The Marin ranch wars are underway over the seashore’s general management plan. Whoever loses will sue the other side, and so it will go on for many years. Yet if we look at the dairy and cattle sectors’ prospects and take a long view of coastal protection in the 21st century, we may be able to get beyond the issue entirely. The agricultural economy is changing, as are public preferences.
Since the early 20th century, Marin has led California in protecting open space for future generations: creating the Muir Woods National Monument in 1908, protecting the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, and stopping the filling of Richardson Bay and the Bolinas Lagoon. As a result of these and many other forward-looking actions, 84 percent of Marin’s undeveloped lands are protected as permanent open space or by strict agricultural zoning. But our economic and environmental challenges are changing.
When the government was acquiring lands to create the Point Reyes National Seashore, ranching was economically viable and an important part of the economy. Now, we are debating how many ranches to keep in the park. This is backward thinking, ignoring our new set of problems: species loss, climate change, worldwide nitrogen pollution from agriculture, and overpopulation. Beef and milk are overproduced in California and the United States, and both are heavily subsidized, holding prices below actual costs and devastating producers in third-world countries.
Small dairies are dying out and small beef ranching is generally not profitable, as both compete with large outfits inland. California had 18,000 dairies in 1950 and only 2,000 in 2000. Marin went from 200 dairies to 23 during this period. California dairies have not been profitable in most recent years, if you ignore subsidies. The average yearly government subsidy to dairies in Marin from 1995 to 2019 was $27,000, approximately the salary of one immigrant worker. Expressed in terms of milk prices in 2015, subsidies nationally accounted for 45 percent of production costs and 71 percent of gross income. It is unclear if Congress will keep supporting this sector, given all our other social needs.
The cattle industry is subsidized to a lesser degree, mainly through feed subsidies, representing about 6 percent of the wholesale price of beef nationally. In the Olema Valley and around Point Reyes Station, several dairies and ranches have sold out in the past few years. State air quality regulations will make dairying more expensive in the future as they seek to control methane pollution, and increasingly strict state water quality rules will make dairies and ranches more costly to operate due to erosion controls and manure management.
Making matters worse, average rainfall has dropped by over 20 percent in the park since 2005 and climate change is forecast to make rainfall more variable in coastal Northern California. These changes will reduce grass production and increase erosion, making grazing itself more costly. Actually, cattle grazing is ruining the seashore, especially on dairies; the park reports that about a third of leased fields are overgrazed.
Citizens value wildlife and large natural landscapes more every year, due to continuing urbanization. A 2018 study by the Coastal Conservancy found that, of all coastal regions, the North Coast region had the highest amount of private lands near the coast that were not being permanently conserved. The report recommended further land acquisition to protect bird habitats, especially in the face of sea-level rise. As small-scale cattle ranches and dairies continue to die out, public acquisition of these properties will prevent gentrification through wealthy buyers building rural estates that exclude the public.
The northern coastal prairie is the most diverse grassland type in North America in terms of species richness. Coastal grasslands are protected by the California Coastal Commission, prioritized by the California Coastal Conservancy and in many North Coast county plans, and partially protected by several private organizations. We should support the California Coastal National Monument so it can purchase and protect coastal grasslands from Marin to Oregon. This agency, created in 2000, includes about 8,000 acres of onshore lands plus most offshore rocks and islets. Most of the landside properties were ranches or dairies that sold out. These lands protect breeding seabirds and marine mammals. We could re-introduce native elk to some of these areas to help ensure the survival of this original species.
We decimated the wildlife that existed here before Europeans arrived. Invasive grasses replaced native bunchgrasses along most of the coast, and cattle replaced elk in our early extractive economy. Elk were the original grazers of these lands, keeping brush down, spreading seeds, seldom overgrazing, and otherwise living in balance with the grasslands. Indeed, the coastal prairie plant community evolved along with elk. After they were extirpated, elk were reintroduced in the seashore in 1978. They are now thriving, and provide a major tourist attraction.
At Point Reyes, we should raise our sights from the current bitter fight over the future of a dying set of local enterprises to a long-term view of the park that places it in the context of the entire Northern California Coast. The ranching battle will not end if the park adopts its plan to allow continued ranching. Lawsuits and legislative initiatives will follow until all the lands are protected, because it is simply illogical to support unprofitable and polluting businesses on our parklands.
The highest and best use of the Point Reyes Peninsula is not cattle, but elk, the original grazer and one that would help protect this beautiful landscape forever. We are fighting the last war and need to move on.
Bob Johnston is a retired professor of land use planning at the University of California, Davis. He lives in Inverness.