Federal plan for Point Reyes Seashore ranches, elk herds nears key state vote
A major controversy brewing for nearly a decade at the Point Reyes National Seashore is coming to a head this week.
A National Park Service proposal, which includes whether to give cattle ranchers who rent the park's land longer leases and a plan to reduce the size of the park's iconic tule elk herd by killing some animals, is set to undergo a key vote before the California Coastal Commission at a special meeting Thursday.
The meeting will be one of the only times the plan will be vetted in a public hearing before the Biden administration renders a decision before its mid-July deadline.
Park officials and ranchers whose families who have worked the land since the mid-1800s say the plan would fulfill a promise made by former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012 to provide greater financial security to dairy and beef cattle ranchers by extending their leases from five-year to 20-year terms.
Environmental organizations and opponents say the park service is prioritizing commercial agriculture that contaminates local waters over its obligation to protect wildlife and public land.
Fourth-generation dairy rancher Bob McClure is one of 24 ranching families in the national park. The longer leases are critical for ranchers not only to secure investments needed to sustain their businesses but also for the "sense of pride," he said.
"These are not just places that we rented. I'm living in the house where I grew up in," McClure said. "It's our heritage and we'd like to take care of the places, but we can't do it if we're not given the security that we're going to be there for a while."
Environmental organizations such as the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute are calling on the park service to phase out commercial ranching entirely and allow the park's tule elk to roam unimpeded.
"Extreme water pollution, overgrazing, greenhouse gas emissions and die-offs of native species speak for themselves: Under pressure from agriculture and their political allies the National Park Service has been unwilling or unable to protect these internationally recognized, biologically significant public resources," said Deborah Moskowitz, the institute's executive director.
However, the California Coastal Commission's jurisdiction over the state's coastal areas does not include federal lands such as Point Reyes National Seashore. Even if the commission votes to object to the park's plan on Thursday, that would not be able to stop the Interior Department from ultimately adopting it.
Chance Cutrano, Resource Renewal Institute programs director, said even if the park service decides to ignore an objection, "it's up to the commission to uphold their charge and their mandate and protect those assets that are owned by all of us."
The park's plan would affect about 28,000 acres of existing ranching area within the 71,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore and neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which are visited by more than 2 million people every year.
Beyond extending ranch leases, the plan would also allow ranchers to diversify their operations by essentially allowing them to trade in cattle for other types of livestock such as chickens, sheep and goats. The park contains about 2,400 beef cattle and 3,115 dairy cows. In addition, some land could be converted to allow for growing produce and some ranches could also be opened up to visitors and ranch stays.
Bill Niman, a 50-year rancher who owns Niman Ranch at the southern end of the park, said the certainty provided by longer leases is essential given the significant investments needed to replace buildings and equipment that degrades rapidly along the coast as well as to make all the improvements needed to protect water quality.
"We understand the need for a long-term lease in order to capitalize all the improvements that are necessary and have been, in many cases, postponed because of the uncertainty about the ability to survive," Niman said.
The plan calls for reducing the amount of ranch land to 26,000 acres as part of a new method of designating land for certain ranching activities. For example, 2,000 acres will be blocked off to ranching to protect sensitive habitat and species.
After the national seashore was established in 1962 under President John F. Kennedy, Congress spent $57 million in the 1960s and 1970s to buy all of the ranchers' properties. Ranchers were then given the option to lease the land from the government to continue working for 25 years. Congress voted in 1978 to allow the government to extend these ranching leases, which has continued through today.
Of the nation's more than 400 national parks, Point Reyes is one of few to allow commercial cattle ranching.