Federal plan for Point Reyes Seashore ranches, elk herds nears key state vote

The National Park Service wants to extend leases for ranchers and reduce the size of the seashore’s elk herd by killing animals. The state Coastal Commission is set to weigh in Thursday.|

California Coastal Commission special meeting on Point Reyes National Seashore management plan

When: 9 a.m. Thursday

Where: Online (coastal.ca.gov/meetings/agenda/#/2021/4)

What: National Park Service revised management plan covering about 28,700 acres of federal land in Point Reyes National Seashore and adjacent areas of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in Marin County

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.

One of the plan's more controversial proposals is to allow park service staff to shoot and kill some of the park's free-roaming tule elk to prevent conflicts with ranches, which has led to property damage in the past. The plan calls for keeping the Drakes Beach herd at 120 elk or fewer.

The herd had 139 elk as of this past winter, according to the park service. The park does not propose killing elk in the other free-roaming herd, the 155-member Limantour herd, and the largest herd of 293 elk that lives in a fenced-in enclosure at the Tomales Point Preserve.

Once thought extinct from hunting and habitat loss, tule elk were reintroduced to the park in 1972 at Tomales Point. The park no longer contains natural predators of the elk.

The Coastal Commission has received about 35,000 comments since December, a large portion of which related to the tule elk proposal.

Melanie Gunn, a park official, stressed that the plan does not allow for the shooting of other animals such as coyotes or bobcats.

"We believe wildlife and ranching can occur side by side as they have for the last 50-plus years," Gunn said.

While the Coastal Commission cannot disallow the park service from moving forward with its plan, the discussion on Thursday will focus on any "spillover" impacts the plan might have on the state's coastal areas and wildlife. Ranching impacts on water quality, such as runoff from manure or fertilizer making its way to creeks, is the standout issue, said Kate Huckelbridge, commission deputy director.

"This is the first time that the Coastal Commission has really taken a comprehensive look at anything at Point Reyes," Kate Huckelbridge, commission deputy director. "It's kind of a first chance we get to try to get what we think are really critical components and get improvements in the water quality."

Commission staff are requesting the park service conduct annual water quality tests near active ranches and report on methods to prevent contamination, especially for waters that have not been tested since 2013. Should the park service reject this recommendation, the commission has other avenues available, including both mediation and ultimately the court system to try to convince it otherwise, Huckelbridge said.

Recent water quality tests conducted by the Western Watersheds Project found high levels of bacterial contamination in waterways near ranches that had not been tested since 2013. One had E. coli bacteria levels up to 40 times higher than the state health standards.

Huckelbridge said the commission was aware of these waterways before the environmental groups' tests but said the new data reinforce the need for improved monitoring.

Laura Cunningham, California director of the Western Watersheds Project, and others say the commission's plan does not go far enough and does not require transparent reporting.

"The facts are you have to reduce the number of dairy cows to actually reduce the water pollution and ultimately remove the cows," Cunningham said.

McClure, whose dairy ranch resides near one of the recently tested waterways, said he has no issue with additional testing.

"If they want to test us, it's fine," McClure said.

Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice, a member of the Coastal Commission, declined to comment on the plan until after the hearing.

The Interior Department is required under a court settlement to decide on the management plan before July 14. Environmental groups have signaled they will likely challenge the plan in court should it be approved.

California Coastal Commission special meeting on Point Reyes National Seashore management plan

When: 9 a.m. Thursday

Where: Online (coastal.ca.gov/meetings/agenda/#/2021/4)

What: National Park Service revised management plan covering about 28,700 acres of federal land in Point Reyes National Seashore and adjacent areas of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in Marin County

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