PHOTO BY DAVID MCSPADDEN VIA FLICKR CREATIVE
While the Bay Area has been quarantined, activists in have been analyzing thousands of public comments sent to the National Park Service (NPS) in response to its controversial draft plan for cattle grazing at Point Reyes National Seashore. Their analysis reveals that more than 90 percent of the 7,627 comments submitted to the NPS oppose ranching in the national seashore. The final NPS plan—expected out this spring—will determine the future of ranching and wildlife in this national park for decades to come.
In February 2020, the NPS released the public comments to its proposed Draft General Management Plan Amendment (GMPA) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for ranching on 18,000 acres of the national seashore and 10,000 acres of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).
A team of volunteers at the Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley, California, analyzed the public comments, sorting them according to content. They found that 91.4 percent of the comments oppose the NPS’s plan for ranching. Of the comments (1,859) that referred to a specific alternative of six the NPS proposed in its draft plan, 94 percent endorsed Alternative F, No Ranching.
Ranchers and local politicians have long claimed that the public overwhelmingly supports cattle grazing in these parks but have never offered any evidence to substantiate that claim. Thousands of people have told the NPS in no uncertain terms they want them to protect the park, wildlife and the climate.
Fully 91.4 percent (6,969) of the 7,627 public comments oppose ranching in these parks on various grounds, including granting ranchers 20-year leases; “diversification” of ranching operations to allow ranchers to add more livestock (chickens, goats, sheep, etc.) and introduce commercial row crops; and permitting ranchers to expand their operations to include farm stays and retail.
More than 20 percent of comments (1,563) specifically criticized the NPS’s plan to kill rare Tule elk, a native species the NPS reintroduced to the Seashore in 1978. Under Alternative B, the NPS’s "preferred alternative,” any elk that encroach on land leased for cattle grazing will be shot. Cattle outnumber Tule elk at the Seashore 10 to 1.
Comments in support of the NPS’s preferred plan for ranching totaled just 2.3 percent, (179 of 7,624 total comments). “Neutral” comments (479)--those unrelated to ranching--totaled 6.3 percent.
In 2016, the Resource Renewal Institute, Western Watershed Project and Center for Biological Diversity sued the NPS after it belatedly disclosed that more than 200 native Tule elk—about half the park's herd--had died during the drought. The Piece Point elk herd, confined behind a fence, died for lack of water and forage.
A settlement agreement in 2017 committed the NPS to produce a management plan for ranching and, for the first time ever, an Environmental Impact Statement for the 24 ranches at the Seashore—something the ranchers long resisted. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the NPS’s draft GMPA/ EIS is subject to public comment.
In August 2019, the NPS released its draft GMPA and EIS, proposing six alternative scenarios for the ranches, subject to a public comment period ending September 23. In February 2020, the NPS released the 7,627 public comments in full. (About 700 more were rejected as they didn’t comply with the NPS's submission guidelines).
The volunteers read and sorted all 7,627 comments, coding them according to six categories: Protect the Elk; For Ranching; Against Ranching, Opposed to Alternative B (comments that explicitly referred to the NPS’s preferred alternative); Pro Alternative F (comments explicitly citing Alternative F--the only No Ranching alternative). A sixth category, “Neutral,” was for comments unrelated to any of the alternatives (i.e. promoting bike and horse trails).
Paul Chaffee, Ph.D., a scientist providing research and data analyses to the agriculture sector, vetted the methods used in the analysis. Hundreds of comments were read by more than one reviewer to account for reader subjectivity. The categorization was found to be very consistent.
"Parks and cattle don't mix,” said Huey Johnson, founder of Resource Renewal Institute, who, as president of the Trust for Public Land, an organization he founded in 1972, purchased land for the Seashore. "The land was bought and generously paid for by the American people. The people have spoken. It's time for the park to truly be a park,”
“The vast majority of comments ask the NPS to protect the natural values of the Seashore, save the Tule elk and other wildlife and increase recreational access to the Seashore, said Laura Cunningham, California Director of Western Watersheds Project. Visitors do not come to the seashore to see cattle and manure piles."
Point Reyes National Seashore is the only national park that has native Tule elk, of which only 5,700 exist on Earth.
All 7,627 coded comments can be viewed in full at https://restoreptreyesseashore.org/, along with an analysis and description of the methods used.