Coastal commission approves park’s ranching plan

04/28/2021

After a sometimes-contentious meeting that lasted more than 10 hours on Earth Day, the California Coastal Commission approved, 5-4, an amended consistency determination for the Point Reyes National Seashore’s general management plan amendment, meaning the plan is considered consistent “to the maximum extent practical” with the state’s rules for the coastal zone.

The determination was technically a narrow one: Because the park is federal land, the commission only has jurisdiction on “spillover effects” on coastal resources, and only effects that have population-level ramifications. Initially, coastal staff only found spillover effects on water and marine resources, but that didn’t stop scores of public commenters, including many nonprofit groups and other individuals, from pushing the commission to do what it could to influence the plan, which is focused on the park’s ranchlands, an area amounting to 28,700 acres in the seashore and the northern Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The plan allows for 20-year leases, which the park says will provide security and incentives to invest in infrastructure improvements, and guides management of free-ranging elk. The elk, once extirpated from the area entirely, are at once a success story for reintroduction as well as a thorn in the side of some ranchers, who say that elk grazing on leased lands makes it difficult to meet organic forage requirements for cattle.

Supporters of the park plan spoke on Thursday, including public officials like Congressman Jared Huffman and ranchers themselves. But most comments came from environmental groups and individuals opposing commission approval without many more conditions—or objecting to it entirely for the time being—because of impacts on water, birds, elk and more. Public comment, both at the Zoom podium and submitted in writing, also complained, at times with photographic evidence, of cows in places they shouldn’t be, like wading in Drakes Estero or Abbotts Lagoon, or dead cows in wetlands.

Others said the commission should delay a decision without more information or changes to the plan. But the park is pressing up against a July deadline to finalize the amendment, handed down by a court-ordered settlement with three environmental groups in 2017.

Ultimately, the extra stipulations in the commission’s approval included a requirement that the park service return to the commission within 12 months with a water quality monitoring strategy, a major issue at the meeting. The park also must present a climate-change strategy with regard to the ranches within 12 months and give the commission a five-year status report in 2026 at a public meeting.

In the narrow purview of spillover effects, the commission generally had limited choices: approve the park’s plan, approve it with modifications, or object. But had the park service contested any modifications, the commission’s entire decision would automatically become an objection. The park service could still have moved forward on its own at that point, leaving the commission with the option to either attempt mediation with the park or go to court. 

An objection would also have meant that none of the commission’s conditions could be implemented—a delicate situation voiced as a reason to balance commission concerns with having any say at all. 

Some commissioners proposed more changes—including limiting their own agreement to five years, eliminating diversification and requiring a new elk plan—but Craig Kenkel, the seashore’s new superintendent, said the park wouldn’t accept such conditions. They failed on commission votes.

Before the votes, commission chair Steve Padilla, who represents the San Diego coast, said, “My concern with these proposed amendments, although very rational and well intended, we may actually inadvertently be forcing a de facto objection, and ending up in that scenario”—that is, in mediation or court—“and I don’t know whether that’s our nearest-term opportunity to try to achieve the thing we want to achieve, from purely a pragmatic standpoint.”

Elk issues

Many of the public commenters were concerned over elk management, particularly the prospect of the culling of the Drakes Beach herd. The park intends to keep the herd at 120 animals, which could require culling an estimated 12 to 15 annually, according to the park’s lead wildlife ecologist and acting natural resources manager Dave Press. John Weber, a senior environmental scientist for the commission, said that elk were the “subject of the vast majority” of the 40,000 comments the commission received.

But Kate Huckelbridge, deputy director of energy, ocean resources and federal consistency at the commission, said that although staff heard the concerns and want elk to thrive, they determined there were no spillover effects for elk, because the ungulates only roam within the boundaries of the park. 

“We understand this is not the answer that many members of the public want to hear, but we believe this is the correct answer, given the facts and the law in this case,” she said. 

Commissioner Dayna Bochco, a public commissioner, adamantly disagreed on this point, saying repeatedly over the course of the meeting that they should have jurisdiction, given that the elk could eventually make their way into the coastal zone if left to their own devices.

It’s a tricky point because, as Mr. Press said, the park would relocate back into the seashore any animal that might happen to leave the park’s boundaries, due to depredation issues on private land and Johne’s disease, a potentially deadly ruminant infection, not uncommon in cattle herds, that spreads through feces and has been found in elk in the seashore. 

Ms. Bochco called the proposed elk management plan “cruel.” 

Responding to varied critiques of elk management, Mr. Kenkel pointed out the close coordination between the park and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the primary agency in charge of elk management in the state. 

The park is also committed to ongoing discussions with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria about elk management, he said. That work is part of a broader “government to government” relationship that he said included a forthcoming agreement on incorporating traditional tribal knowledge in the ecological management of the tribe’s ancestral homeland.

Mr. Press added at one point that management of the elk took place in the absence of key apex predators. 

Ms. Bochco proposed an amendment requiring the park come up with a new plan to bring to the commission. Some commissioners expressed emotional support for Ms. Bochco, but Mr. Padilla said he couldn’t find a “factual basis” on which to vote yes on such a measure. 

The motion failed, 4-5.

Water quality

The potential spillover effect from ranching on marine resources and water quality was a major concern raised by many public commenters as well as by commissioners. And it’s an issue even more pressing given the ongoing drought, which park staff said is already leading ranches to decrease herds by 15 percent.

Although there is regular monitoring and oversight of the Tomales Bay watershed, water monitoring on the coastal side—places like Kehoe Creek, Abbotts Lagoon, Drakes Estero and East Schooner Creek—has been limited. The park hasn’t collected data in that area since 2013, because, as the seashore’s range program manager Dylan Voeller said at the meeting, resources were limited and the decision was made to focus on actively implementing projects, rather than monitoring.  

That justification was critiqued by some. “Obviously the resources at stake are beyond extraordinary,” said Mark Gold, a non-voting member of the commission. “It’s not expensive to be doing fecal indicator bacteria.” 

Much discussion focused on this vacuum of data, along with testing conducted by the nonprofit Western Watersheds Project in January 2021 that found high levels of fecal coliform following a storm event. Ms. Huckelbridge said it was an important data point but that baseline wet and dry weather data, which would come from routine monitoring, is necessary to get a full picture of the situation.

The park’s plan does include efforts to improve water quality, including more fencing, and the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board recently implemented new water monitoring requirements for dairies, including all the dairies in the seashore. 

But commission staffers said there was no timeline, nor specifics, on how success or failure would be evaluated in terms of the park’s own goals for water quality. And while Katie Rice, the commissioner representing the North Central coast who is also a Marin County supervisor, voiced support for ranches, some other commissioners questioned the history of the park’s management of the ranches.

“I have to say that the ranchers have been there for a long period of time. I personally am not necessarily convinced that by virtue of—at this time, after 50 years—saying, now we will give you a 20-year lease, that we’re going to see dramatic change unless there is a hammer,” said Commissioner Caryl Hart, a public member.

Park staff pressed back, arguing that it is better for them, the landowner, to hold the hammer, so to speak. Mr. Kenkel said he had no trepidation in enforcing the rules. In response to a question about noncompliance and enforcement, he said that within the last two weeks, the park had sent a letter to a rancher “telling him that he was no longer allowed to have his cattle on national parkland” due to resource damage on the property and a failure to comply with previous requests to fix the issues. 

The land, Mr. Kenkel went on, was now going “into a resting period to restore itself.” 

Responding to pictures of cows in coastal waters, Brannon Ketcham, the park’s management assistant, said that cattle are not supposed to be in those areas—the issue being not a lack of fences but “the maintenance of those fences and repair of those fences.” As for pictures of other alleged violations, like hog operations, Mr. Ketcham noted that previous permits allowed small numbers of other animals for non-commercial purposes—a difficult distinction to enforce that’s now being eliminated.

During the meeting, park staff said repeatedly that enforcement of lease terms would be more stringent, and that accountability was a top priority. Though past leases and permits had enforcement provisions, Mr. Ketcham said it was tough to implement them. 

“I think the political environment made that an alternative that was difficult to contemplate at Point Reyes. I think this planning process puts us in a very different place,” he said.

Mr. Kenkel reiterated the point. “The park service is committed to changing the way we oversee ranching in the park. We have to demonstrate that we’re committed to using these tools as robustly as we can,” he said.