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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Across America, the dairy industry, once built of several million small family-owned farms, is becoming consolidated. There are now about 40,000 individual dairy farms, according to Straus. He sees Point Reyes as a vital stronghold for some of the country's remaining small dairies, which in turn support the local economy and local community. He warns that any management changes that make business more difficult for the seashore's farms will knock them out of business. Stacy Carlsen, Marin County's agricultural commissioner, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle last July saying that exiling ranching from West Marin's public lands could create a "food security" issue, a dubious claim of a cottage industry specializing in boutique cheeses and grass-fed beef.

Not everyone believes many visitors come to Point Reyes to see cows and farmers. However, Press said many visitors "are charmed by" the cows.

"You do often see people at the side of the road taking their selfies with a cow behind them," he said.

Evicting the ranchers would essentially mean terminating their businesses and booting them from the only lifestyle, home, and line of work they know. Evans said many of the ranchers have no other source of income and that "you cannot just move a dairy or beef ranch somewhere else; it's not that simple."

The park must come up with a new management plan by July of 2021, and with the terms of the 2017 settlement allowing the existing ranching leases to continue on a status quo arrangement through the duration of the current management plan, it seems unlikely that local ranchers — familiar faces to park staff and many locals who frequent the park — will get the boot. A 2014 planning document posted on the park's website says "[r]anching has a long and important history on the Point Reyes peninsula" and calls the farms "a vibrant part of Point Reyes National Seashore" and "an important contribution to the superlative natural and cultural resources of these [National Park Service] lands."

The more relevant question is probably how these ranchers will be allowed to supplement their livelihoods, how they will be required to modify activities — especially mowing — to benefit wildlife, and how park staff will deal with the multiplying elk.

Niman pointed out the elephant looming in the room: Removing ranchers to make room for the elk will only delay meaningful action. Eventually, some elk will need to be either relocated or shot.

"If you bump out the ranchers to make room for the elk, then where does it stop?" Niman said. "Will they eventually let the elk into Mill Valley? They need to be culled."

He thinks the park should shoot a few animals each year and donate the meat to a food bank.

Baty more or less agrees.

"You have to control their population," he said, suggesting that the idea of limited elk hunting within the park would be a suitable if controversial solution.

Straus is less sympathetic to the native elk.

"The elk were never meant to be in this park," he said.

Niman dismissed the groups that sued the park service as "extreme environmentalists and wild animal supporters" who are forgetting the service that ranchers have provided by preserving the Point Reyes peninsula.

"It could have been golf courses along the cliffs out here," he said.

He emphasized that the public "can tramp around out here today" because West Marin ranchers preserved the land rather than develop it.

"We believed our land was so precious, and when we saw what was happening in the burgeoning metropolitan areas to the south, we were happy to see it go into stronger hands that would preserve it," he said. "We live in paradise today, and it's because so much of this land is now public."


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