Pandemic impacts seashore and sister agencies' work

04/15/2020

Illegal recreation in the Point Reyes National Seashore has continued, while park employees, educators and ecologists are abiding by sheltering rules, often to the detriment of their operations, including scientific research. 

In the seashore, as in all open spaces in Marin, access by car has been prohibited since March 22. Visitor centers and campgrounds are closed, and only park employees tasked with law enforcement and other essential functions are working from the Bear Valley Visitor Center. 

Enforcement of the no-driving mandate remains a difficulty. 

Last weekend saw about three-quarters the volume of through-traffic in the park compared to the first sunny weekend following the Bay Area shelter order, when visitors turned out in droves, according to Lieutenant Jim Hickey. Some people never got out of their cars, however, and trail traffic was about half of what he sees on a busy summer weekend. 

Still, “There were way more people than there should be,” Lt. Hickey said. “I’m just worried that with the good weather, the curve flattening a little, and the news coming out about that, that people are not going to pay attention as much.”

Christine Beekman, a seashore spokeswoman, declined to answer if the park had upped law enforcement staff since the shelter order. She also wouldn’t say how many employees had been furloughed, but instead emphasized that anyone who is able to work remotely is doing so.

Melanie Gunn, the seashore’s outreach coordinator, said the timeline for the seashore’s amendment to its general management plan is still set to come out “in late spring” of this year. 

Beyond the park’s staff, organizations that call the seashore home have been hit hard by changing circumstances. Donna Faure, the executive director of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, said the group has closed all three bookstores and ceased its educational programming, resulting in an estimated $271,000 loss in revenue through June. Eight people, accounting for nearly half the staff, have been furloughed. 

“We, in normal times, have a healthy revenue mix of earned income from store sales and class fees and a solid mix of government grants, special event revenue, and individual gifts, and foundation grants,” Ms. Faure wrote to the Light. “The pandemic has halted all earned revenue, so we are relying on our philanthropic support to carry us through this unsettled time.”

She added, “We can’t wait to welcome the public back to the park and will be there for them when that is possible. We also look forward to getting our conservation staff back in the field. They are currently working on reports and research they can do from home.”

California does not list ecology or conservation as essential activity, and Marin’s park closures and social distancing recommendations make continued operations difficult.

Mary Jane Schramm, the spokeswoman for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said all volunteer work has stopped. “We can’t send someone out to the places where they aren’t allowed. That would set a bad example even for the benefit of the continuity of our research,” she said. 

On-water research had also been canceled, since those aboard have to be in close proximity.

Thomas Gardali, the director of Point Blue Conservation Science’s Pacific Coast and Central Valley work, said much of the group’s field work was on hold while staff focus on work that could be done on a computer, including crunching data. 

Still, field research at Palomarin and on the Farallon Islands—staffed by small “family” groups of interns and biologists—is continuing. Those teams are able to continue while maintaining social distancing requirements and without anyone needing to drive. 

The group is also continuing to complete spotted owl surveys, determined to be a key component of essential vegetation management countywide. 

Other surveys will suffer. Dr. Gardali said that over the past 42 years in the seashore, the group has helped to monitor snowy plovers, whose breeding season began in March.

“We have amassed over our history some really valuable long-term datasets,” he said. “One of the reasons those are so rare is that they are uninterrupted, and you can more clearly draw conclusions. We are facing some gaps in those datasets.”

With much on hold, ranching persists. 

Jarrod Mendoza, a fourth-generation seashore rancher, told the Light that things were quiet on the dairy. His two young children are home, and the family is doing their best to adjust. 

Though the specialty market had been hit hard as far as organic milk sales, the retail market seems to be making up for it, Mr. Mendoza said. One added difficulty is that trips to Point Reyes Station—which is a decent drive from the point—are less fruitful, with supplies at places like the hardware store and market limited or else rationed. 

The long-awaited rehabilitation project for the 12-mile stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard between Pierce Point and Chimney Rock Roads is still set to continue, with roadwork beginning next week.

For those who access the seashore’s trails and beaches by foot or bicycle, there are still some closures to keep in mind. To protect breeding plovers through September, a stretch of Great Beach is closed between the North Beach and South Beach parking lots; dogs are not allowed from North Beach all the way to Kehoe Beach. 

To protect pupping harbor seals, Double Point, Drakes Estero and the western end of Limantour spit are closed through June. 

Alamere Falls, Crystal Lake, Arch Rock Spur and Chimney Rock Trails have also been closed since at least February. 

Highway 1, Pierce Point Road and the county-maintained section of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard up until the A Ranch remain open, but parking vehicles along these routes is prohibited other than for drivers carrying disabled placards, who are permitted to use park facilities by car.