Determining the Future of Point Reyes National Seashore 

Growing elk herds are competing with grazing cattle at the national park, raising questions about how best to manage public lands.

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click to enlarge PHOTO BY CARLOS PORRETA
  • Photo by Carlos Porreta

In California, though, the land has been so altered with the introduction of new plant species and the eradication of native animals that it may be foolish to pretend that parks are preserving natural systems. Cattle, Niman said, now fill critical ecological roles once served across North America by hundreds of millions of deer, elk, antelope, moose, and bison.

"It isn't possible anymore to go back to a pristine state, so we have to steward the land," he said.

In the mountain ranges of Europe, national parks often feature picturesque tapestries of traditional human industries and nature. Highways cross the mountains, cattle cross the highways, and bears, wolves, deer, and mountain goats still dwell in the high country. Shepherds roam the parks with their herds. There are even villages within many European parks — an accepted element of the wilderness.

Ranchers, and academics like Watt, believe such a land use system could be applied in the United States, or at least at Point Reyes.

"When [Point Reyes National Seashore] was created, it was a different type of vision for a new kind of park," said Albert Straus, founder of Straus Family Creamery. Straus runs his cattle on private land to the east of the Point Reyes peninsula, but he buys milk produced there. "I believe the park and the farms can work in harmony with the environment, and in a way that's beneficial to the community."

He added, "The U.S. is one of the rare cases where farming is not usually a part of national parks."

But he thinks it could be, at least in the Point Reyes National Seashore. So do many other farmers. Ranching began here in the 1800s — a deep-rooted past, though not exactly a heritage stemming from the dawn of time. After the Miwoks were displaced from Point Reyes, a handful of European American families claimed the hills. With the establishment of the park in 1962, the federal government formally declared intent to acquire the privately owned acreage. By the early 1970s, most of the acquisitions were completed. At this point, the federal government owned the ranches but leased the properties back to the families.

"So the public really owns this land," said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute, the Mill Valley organization that led the 2016 lawsuit against the park service for its management strategies at Point Reyes. The ranchers, she added, are the tenants. "And the park service is like the property manager," she said.

Moskowitz said she doubts what ranchers claim — that many people visit the park to see cows, trailside water troughs, heavy farm machinery, silage mowers, miles of fences, and other elements of farm life. In a 2003 telephone survey commissioned by the Point Reyes National Seashore Commission, 87 percent of 418 Bay Area respondents said it was "very important" for a national park to protect wildlife habitat. Only 30 percent said the same for protecting small dairies and beef ranches. Ten percent of those surveyed said it was "very unimportant" to preserve small cattle farms on national parkland, while no respondents said so for protecting "rare species of plants and animals."

If honoring local history is so important in managing the Point Reyes seashore, Moskowitz added, then elk — although a latecomer to the current stakeholder debate — should be prioritized.

"If you want to look back just a little further into history, you'll see the wildlife was there first," she said.

Few environmentalists are pushing for complete elimination of ranching on the Point Reyes peninsula and adjacent public lands. Miller explained that the plaintiffs in the 2016 lawsuit want tighter controls on ranching activity to address erosion and water quality problems. In some cases, he noted, that might mean ending leases of ranches found to be in chronic violation of environmental regulations.

The lawsuit was also aimed at helping identify and quantify the impacts of cattle grazing on the landscape before considering extending the leases. And it was intended to address the "diversification" proposal, which was introduced by ranchers in 2014 as a suggestion of new practices that might be permitted to allow farmers, struggling in the trade of producing beef and milk, to make ends meet. Diversification could allow the keeping of other kinds of animals besides cattle. It could even turn farms into tourist attractions. Such ideas as "Tours with visitors and weddings," "Farm Stay/Bed & Breakfast," and "Collaboration with the park on education programs for public" were described in a park planning process, now posted online.

"'Diversification' is a nice word that people like but it really could be a disaster for the park," Miller said.

Baty said he is concerned that such a path forward will create new conflicts with the native predators that still occupy the peninsula, like raccoons, skunks, foxes, bobcats, raptors, and coyotes — midsized animals that ecologists call mesopredators.

Evans said there is nothing to worry about, at least not on his property.

"It is quite the opposite," he said in an email exchange. "The small and mid-size predators will benefit from another food source. We graze chickens in our pastures. We only use non-lethal predator control deterrents and they are quite effective."

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