Meet the new superintendent of the Point Reyes seashore

12/09/2020

The Point Reyes National Seashore has a new superintendent. 

Come January, Craig Kenkel, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and has spent his career working for the National Park Service, will take up the reins. Mr. Kenkel currently serves as the superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, one of a small handful of units in the country where the park leases land for farming.   

The transition comes after Cicely Muldoon, who has filled the post for the past decade, accepted a permanent position at Yosemite National Park last month, after filling in there since January. The seashore has had a string of acting superintendents in recent years as Ms. Muldoon took up temporary leadership roles in Yosemite and elsewhere. 

Mr. Kenkel will bring both stability and expertise to Point Reyes. He began his career with the park service as a historical architect, after earning a degree in architecture from Iowa State University. One of his first projects was supervising a restoration of the Point Reyes Lighthouse beginning in the late 1980s. For the past 30 years, he has gone back and forth between the Midwest, where his family lives and his brother farms, and the Bay Area, where his partner resides. After working as a historical architect based in San Francisco, Mr. Kenkel became a regional chief of cultural resources based in Omaha, Neb., where he worked through 2005. From then until 2009, he took up the same post at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. He then moved into the city for his first management role as the superintendent of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where he stayed through 2014. 

That year he assumed his current position as superintendent of Cuyahoga Valley and the nearby First Ladies and James A. Garfield National Historic Sites. Years after agriculture became dormant in the Cuyahoga Valley, park leadership decided to revive it in 1999. Mr. Kenkel said the move addressed the loss of rural character: farm fields were reforesting and historic houses and barns falling into disrepair. With the help of a nonprofit partner, the park awarded 11 farmers with up to 60-year leases through a competitive bid process. Many sell their products at an in-park farmers’ market or at their own farmstands.

The Light spoke with Mr. Kenkel last week to learn more about the new face of the seashore. He called the superintendent role at Point Reyes “a dream come true.” 

Light: The Point Reyes National Seashore recently completed a long planning process for the management of the historic ranches and free-ranging tule elk herds. How will you use this document to guide Point Reyes into the future?

Kenkel: That’s a bit like asking me to look into the crystal ball without it being in front of me: It’s premature for me to talk about that. What I can say is that I am really interested in forming relationships and working with everyone who cares about Point Reyes, regardless of their position, so I can understand their connection to the park and what they care about and how we can together achieve the mission of the seashore and the mission of the park service. I’m about mending fences and mending relationships. Everyone has a right to be heard and express their opinion—and that’s where I start from. 

We will strive to go about implementing the G.M.P.A. in a way that helps best achieve the vision that has been laid out there. How do we do that? That’s the big question. That’s not just my decision, but that’s where I will help facilitate a solution and engage others in making it happen. I’m about team building, consensus building and community building around a strategy. 

Light: You already manage a park that leases lands to farmers. Do you think there is an inherent conflict in managing national park lands to both preserve natural resources and agriculture? 

Kenkel: If you look at the park service’s mission at a higher level, the park service is responsible for conserving the core resources of the park while making them available for use and enjoyment. That in itself, that dual mission, can have conflicts.

If you go to extremes for resource conservation, or you go to extremes for visitor use, then the other objective gets compromised. If we too heavily develop a park for visitor use and enjoyment, resources may get compromised. If the focus is on keeping visitors out and off the land so natural resources are first and foremost, we are failing to provide access to the park for the American people. How can visitor use coexist in balance with resource conservation? Resource conservation refers to both natural resources and cultural and historic resources. In some parks, visitors are there just for a moment in time. Then there are some parks, if you want to call a resident or a rancher a visitor, where they are there all the time. How do we balance the human experience with caring for the resources so that they are not impaired? That’s what our challenge is: We don’t want the resources to be impaired. 

We have so many examples of balance. When we think about agriculture and the way that it is done in the United States, it can cause a really environmentally compromising situation. But we also know it can be sustainable and it can be beneficial to our natural environment when it’s done appropriately with care, with practice and with awareness.

Light: Without commenting on the specifics of the G.M.P.A., what do you think about the outcome of 20-year leases for the ranchers? 

Kenkel: I think that’s very much a worthwhile outcome. My understanding—and again this is based on little information, that’s why I’m hesitant to comment on this—is that there is a long history of ranching at Point Reyes. It’s a significant history. And there are historic resources that reflect that history, and there are ranchers that are perpetuating that history. So to me that’s something worth preserving. How it’s preserved and to what extent it’s preserved has all been evaluated through the G.M.P.A. process, and it sounds like we are close to having our record of decision on it. That starts to put in place our parameters moving forward as far as managing the park. But it’s not going to give us all the answers, and so that’s where my work comes in with park staff, partners and other stakeholders, to talk about the details. 

Dairy farms get to continue to exist. Okay, but what does that mean for housing dairy farmers, for the practice of dairy farming? We aren’t saying it’s dairy farming like it was in the 1890s. What is dairy farming in the year 2020? That’s where there are a lot of opportunities for understanding how ranching can continue and sustainably coexist with the natural resource value at the park. 

I want to also be very respectful of the opinions and positions that other people have. Many people are really invested in this, and I need to hear them—there’s value in that. Even from where there’s conflict, there’s an opportunity to find a way forward. Even someone with an extreme opinion on either preserving ranching or saying we have to maximize the elk, there’s opinions there and information there that I need to understand. I need to listen. 

Light: You have extensive experience in the restoration of historic structures. Can you talk about the historic resources—both the structures and the cultural landscapes—at Point Reyes?

Kenkel: From my perspective, the best way to preserve an old building is to use it. The worst thing you can do is leave an old building empty—it gets forgotten about.

It’s like the lighthouse. When a lighthouse keeper is in the lighthouse for hours at a time, they start to notice every little thing that’s wrong, or broken, or that’s compromising the ability of the lighthouse to keep the elements out. When you walk away from the lighthouse and you aren’t there every day, every hour, watching it, it starts to erode. And that’s true for farm structures, for our homes, for any building. Once it isn’t being used, there’s a greater likelihood it’s going to be less and less maintained and fall into disrepair and before you know it, we have a difficult decision. Are we going to invest $1 million in fixing it or do we just let it melt into the landscape or demolish it? With historic structures you don’t want to go there. You want to keep them viable, keeping them in use, and in appropriate use—which doesn’t necessarily mean their original use. 

Cultural landscapes are similar but also different. Think of someone farming in a park and on that farm there are creeks and streams—hydrology. Is there a way to respect that natural system while still creating a human use there so that they coexist together? Yes. But if you get to the point where you want to divert the stream to create a bigger field, you’re starting to compromise the natural system that’s part of that cultural landscape. 

So for the National Park Service, when we look at a cultural landscape, we aren’t just saying ‘There’s old stuff on this landscape—there’s a building, a fence, a road, a garden—we have to save this old stuff.’ We also look at it and say, ‘There are really active natural systems on the landscapes as well. How do we support these systems continuing while also preserving the features of the landscape and the historic use?’ Or if a new use is being introduced, ‘What’s an appropriate new use that does not compromise the natural systems and the historic features?’ 

Light: Tell me about your own farming background.

Kenkel: I grew up on a farm. I am from an Iowa farm family. I was very fortunate that my dad was a farmer, he’s a son of a farmer, he’s a grandson and a great grandson of farmers. So I have an older brother who is now the fifth-generation farmer in my family. It’s kind of like we are the Waltons in rural Iowa. 

When I was on the farm growing up, my parents and my paternal grandparents farmed together. From what I remember of my early years, the farm was really diverse in terms of what we grew and we ate a lot of what we grew on the farm. My dad and my grandfather had farms where they had beef cattle, a small dairy herd, lamb, sheep, hogs, ducks, and chickens for eggs and chickens for meat. My mother and my grandmother both had huge vegetable and flower gardens. We had a potato patch, a sweet corn patch. My grandfather and father grew corn, soybeans, alfalfa, wheat, oats. It was all very diversified. And then they started reducing the diversity of livestock and grains they were producing and my dad started focusing on corn, soybeans and hogs, and my grandfather on corn, soybeans and cattle. So what ended up happening is that they transitioned from being mostly subsistence farmers, where we grew a lot of what we ate and lived off the land, to more cash farming, and that completely changed what we ate as well. My mother and grandmother went more often to grocery stores to buy food. 

By the time I became old enough to help farm, we were in that corn, soybean and hog kind of practice. So I experienced that kind of industry change in agriculture in Iowa. I saw it change and the impact it had for farming for business and on the environment. At the time, when my dad was making those big shifts in how he farmed, he was very reliant on chemicals, too—insecticides and herbicides and so forth. When my dad got to the point of retiring from farming, though, he had shifted back to much more of a conservation approach with less chemicals, less land disturbances, and really less work, to get the same kind of yield from his farm. It was interesting to witness that and, while still on the farm, experience it. For me, farming is in my DNA. It is part of my heritage.  

Light: You talk about your family moving toward more industrialized farming. How does this compare to the farms in Cuyahoga Valley, and in Point Reyes?

Kenkel: Fast forward and I get to come to Cuyahoga Valley, where I am part of a program that was already underway, where farming was reactivated and with principles of sustainability. We said, ‘Here are our objectives: At Cuyahoga Valley can we return the land to farming and do it in a way that doesn’t compromise the watershed, habitat for native plants and animals, and so forth.’ That doesn’t happen overnight. You get some farmers that come in and they are less skilled or practiced at that. And then you have others that come in and say they aren’t even going to use engines because they are concerned about the carbon footprint. 

We have one farmer who does all of his mechanical work using horses. He has a commitment not only to sustainable farming but to keeping his carbon footprint as small as possible. So wow, that’s really fantastic. But we don’t require every farmer to use draft horses to farm! The farmers all go about implementing their farm plans differently. Even though it’s a smaller scale than what’s happening at Point Reyes, it does show that there are different ways to share the same objectives. 

For some of the newer farmers, instead of putting in annual crops that they have to harvest and work the land for and so forth, they are putting in permaculture farms. They are planting an orchard. You disturb the land once when you plant an orchard; and that orchard in a few years will be producing fruit; and under the trees you plant hazelnuts, also a perennial crop; and then you graze chickens or ducks in the orchard to keep the bugs down and away from your trees and your fruit. They are thinking of living systems and approaches that are longer-term practices, or more permanent practices that are actually more beneficial to the ecosystem and the watershed. You aren’t tilling up land every year and you aren’t irrigating some of your crops. You are not rotating, and so forth. 

I need to better understand the ranch and dairy operations in Point Reyes. They are not all practicing their craft in the same way, would be my guess. What are the goals and objectives the park service and the ranchers put in place to be as sensitive to or as sustainable, to coexist with the natural environment? To achieve a better balance of agriculture with the natural environment of the park? I don’t know what the answers are yet. But that’s a good goal, and it’s something the G.M.P.A. was focused on, so okay, that’s where we start.