The Park Service’s proposed management plan of the Point Reyes Seashore prioritizes agriculture over wildlife in a national park
In Marin County, ranching is more than just a nine to five for many residents, but a way of life. Roughly half the land in Marin County is designated for farming or ranchland. Ranching has existed in the Marin for years, going back to the first settlers’ arrival in the area. Nestled within this agricultural landscape are a few conservation gems like Mt. Tamalpais, Muir Woods and most of all the iconic Point Reyes National Seashore. Keeping this lengthy history in mind, agriculture has outstayed its welcome in the Seashore. The Point Reyes peninsula was just narrowly saved from development and remains a slice of wilderness in the rapidly changing landscape of California. There are thousands of acres of farmland across the Golden State, but only one National Seashore on the entire West Coast.
Point Reyes is so unique in fact, it is designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as an international biosphere preserve—home to hundreds of species which are endangered and only found in the peninsula. Despite this status, roughly a third of the park’s land is designated for agricultural use. This prevents visitors from using a large portion of the park and contributes to growing concerns about the environmental impact of ranching on the Seashore’s ecosystems. To truly understand this complex issue, we have to understand its history.
The modern history of Point Reyes has been characterized by compromise. When the park was founded in the ‘60s, it was not without controversy. Initially both sides, parts of the federal government and the ranching community, were vehemently against the Seashore’s establishment, but the Ranchers’ tune quickly changed realizing that federal subsidies would help keep the industry afloat.
Additional concerns were raised by members of Congress about leasing the park land as a national park, which would be a first. When the park was established, there was no mention of permanently establishing ranching in the 1962 legislation. Although later amendments added the possibility of extending leases, the intention that ranches be phased out is present from the very beginning of the Seashore. The original agreement was that the ranchers were allowed to reserve a right to use the land for 25 years or the life of the original owner. As that period came to an end, ranches were still there and coming up with any reason to stay.
“I know the people who put [The Point Reyes Act] together. At the 40th anniversary I talked to Stewart Udall, the Secretary of Interior. He remembered the same thing I did, that ranching was never intended to be permanent,” said Ken Brower, an environmental writer and son of David Brower. “The founder’s idea had nothing to do with what you’re hearing now from ranchers, that they’d be here forever.”
You may often hear that the Seashore ranches are “historic” and must be preserved on that basis for future generations. This is blatant propaganda. If these ranches truly had historic value, this “historic” status would logically also be applied to the oyster farms, which had been in business for nearly a hundred years before being shut down by the park service due to a variety of reasons.
In 2012, the Secretary of Interior at the time Ken Salazar did not renew the Drakes Bay Oyster farm’s lease after extensive review. His foremost argument for closing the ranches was its environmental repercussions to the Seashore’s marine ecosystems. Following this train of thought, it does not make sense that the same agency which helped shut down the Oyster farms is now pushing through a plan to keep these “historic” ranches from being just history.
Furthermore, if it was the intention of the park service to preserve history, Coast Miwok people occupied these lands for thousands of years. Many of the cultural and sacred sites in Point Reyes are difficult to access due to hundreds of acres of ranchland that encompass them. Instead of promoting real restoration and preservation of the sacred and historic sites of the Coast Miwok, the park service has chosen to create a fictionalized village outside of the ranching zone.
History aside, the park service’s foremost duty is to protect biodiversity, especially in the context of a possible anthropogenic mass extinction event. Every decision we make, from what we eat for lunch to how we decide to get to work, has environmental repercussions. Luckily, systems like the national parks exist to protect remarkable environments from human development. These places can’t exist solely as rich isolated islands of life in an anthropogenic world, but they are a great first step. If we can’t even protect our national parks, what can we protect?
“It’s 2021 and yet the park service is proceeding in Point Reyes with a medieval-like mindset, prioritizing a few leaseholders over the well being of the natural heritage of this geographically significant peninsula. The conversation needs shifting, the priority in our parks and wilderness areas must be about promoting biodiversity and environmental health first, not hindering it,” said Matthew Polvorosa Kline, a wildlife photographer and West Marin resident. “There are numerous habitat types like threatened eelgrass meadows and endangered coastal prairie (the most species rich grassland type in North America) that need restoration. Likewise, there are numerous native wildlife like the Snowy Plover, Red-legged Frog, Coho Salmon, Myrtle’s Silverspot Butterfly and rare Tule Elk that need our diligence.”
The Dairy Industry at Point Reyes has often been hailed as the embodiment of sustainable ranching and resource management in California. Unfortunately, this narrative does not line up with the facts. The agriculture industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. In fact, livestock alone contribute 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact statement addresses the impact of continued ranching in the peninsula, stating that under current conditions, roughly 24,500 metric tons of emissions will be produced annually. This is in sharp contrast to the carbon sink which Point Reyes and other national parks are often advertised as.
According to an independent investigation by The Revelator, Point Reyes National Seashore is ranked in the top 10% most contaminated places in the nation for e. coli and fecal coliform. This is likely due to the practice of spreading liquid manure across the open areas in the park where it trickles down into streams and other water sources. The most contaminated areas include Drakes Estero and Limantour which are popular tourist destinations. Tomales Bay, a popular swimming and boating spot, has also been contaminated with fecal coliform and e. coli.
“I have to say that these public lands at Point Reyes National Seashore are in some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen from excessive numbers of cattle,” said Laura Cunningham, the California director for the Western Watersheds Project.
It is against the fundamental premise of the national park to continue ranching within its boundaries. The purpose of the Seashore is to protect the natural resources of the park—the proposed plan is undoubtedly harmful to the environment. Prioritizing private industry over the needs of the general public on public lands is both unethical and unpopular in the county. The decades of compromises between the private dairy industry and public interest have come to a climax.
The park service released a plan which included several alternatives and allowed the public to comment. According to the Resource Renewal Institute, who went through every single comment, 91% of the comments had an unfavorable opinion of the proposed alternative B. Despite this, the park service announced last fall that they would go through with their “preferred alternative” from the beginning, which would expand ranching leases from five to 20 years, allow diversification of operations and allow the culling of a herd of native Tule Elk.
“It’s not a vote on the alternatives, for lack of a better way to describe it. We want to hear what people are thinking about them and we want to improve the document,” said Melanie Gunn, the park’s outreach coordinator, at a meeting with the Marin Conservation League. “We look for substantive comments, group them and prepare responses.”
The park service has a history of ignoring public objections. For instance, during a drought between 2012 and 2014, roughly half of the Tule Elk herd on the Elk Reserve died. Because there are no perennial streams in the Reserve, the elk were trapped in an area with inadequate water and forage which caused them to die of thirst. This is the carrying capacity imposed by the park service to make room for private agriculture.
The Park’s response to this die off was that they were “closely monitoring the situation” and would implement a contingency plan if necessary. But this past year, Kline, a local wildlife photographer, documented the remains of at least 18 dead elk in the Tomales Point Reserve from late summer to fall. 2020 was a year of extreme drought and wildfires, and it is common sense that a fenced area with no significant sources of water would at least warrant investigation by the park. Despite this, the park service dodged any culpability giving a map of supposed water sources and claiming to be monitoring the situation.
Another source of great controversy is the culling of the native Tule Elk. These elk were once abundant in California, estimated to have a stable population of nearly half a million spread across the Coastline when the first Westerners arrived. That quickly changed with American acquisition of California, and by the turn of the century they were believed to be on the edge of extinction. By the late 19th century, there were less than 20 individuals left in the entire world. Luckily, a conservation-oriented rancher named Henry Miller protected a herd on his property until they could be slowly reintroduced across the state. It was because of the actions of a single rancher that the species was saved and now has a population of nearly 5,000. Ironically, today ranches are the exact reason that the park service wants to kill a species that is just beginning to return to the California wilderness.
For every elk in the park, there are roughly 13 cows. In fact, population estimates put Tule Elk at roughly 1% of their historic population, and the government is already making plans to start killing elk to appease private ranching on public land because they can’t just relocate them elsewhere due to an outbreak of Johne’s disease caused by cows.
“As a Native American that has travelled up and down the state of California, that’s tracked the Elk throughout the state of California from San Diego to Riverside to the Tahoe region to Northern California where the Roosevelt Elk are here at Pt. Reyes…,” said Terrance Chitcus Brown, a Karuk Medicine Man and traditional dip net fisher in an interview for The Shame of Point Reyes. “[The National Park Service (NPS)] are supposed to take care of the public interests of the land, they’re supposed to uphold the spirit and intent with which the Point Reyes National Seashore was created. They’re supposed to protect the Point Reyes Tule Elk. They did not do that. If the Uniformed people did anything, they let them down.”
The park’s preferred plan also violates several laws. According to Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, the “NPS preferred alternative B does not comply with the Organic Act, the Point Reyes Act, or the GGNRA enabling legislation as it authorizes and promotes significant impairment of natural resources and killing of native wildlife.”
The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) undertaken by the park, in accordance with National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), concluded that the plan would be detrimental to the area’s natural resources by allowing the continued pollution of air, land and water within the park. The park only complied with drafting this EIS after settling a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and the Resource Renewal Institute. This implies that from the onset of this process, the park service’s intent was to expand ranching leases and allow mobile slaughterhouses on public lands at any cost. At every step along the process, the park service has attempted to cut corners and ignore its duty as stewards of Point Reyes.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that this plan is against the best interests of the land and visitors to the park, it has been hailed as a great compromise by local Rep. Jared Huffman and the Marin Conservation League. In particular, Huffman, generally a reputable environmentalist, has been a fervent advocate of the general management plan. In fact, Huffman introduced a bill in 2018 to implement 20 year leases and definitively establish the ranches’ position in the park for generations to come. He argues that this follows the directive of ex-Secretary of Interior Salazar, who directed the park service to pursue the extension of leases. Huffman’s bill passed in the House but died in the Senate and he has not announced any intention to reintroduce this bill.
Huffman’s comment to then-Superintendent Muldoon about the proposed plan makes his position quite clear. He argues that the ranches are an integral part of the park’s history and future, and that the proposed plan is very close to being the perfect compromise. He states that the culling of the herd is necessary and that the park will have to dedicate substantial time and funds to research and resource management to appease both the ranches and public.
Huffman presents himself as an environmentalist but his criticisms often focus on coal and oil companies which are not heavily present in his district. It is a safe political move for him to critique and advocate for harsher restrictions on these industries because they have no monetary hold over him or his voting base. On the other hand, he is much more moderate with his opinions on agriculture, praising Marin’s agriculture Industry as sustainable and historic while also taking $189,000 from agribusiness in campaign donations. It is no wonder that Huffman is willing to turn a blind eye to a couple of ranches when necessary.
“All the data we have, from the comments submitted to the NPS, and to the California Coastal Commission, to social media, town halls, etc., indicate that the public is heavily in favor of wilderness over cows,” said Ken Bouley, a local resident. “The only people supporting commerce in our national park seem to be the ranchers themselves and certain in-tow politicians. There is precious little wilderness left, and this land belongs to the public. Arguments for continued extractive operations in Point Reyes would be pathetic contortions, if they weren’t on the verge of winning the day. Hopefully people wake up to what’s happening here, and soon.”
So who can you turn to? Well, Craig Kenkel, the former Superintendent of Cuyahoga National Park, begins management of the park this year. He comes from a large farm family in Iowa, with decades of experience in the NPS. He has been praised for his work with “cultural” and “historic” resources, and oversaw the culling of white tailed deer in Cuyahoga using trucks and sharpshooters. Where have we heard the word “historic” before? Unsurprisingly, many environmentalists are skeptical of his appointment due to his background while others believe he might bring a fresh perspective to the issue.
The final issue I wish to address is accessibility. Point Reyes has intentionally never had an entrance fee, allowing it to be accessible to nearby urban areas and to low income communities that might not necessarily be able to afford a trip to other national parks like Yosemite. This idea has been so important to the core values of the park that it is an official park rule ensuring that the park service would never include a fee. To pollute and sell out the public lands to private industry in a park intended to be for everyone makes this more than just an environmental issue but a social justice issue as well.
Later this month, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) will issue a decision on whether or not to approve the management plan. Because the CCC is a state agency, ultimately their approval isn’t technically necessary to go forward with the plan because the park is federal land. Despite this, the park service would be in an incredibly awkward position without the approval of the CCC and it would make it abundantly clear that their decision was politically motivated rather than based in facts and science. Tentatively, the CCC staff recommendation has raised concerns about the lack of water quality data and the lack of a comprehensive water quality monitoring program by the park service but still suggested conditional approval of the plan if the park service was to create some form of water monitoring plan.
“It is not reasonable to find the plan consistent with the Coastal Act, based on the NPS producing a water quality assessment plan. The Park has been unable to monitor the ranches consistently for decades. They have not had a range management scientist on staff for almost all of the years since 1980,” said Robert Johnston, a professor emeritus of environmental planning at UC Davis.
Even if the CCC was to object to the general management plan, that would not be enough. It would take a group of engaged citizens to advocate for the park like they have done consistently in the past. There would be no Point Reyes National Seashore today without the hard work of private citizens trying to right a wrong. The only reason Marin County has any places left unpolluted by the agriculture industry is because of the work of forward-thinking individuals like Marty Griffin and Clem Miller. Ultimately, though, what is happening at Point Reyes is not an isolated incident or unique to California.
Over the past four years, the Trump Administration has rolled back hundreds of environmental regulations and pushed an agenda that has expanded private industries like drilling and agriculture into public lands across the country. Even as we watch the transition of power, now is not the time to let up. To simply blame this on the Trump Administration and expect it to be fixed with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s entrance is not enough. We cannot rely on our elected officials to do the right thing without public pressure. It is time to take action towards a greener future. We need radical substantial change, and that requires action from you and I.
Written by — Joe Sweeney
This article originally appeared in The Aggie student newspaper.