Environmentalists Sue to Stop Livestock Grazing Plan for Point Reyes National Seashore

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy