes National Seashore is home to some of the last remnants of rare California coastal prairie, but livestock operations have completely destroyed these native ecosystems on grazed pastures. The festering clumps of invasive thistles and poison hemlock are an obvious contagion on the land, readily visible to the casual observer. But most people don’t realize that the grasses growing between them are invasive weeds as well – European annual grasses that have replaced the native perennial bunchgrass and shrubs that belong here. In addition, the plants grown as “silage” on the National Seashore to feed the cattle also are invasive weeds that have escaped cultivation and now are spreading and proliferating into the less-intensively impacted parts of the park. Instead of plant communities of native perennial bunchgrass that support rare and imperiled plants and wildlife like the Sonoma spineflower, Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, and California red-legged frog, the agriculture industry hasturned tens of thousands of acres of public land into a biological desert.

5. Spreading zoonotic diseases. The cattle herds on Point Reyes National Seashore are known to be carriers of a bacterium that causes Johne’s disease, a livestock disease that also infects native wildlife and humans. In humans, the bacterium that causes Johne’s disease is known to cause Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and colon cancer in humans. Johne’s causes gastrointestinal problems that can prove fatal in elk. The Park Service has, at times, tested the tule elk for Johne’s by killing the animals and sampling their carcasses, but it has never required the testing and culling of infected domestic cattle. As a result, cattle on Point Reyes serve as a reservoir for disease pathogens, triggering ongoing disease outbreaks and risking human health. After all that we’ve learned lately from COVID-19 about the dangers of animal-borne diseases, you would think the Park Service (and the Biden administration) would know better.

6. Worsening climate impacts. Cattle are ruminants that belch massive quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, but that’s not their biggest climate impact. Heavy cattle grazing on Point Reyes National Seashore converts native grasslands and shrublands to annual weeds. Perennial grasses have deep roots, and live for many years to develop dense networks of roots that not only store carbon themselves, but also exude carbon compounds into the soil. Woody shrubs are also major assets for carbon storage. Annual weeds, on the other hand, die every year, giving up their carbon to decomposition. In addition, tons of hay need to be trucked in to feed the overabundance of cattle, worsening the carbon footprint of the Seashore. Add in the major atmospheric carbon inputs from all that manure, and you’ve got a carbon bomb going off on the National Seashore, instead of healthy plant communities that pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

7. Subsidizing avian predators. Livestock operations lead to unnaturally high population densities of ravens. Ravens are a significant nest predator on ground-nesting birds. The endangered snowy plover finds some of its best remaining nesting dune habitat at the National Seashore but efforts to recover this rare bird are set back by unnaturally high concentrations of ravens raiding their nests to take the eggs. It’s not the ravens’ fault, it’s the Park Service’s fault for extending the concentrated cattle production that results in high numbers of hungry ravens.

8. Blocking public access to public lands. The ranchers who lease Park Service lands for their cattle on act like they own the place. They treat park visitors like trespassers, even though National Seashore lands are supposed to all be open to public use and enjoyment. Sometimes, the ranchers even harass park visitors attempting to recreate on these public lands. In addition, there are over 300 miles of barbed-wire fence and electric fence on Point Reyes National Seashore and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area, fencing out hikers and wildlife watchers.

9. Spreading liquified manure on public lands. By continuing to authorize liquified manure spreading on 1,800 acres of National Seashore, the Park Service is managing this special place like an open sewer. Each cow produces 14 gallons of feces and urine each day. The new plan authorizes upwards of 4,825 cattle to graze on the National Seashore. That’s 7 million gallons of urine and feces produced on Point Reyes every year, the equivalent to the sewage output of a city of 45,000 people. The livestock waste has to go somewhere. Some of it is sprinkled over the land, draining into streams and estuaries. At the dairies, it is liquified, stored in lagoons, then pumped into tanker trucks and spread out over the landscape in concentrated form. It’s a disgusting way to treat a National Seashore.

10. Authorizing row crop cultivation on Park Service lands. The new plan authorizes livestock producers to plow up 167 acres of National Seashore land to plant row crops – called ‘silage’ – to feed their cattle, because cattle authorizations on Point Reyes National Seashore far exceed the available forage. The crops planted for cattle fodder are European mustard and wild radish, two non-native weeds that already escape from silage fields and invade surrounding ecosystems. In addition, silage fields act as an “attractive sink” for wildlife, drawing them in to be killed by combine harvesters. Graphic videos show ravens flocking behind the harvesters to scavenge killed and maimed ground-nesting birds, and show coyotes making off with mangled deer fawns that sought cover in the tall vegetation of the silage fields only to be mowed down at harvest time.

11. Frustrating the recovery of salmon and steelhead runs. There are several streams on Point Reyes National Seashore known to provide spawning habitat for imperiled migratory populations of coho salmon and steelhead. At the National Seashore, livestock are the single biggest threat to the recovery of these species, contributing to erosion and siltation that chokes in-stream spawning gravels and impairs the survival of salmon and steelhead eggs. Getting rid of the cows would improve the spawning gravels and promote the recovery of streamside vegetation (and therefore woody debris for in-stream fish cover), fostering the recovery of these dwindling populations of migratory fishes.

12. Extending cattle leases from 5 years to 20 years. What makes this National Seashore plan such a giant gift to the livestock industry, and a giant slap in the face for the vast majority of the public who opposed any cattle on the National Seashore, is that the Park Service is now locking in livestock operations on Park Service lands in 20-year increments. Industrial-scale livestock production doesn’t belong on a National Seashore. These lands were purchased from willing sellers in the 1960s and 1970s, with the understanding that the lease transition period would last no more than 25 years or the life of the owners. Such long leases give the public little opportunity to weigh in on environmental reviews and limit opportunities to change management.

In the final analysis, the Biden Administration’s decision for Point Reyes National Seashore is little more than the Trump plan with a few minor tweaks that cannot mask the dirty dozen environmental problems listed above.  Each problem so severe and outrageous that responsible Park Service leadership would have shut livestock operations down years ago. The new plan still authorizes native tule elk to be hazed – and even killed – to suit the whims of cattle operations. It keeps the ecologically indefensible concentration fence up on Tomales Point, preventing the vast majority of the park’s elk from migrating freely and moving to more suitable habitats when water holes dry up and forage is insufficient. It prolongs the practice of plowing up native grasslands to produce invasive crops to feed the cattle, leading to more butchery of ground-nesting birds and deer fawns every time the fields are harvested with a combine. It continues the practice of liquifying millions of gallons of manure and spreading them on Park Service lands. And most significantly, it exchanges 5-year leases for livestock production for 20-year leases, prolonging the degradation of park lands and resources to the detriment of wildlife and public recreation. In effect, the new plan is worse than the old plan.

It’s as if the Park Service is asking for a lawsuit.

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.