Marin Independent Journal
Final plan for Point Reyes preserves historic ranches
Killing of some elk permitted to keep population at 120
The Point Reyes National Seashore released a final version of a controversial plan Friday to extend leases of historic ranches in the park and to cull some tule elk to prevent conflicts with private ranching.
In its final environmental review of the park’s general management plan amendment, the National Park Service’s preferred option is to extend leases for private ranchers from fiveyear terms to up to 20-yearterms. The 24 ranching families in the park and neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area would also be able to diversify their livestock beyond cows on a case-by-case basis to include other animals such as goats, chickens and pigs.
To address conflicts between the free-roaming Drakes Beach tule elk herd and ranches, the plan would allow park staff to kill some elk to keep the population to 120 elk. The herd had 138 elk as of the last count in late 2019.
The park’s acting superintendent Carey Feierabend described the plan as the first in the park’s 58-year history to address the management of the 28,000 acres of ranching operations.
“The preferred alternative sets the course for management of these leased ranch lands — it preserves multigenerational ranching in the park and provides the tools to maintain a viable free-ranging tule elk population in the planning area,” Feierabend wrote in a statement.
“In addition, the preferred alternative also sets forth opportunities for enhancing visitor access and enjoyment, recreation, and the continued stewardship of significant natural and cultural
resources, including to national register historic districts.”
The plan will go to the park service’s regional director after at least a 30day waiting period during which time the park will consult with various state and federal agencies. The regional director will then issue a record of decision and select one of six alternatives for how the park will manage its ranches, elk and other park resources. The National Park Service is recommending “alternative B” to extend the ranch leases and manage the elk herd size.
David Evans, owner of the D. Rogers Ranch lease in the seashore, said he was pleased with the park’s proposal, saying it will ease the uncertainty of shortterm leases, provide more economic security through livestock diversification, promote improved land stewardship and potentially allow visitors to access ranches.
“I believe that it will lead to even better land management, more thriving agricultural operations, better visitor experience and education, and continue to fulfill the founding principals of the Point Reyes National Seashore, which included the maintenance of the cultural heritage and ranching on the peninsula,” Evans said.
Being able to diversify livestock will provide even more security that ranches will be economically viable especially during times when the cattle market dips. Evans said he was one of the first ranches in the park to add pastured chicken operations to his ranch, which required a full federal environmental review at the time.
Opponents of the park’s plans are recommending “alternative F,” which would phase out all private ranching from the park over five years and provide more area for the tule elk to roam.
Some environmental activists and groups say the park’s preferred option violates federal law and its obligation to protect natural resources.
“This is a disaster for wildlife and a stunning mismanagement of one of America’s most beautiful national parks,” Center for Biological Diversity senior conservation advocate Jeff Miller wrote in a statement on Friday. “The Park Service is greenlighting the slaughter of native wildlife in Point Reyes. After the elk, the next likely victims will be birds, bobcats, foxes and coyotes.”
Several activist groups have been ramping up protests in recent months to oppose the national seashore’s management of its three elk herds, which include the Tomales Point preserve herd and Limantour herd.
Once thought extinct because of human expansion and hunting, tule elk were reintroduced to the park in 1972. Point Reyes is the only national park to host them. There are about 5,700 tule elk statewide including about 750 elk in the national seashore.
Opponents said Friday that the park service appears to have ignored the overwhelming opposition to its proposal. About 91% of the 7,600 comments submitted on the plan opposed the park’s preferred option, according to the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute that opposes continued ranching.
“We’re still kind of reeling and in shock from this decision,” said Fleur Dawes, communications director for the San Rafael-based In Defense of Animals.
Resource Renewal Institute executive director Deborah Moskowitz described the park’s plan as “a giveaway of public resources to a special interest.”
“The NPS plan has laid the groundwork for making ranching the park permanent — not just by current ranchers with history in the park, but to anyone interested in raising commercial livestock,” Moskowitz said. “By law, the NPS is required to be an excellent steward of the land and its animals, but at Point Reyes, the NPS is sacrificing both — all to privilege a handful of wealthy, politically connected ranchers who have enriched themselves at public expense.”
The park received more than 7,600 comments on the draft environmental review it released in August 2019. The final environmental review released on Friday responded to these comments.
The park originally began work on a new plan in 2014 that would provide ranchers with longer leases so they could have more financial security.
Three environmental groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watersheds Project — sued the park service in 2016, stating it had not conducted adequate environmental studies on how the 5,700 cows in the park were affecting the natural resources and endangered species. The groups also argued the park service should be amending its 1980 general management plan and consider other alternatives such as no ranching and reduced ranching.
As part of a five-year settlement agreement in 2017, the National Park Service agreed to amend its management plan and consider these other options before July 2021. Ranchers would be placed on five-year leases during this time.
The Center for Biological Diversity argued the latest plan still does not address cattle ranching’s environmental impacts. It argued the diversification of livestock would exacerbate conflicts between ranchers and other wildlife such as bobcats, foxes and coyotes.
“This plan is illegal and immoral, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop it,” Miller wrote.
Ranches are not able to grow in size under the plan, with livestock diversification being limited by carrying capacity and the leases themselves, Evans said.
“We’re talking about very small farm activity,” Evans said. “All of those farms are family operated and multigenerational and they’re capped in their size.”
With the park lacking large predators and not allowing other elk population control methods used in the state such as hunting, Evans said it’s up to humans to ensure the tule elk population in the park is controlled. Ranchers have and can continue to coexist with wildlife, but also must be looking to do more through carbon sequestration and improving grazing practices.
“We’ve done something here that has set us apart from many other places that makes us unique,” Evans said. “It makes us a model.”
Several groups have argued that the park’s preferred plan violates the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act, which charges the park service to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein.”
Park officials say the park is responsible for protecting cultural resources as well, a category in which the ranches fall under. Many ranches date back to the 1850s, long before the park was created in 1962. Seventeen ranches were designated as a federal historic district in 2018.
“Point Reyes National Seashore hosts a diversity of resources, layers of human history, congressionally designated wilderness, and is beloved by millions of visitors,” Feierabend wrote in a statement. “We are grateful for the input and engagement of stakeholders throughout this process and recognize there are a myriad of perspectives on the management of this special place. We believe this plan succeeds in striking a balance for protecting and managing these valuable and diverse park resources into the future.”
Dawes, communication director for In Defense of Animals, said the park service should expect more pushback including protests and other actions in the coming weeks.
“I think a lot of organizations will be considering legal options,” Dawes said.
The final environmental impact statement and associated documents can be found online at bit. ly/3ktgheu.