Point Reyes Pastoral Zone Photo: Susan Ives
The National Park Service calls it an open house. Maps are resting on easels; signage explains Alternatives A through F; staff in freshly pressed park uniforms is standing by to answer questions. A document the size of a San Francisco phonebook— a “General Management Plan Amendment for Point Reyes National Seashore—is on display and the public has come to weigh in on the future of this national park where cattle ranchers have long reigned.
This California coastal park is easy getaway from the bustle of the Bay Area. Visitors come to hike and bike the trails, walk along windswept beaches, and catch a glimpse of rare wildlife.
The park is internationally recognized as a “biodiversity hotspot,” harboring plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth. More than a hundred species here are listed as threatened, rare or endangered. They share these lands with some 6,000 beef and dairy cattle—relics of the park’s past.
The Seashore was purchased by the public more than five decades ago from ranchers who were paid more than $350 million in today’s dollars for their land and allowed to remain in the park for the rest of their lives, or 25 years. But the ranchers never left. They leased back the land at bargain prices. Now they claim that Congress meant them to stay on in the park forever, though there's no record that supports this.
Even before the Trump Administration revved up attacks on public lands, things were tense at Point Reyes. Six years ago when the NPS decided not to renew an expired permit for an oyster farm that had been grandfathered into the park, the oysterman—who also runs cattle in the park—sued. He lost. But his fellow ranchers in the park worried that they might be next to go. They hired a D.C. lobbyist and lawyered up.
Tule elk are the iconic symbol of the national seashore. They exist in no other national park. When half the elk herd died during the 2014-2016 drought, environmentalists sued the NPS over mismanagement. The 250 elk that perished had been confined behind a fence to keep them off pastures reserved for cattle. The legal settlement requires the NPS to come up with a plan for the ranches based on an Environmental Impact Statement—something ranchers long resisted. As a result, for the first time in the history of the Seashore, the public has the right to comment on how—or whether—ranching fits in to the park’s future.
Cattle in the Seashore outnumber native elk 10 to 1. But to the NPS, it is elk that are the problem. Under its "preferred alternative", NPS plans to shoot elk any that trespass on the "ranchers’ grass."
The NPS’s plan rewards ranchers in many ways, and under the proposed plan, those benefits will be amplified. In addition to extending lease terms from the current 5 to up to 20 years, the NPS will allow the ranchers to raise crops and small livestock--chickens, sheep, goats, and pigs. There is nothing in the plan about what will happen when mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, or fox preys on a chicken or a lamb. When I ask the Seashore’s wildlife biologist, David Press, tells me, “We’ll have to wait and see."
The NPS says it is obliged to preserve ranches as "historic" and "cultural" resources. But ranching today bears little resemblance to the past. Some of the old ranch buildings and paddocks remain but are overshadowed by industrial-sized barns, mountains of manure, fetid ponds, rutted hillsides, and pastures grazed down to bare dirt. There’s no interpretation of these ranches, even though millions of park visitors drive past them. That’s because the public is not welcome to visit the ranches. Yet, it is the public that keeps them alive.
Public dollars subsidize the ranchers' below-market-rate housing, discounted grazing fees, and infrastructure—roofs, roads, and fences—that keep the ranches sound. We pay to "remove" the wildlife that gets in the ranchers’ way. Ranchers, themselves, pay no property taxes.
A park scientist tells me that the NPS is required to balance the needs of the cattle ranchers with preserving the wildlife, natural resources, and the public’s use and enjoyment of the park. But ranching has come to dominate on this national parkland. The NPS's "preferred alternative" offers nothing to the public except more and more of the same.
How did one of the most biologically diverse and fragile landscapes in the National Park System become one of its most abused? This would be a good question to ask Rep. Jared Huffman, who has been pushing legislation to make ranching permanent and exerting pressure on the Park Service at the Seashore to "remove" Tule elk. It's well known that the NPS is being starved for fund and lacks the capacity to monitor the ranches or enforce the environmental protections required in the ranch leases. Not to mention that Seashore staff and the ranchers are neighbors. Enforcement is lax. There is no independent oversight.
It is the public’s first—and very likely—last chance to comment on the Seashore in the future. The plan advanced by the Park Service is the wish list that ranchers have long demanded.
Of the NPS’s six alternatives for public comment ,the NPS’s “preferred alternative—Alternative B— would intensify and ranching in the Seashore and ensure its continuation for decades to come.
Alternative A: No Action (required by the National Environmental Policy Act). This would allow ranching to continue on 27,000 acres under 5-10 year leases. The NPS would capture and move, or kill Tule elk that encroach on land leased for cattle.
Alternative B (NPS Preferred Alternative): Continued ranching, with 20 year leases. This would create a new Ranchland Zone with 3 sub-zones, to accommodate “diversification” (pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, and row crops to ensure the ranchers' income as the demand for dairy and beef declines). It would cull elk to maintain a threshold of 120 animals at Drakes Bay, and kill any problem elk (those that graze on grass leased to ranchers).
Alternative C: Removal of the entire Drakes Bay Tule Elk herd—same as B only entire Drakes Bay elk herd would be removed.
Alternative D: Reduced ranching Same as B; grant 20-year leases and phase out those ranches with “minimal infrastructure” on 7,500 acres over 1 year. (An unrealistic time frame).
Alternative E: Phase out dairy. The 6 dairy farms would be phased out over 5 years and allowed to convert to beef ranching eligible for 20 year leases; Drakes Bay elk herd would be maintained at threshold population.
Alternative F: Discontinue ranching; expand visitor opportunities; Tule elk would be allowed to expand their range in the park. Given the alternatives, Alternative F is the only way those who want to see the Seashore and its wildlife preserved can fight back.
The deadline for public comments is Sept 23. Submit them here: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=333&projectID=74313&documentID=97154
For more information: https://restoreptreyesseashore.org