Point Reyes livestock hinders soil carbon banking

12/04/2019

In the lead story of the Nov. 13 edition of the Point Reyes Light, ranchers argued that so-called carbon farming ought to be a key focus of the updated general management plan for the Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Although the livestock industry hopes to sell the public the false narrative that cows in the seashore can somehow be part of a climate solution, the reality is that heavy cattle grazing there is decimating the ability of the land to sequester carbon. These soil carbon losses add to the heavy methane emissions that come from more than 6,000 cattle that graze the Point Reyes peninsula and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area year-round, including federally defined “concentrated animal feeding operations” reliant on trucking in tons of cattle feed from outside the park. 

The myth of carbon farming on park lands is belied by our own field observations of heavily overstocked beef and dairy cattle on these coastal hills and valleys, so much so that noxious weeds such as milk thistle, poison hemlock and European annual grasses are pervasive on the cattle pastures. 

These invasive weeds, spread by cattle—and sometimes intentionally planted and harvested for cattle feed, such as radish and mustard—not only provide low-quality habitat for native wildlife, but also minimize soil carbon. Annual grasses have shallow, sparse roots and die each year, giving up their carbon as they decompose. 

Native coastal bunchgrasses are perennial, living year after year and developing deep, extensive networks of roots that sequester carbon underground. In addition, native woody shrubs like coyote brush can store even more carbon, even longer. 

Scientific studies show that shrub-grasslands—like the ones that are recovering on Tomales Point after the retirement of the historic Pierce Ranch and the protection of the area as an elk preserve—have the potential to lock up even more carbon than forests, and could collectively counteract as much as one-third of our nation’s fossil-fuel carbon pollution. 

Even worse, the carbon farming methods touted by ranchers seem to equate to collecting the overabundance of dairy manure from concentrated feeding and milking barns, liquifying it in ponds next to streams such as Kehoe Creek that empty into public beaches, and then trucking and spraying this liquified manure onto cow pastures and silage fields. Heavy winter storms then wash this manure into watersheds, the ocean and Tomales Bay, resulting in fecal coliform contamination and human health warnings. 

The National Park Service has had to close beaches because of this toxic bacterial mess, which poses a potentially deadly safety hazard.

Dumping manure on degraded, overgrazed agricultural lands to increase carbon sequestration is currently in the experimental stage, but one thing is abundantly obvious: Such heavy-handed methods are mainly suited for heavily manipulated private lands. 

It is unlikely that such methods will ever be compatible with restoring, or maintaining, native vegetation, and as such should not be attempted on public lands.

True carbon sequestration would happen if the park removed cattle grazing and manure in favor of lush native perennial bunchgrasses with deep roots. Deep-rooted bunchgrasses such as Idaho fescue, red fescue, blue wildrye, California oatgrass and tufted hairgrass store much more carbon when allowed to flourish free of domestic cattle grazing, in symbiosis with soil mycorrhizae that create healthy soils.

We have recorded remnants of these healthy, dense, deep-rooted coastal prairies in the seashore and we asked the park service to help protect and expand them. So far, the park service is ignoring these important issues. 

These lands are supposed to be managed to protect and preserve nature for the enjoyment of the people. Congress, in passing the 1962 enabling legislation and 1978 amendment, required that the National Park Service manage any ranch leases issued in a manner that does not impair the natural resources and wildlife at the seashore. We find that the mountains of manure produced by dairies, the erosion of hills and streambanks, the poor quality of ranges, and the lack of true carbon banking here amount to major impairment of this park jewel of the Pacific Coast.

 

Laura Cunningham serves as the California director for the Western Watersheds Project. A current resident of Beatty, Nevada, she is the author of “State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California,” a book about the native California ecosystems that are disappearing as a result of agricultural conversion and development.