Will Houston | email@example.com
September 13, 2021
Fifty-nine years to the date since President John F. Kennedy signed the legislation establishing the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Biden administration approved a controversial plan on Monday to allow the park to kill some of its tule elk and to extend how long commercial cattle ranchers can rent parkland.
However, the National Park Service plan includes several changes from what was released under the Trump administration in 2019.
These changes include new mandates for ranchers to make specific plans and investments to protect wildlife, water quality and the environment; reducing the number of tule elk that park staff would be allowed to kill; and limiting the ability for ranchers to diversify their livestock.
Ranch leases would still increase from five-year terms to up to 20 years as originally proposed.
Park staff would also still be allowed to shoot elk in one of the park’s free-roaming herds to keep the population at a maximum of 140 elk. Park staff originally proposed limiting the herd to 120 elk.
An additional 580 acres of existing ranch land would be converted to a protected area for elk. A total of 2,580 acres of existing ranch land will be retired under the plan.
Park service staff said the changes were made in response to concerns raised since the park first released the proposal in 2018, including tens of thousands of opposition letters and concerns raised by California coastal regulators earlier this year.
Point Reyes Superintendent Craig Kenkel said the plan “strikes the right balance of recognizing the importance of ranching while also modernizing management approaches to protect park resources and the environment.”
“Input gained throughout this planning process was critical to shaping the National Park Service’s final plan,” Kenkel wrote in a statement.
Ranching opponents indicated they would challenge the plan in court, stating the changes are not nearly enough to address environmental damage from the ranches.
“Given the immense scope of continuing livestock grazing in a national seashore, litigation is likely,” said Laura Cunningham, California director of the Western Watersheds Project.
Chance Cutrano, programs director for the Mill Valley-based Resource Renewal Institute, said the plan “shows the park service and Biden administration lack the integrity to really meet the moment” given recent revelations on environmental damage and worker conditions at the ranches.
The plan addresses how the park manages the existing 28,000 acres of dairy and beef cattle ranching within the 86,000 acres of land in the seashore and the neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Ted McIsaac, a beef cattle rancher in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said he is still reviewing the changes but said it was “great news” to learn that the 20-year leases were approved.
The more than 20 ranching families in the park have sought longer leases that they say will provide more financial security and certainty compared to the five-year leases many of them operate under currently.
“I’m sure there are stipulations that we’ll have to deal with,” McIsaac said about the new requirements.
Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, supported the park service’s original plan but said the changes announced on Monday were “appropriate.”
“In the 30% of the seashore where some of this historic ranching continues, it’s been part of the history and culture of Point Reyes since the mid-1800s,” Huffman said Monday. “And it’s also a very important part of our local food system and agricultural economy. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be held to very high modern standards and I think that is happening under this plan.”
Ranchers will be asked to make upfront investments and changes under the plan, which some ranchers may not be able to meet, Huffman said.
The park service had originally proposed allowing ranchers to diversify their operations, including allowing them to trade in cattle for other types of livestock without having to undergo a lengthy environmental review; allowing them to plant row crops; and to begin offering farm stays and ranch tours.
The new plan will limit ranches to a maximum of 50 sheep or 66 goats. Commercial chickens and row crops would no longer be included. Ranches can now only provide two guest rooms per ranch depending on water availability.
McIsaac said the diversification changes likely won’t impact many ranchers as only a few are likely to apply for that.
The Marin Conservation League board member Nona Dennis said the organization will continue to support the park’s plan as long as the park service commits “the necessary funding and personnel resources to begin developing ranch operating agreements” and if ranchers “engage constructively in making essential improvements to their operations.”
Point Reyes is the only national park unit where tule elk can be found. Once thought extinct, the tule elk were introduced into the park in the late 1970s. Nearly 600 elk live in the seashore, nearly half of which are located in an enclosure that is not affected by the park’s plan. The remaining elk are part of two free-roaming herds known as the Limantour and Drakes Beach herds.
The park service plans to shoot elk in the park’s Drakes Beach herd to prevent conflicts such as damage to fencing, livestock and the loss of forage grasses needed to maintain ranchers’ organic certifications.
The park no longer has natural predators for the elk and lethal removal is consistent with how elk herds are managed in other parts of the state, according to park staff.
The Drakes Beach herd had 139 elk as of the last count in the winter of 2020-21, one less than the 140-elk limit approved in the plan.
Huffman said he is sure the plan will be challenged in court, but said the plan does make room for environmental improvements that will likely lead to an expansion of elk habitat and likely will further reduce ranching lands in the future.
“It’s not going to happen all at once as some advocates wanted,” Huffman said.
Huffman said he would support relocation of tule elk as opposed to lethal removal, especially given the park’s recent management agreement with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which has expressed interest in reestablishing elk in other areas.
Cutrano said the park service seemingly ignored tens of thousands of comments opposing the plan and made tweaks that will not address long-term impacts.
“The politicians have to confront the reality that nature bats last,” Cutrano said. “We can’t keep pretending that this is the 1850s.”
After President Kennedy signed the legislation to establish the seashore on Sept. 13, 1962, Congress spent $57 million in the next decade to buy all of the ranchers’ properties. However, it also designated land within the park that ranchers could lease.
Ranchers were 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.
After the National Park Service decided not to renew the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s lease in 2012, then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the park service to develop longer leases for ranchers of up to 20-year terms.
In response, the park service initially began creating a ranch management plan in 2014, but this effort prompted litigation filed by three environmental groups — the Resource Renewal Institute, Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity — in 2016.
The groups alleged the park service’s plan did not adequately study environmental impacts caused by cattle ranching and did not consider other alternatives such as reducing or removing cattle from the park. The park service and environmental groups reached a settlement agreement in 2017, in which the park service would review these options. Ranch leases would continue under five-year terms under the agreement.
The judge set a July 2021 deadline for the park service to render a decision on the plan, but extended it at the request of the park service to Monday.
And the litigation is likely to continue.
“We’ll do everything in our power to stop the park service from implementing this disaster of a plan and to prevent the slaughter of our beloved tule elk,” Center for Biological Diversity conservation advocate Jeff Miller wrote in a statement on Monday.
More information about the Point Reyes plan can be found at https://bit.ly/3lrYBSO