CCC signals concern over testing in park

01/06/2021

A process for monitoring water quality should be better fleshed out in the National Park Service’s plan for managing ranchlands in the Point Reyes National Seashore, the California Coastal Commission states.

The commission is one of a handful of regulatory agencies tasked with reviewing the seashore’s general management plan amendment, which will govern the historic ranching operations and tule elk herds across 28,000 acres. Although the coastal commission does not have jurisdiction over federal lands, it considered the 20-year plan for the spillover effects on coastal resources, looking for consistency with the California Coastal Act. On Jan. 14, the commission will hold a public hearing to present its findings, and the park service will respond. 

After this round of feedback from the commission and agencies such as the United States Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Services, the park service’s regional director will sign a record of decision, finalizing the amendment. The park released the final environmental impact statement for the amendment in September. 

A staff report prepared for next week’s hearing found that the plan was mostly consistent with the Coastal Act. Staff had no objection to the proposed 20-year ranch leases, tightened control of the free-ranging elk populations, or maintenance of coastal access. The agency is willing to accept the document upon one condition: The park prepare a new water quality assessment plan that focuses on the creeks and streams that flow to Abbotts Lagoon, Drakes Estero and directly to the Pacific Ocean. 

The commission explained that a significant amount of work has gone into improving agricultural practices on lands that host the tributaries of Tomales Bay since the bay’s designation as an impaired water body in 2007. These efforts have led to water quality standards being met. On the other hand, there has been less focus on the ranches outside of the watershed. 

“The data that are available indicate that water quality standards were not typically being met in creeks in the [seashore] that drain into Drakes Estero and the Pacific Ocean,” commission staff wrote. “Importantly, NPS is proposing to implement the same suite of best management practices and water quality protection measures in [the seashore] that were successful in addressing significant water quality problems in areas upstream of Tomales Bay. However, the [amendment] does not describe where and on what timeline these measures will be implemented, or how their efficacy will be evaluated.”

The staff requested that the park service provide the commission’s executive director, John Ainsworth, with a water quality assessment plan for review and approval before new leases with ranchers are finalized. The assessment should include a strategy and timeline for assessing and improving water quality, a proposed sampling methodology for collecting quantitative water quality data, and a provision that a detailed report would be made to the coastal commission each year.  

The park service is reviewing the report and considering a written response, said Melanie Gunn, the seashore’s outreach coordinator. 

The amendment to the park’s general management plan, which was undertaken after a lawsuit was filed in 2016 by three environmental groups that hoped to see a discontinuation of ranching, described six possible alternatives for managing the ranchlands. The park selected an alternative that laid out how ranching will continue, though the anticipated record of decision could look different, incorporating new feedback from regulatory agencies.

As part of its review, the coastal commission received 20,000 comments, reflecting a high level of public interest nationally and greatly outnumbering the 8,000 comments the park service received on the draft document. Many of the comments the commission received were form letters submitted by individuals with the help of advocacy organizations, according to commission staffer John Weber. 

“It’s no secret that we are really unhappy with the plan,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is one of the three groups that sued the park. “It opens a pandora’s box of new agricultural activities and guarantees decades of conflicts between the park service, ranchers and conservation groups.”

Although the Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments on a suite of issues, Mr. Miller emphasized the concern about water quality and lauded the recommendation for a new assessment plan. “This is something that should have been in place already,” he said. 

The coastal commission’s staff review of the park’s plan was extensive, as was its consideration of public comments. 

The proposed management of tule elk was the subject of the vast majority of the comments, but the agency itself found no issues with it. “The proposed elk management measures would affect individuals that live entirely outside of the coastal zone and would maintain viable herd numbers in accordance with wildlife agency recommendations,” staff wrote.

Instead, staff focused their review on the protection of public access, cultural resources, marine resources, water quality, air quality and environmentally sensitive habitat areas. “The [amendment] maintains or slightly increases public access opportunities, consistent with protecting private lease interests and public safety needs, and is therefore consistent with the Coastal Act’s public access policies,” they wrote. 

Most of the park’s plans regarding the preservation of natural resources was also acceptable. Although staff noted that ranching and cattle grazing would continue to affect habitats and species, they found that “such effects would not result in population-level effects to coastal species.” The staff approved fencing and other habitat protection measures the park committed to in order to protect special-status species such as the western snowy plover.  

Water quality was the single concern that warranted further commitment from the park service, they wrote. 

“With the incorporation of this condition, staff believes that appropriate measures would be in place to ensure that marine resources in the coastal zone would be protected, that biological productivity of coastal waters would be sustained, and adverse effects of water pollution would be minimized,” staff wrote.