Point Reyes National Seashore: New vision, or enduring myth?

07/29/2020

The founding myth of the Point Reyes National Seashore, that it was born of a partnership between environmentalists and willing agriculturalists, is just that: myth. Land was acquired to create the seashore through a series of pressured buyouts and threats of eminent domain—and yes, the cooperation of a few willing sellers—that left ranchers with little alternative. As a later seashore superintendent would tellingly declare, “I don’t have to pay my lawyers.”  

Despite the odds, agriculture in the seashore remains a critical component of Marin County’s agricultural economy. Its loss would undermine, if not destroy, the supporting economic and information infrastructure that depends on a critical mass of regional agricultural activity for its continued viability. Rather than working to eliminate the ranches in the seashore, we should be talking about how increasing the application of sound agroecological principles across the pastoral zone and beyond could support the advancement of National Park Service land management objectives and the long-term integrity of our local food production system.  

Contrary to widespread public misconception, the seashore was not established as a zoo for charismatic megafauna (witness the wholesale helicopter slaughter of fallow and axis deer), nor as a roadside viewing corridor for 2.5 million automobile visitors annually. Its purpose was to prevent the loss of the natural resources and ecosystem processes, including the agricultural landscape, of the peninsula to impending wholesale urban development. 

It is certainly true that segments of the environmental community have sought nothing less than the elimination of agriculture from Point Reyes since the conceptual stage of the seashore’s formation. But other environmentalists saw the opportunity for a diverse and integrated multi-use landscape, supporting both “wild” and agricultural values and ecosystems in unprecedented collaboration, with all the attendant synergies such integration might imply. Although that vision has never been allowed to flower, the opportunity yet remains.

I farmed in the seashore from 1979 until 2004 and witnessed first-hand how the park service, which from the beginning turned its back on the ranching community, assumed that unfavorable economics and an aging ranching population would eventually lead to the disappearance of the historic cultural ecology of the peninsula, and refused to engage in a sustained dialogue about the potential emergence of an ecological agriculture at Point Reyes. It is telling that in over 50 years of ostensible stewardship of the landscape, the seashore has never hired an agroecologist or engaged the ranching community in a coherent, collective conversation around the potential role of agricultural practice as a strategy for achieving seashore management objectives.

Some commentators would hold the seashore ranches responsible for the linked global ecological catastrophes of species loss, climate change, human overpopulation and nitrogen pollution, and for beef and milk subsidies holding prices below costs and devastating producers in the third world. This is a remarkable set of accusations to hurl at our local producers, and at seashore ranchers in particular. These small family farms market their overwhelmingly organic products locally, as recently elaborated in these pages (read Sue Conley and Albert Straus’s July 8 op-ed), and in so doing help mitigate the very problems some seek, by inference, to hold them responsible for.  

State air and water quality rules that make dairying and ranching more costly are not a future impediment to ranching in Marin; they have for years impacted the county’s agriculture, which, to its credit, has stepped up with assistance from a strong network of supporting county agencies to address those very issues. As made clear by recent work out of both the University of California, Davis and Oxford University, biogenic methane from ruminants, whether elk or cattle, is essentially irrelevant in the global warming equation.  

While some think the loss of Marin’s small dairies and meat producers is inevitable, even while decrying the environmental costs of the ascendant consolidated corporate alternatives, many of us have worked for decades to prevent such an eventuality. Recent events have only served to underscore the critical importance of local agriculture and the knowledge and infrastructure needed to keep it viable into the future. 

As organic and regenerative agriculture and carbon farming approaches have begun to be understood and adopted by local producers, including those at Point Reyes, ecologically informed agriculture as a strategy for enhancing the capture of atmospheric CO2 is increasingly recognized as essential for effective climate-change mitigation and resilience.

While changing weather patterns are undermining agricultural productivity across California and the world, coastal ecosystems, and coastal grasslands in particular, remain uniquely productive and worthy of our collective stewardship and care. Properly managed livestock grazing is widely recognized as a preeminent tool in coastal prairie conservation. Most remaining coastal prairie is found on current or former ranches or dairies, whose historical use of the land has helped maintain this ecosystem as open grassland, free from invasion by woody species. 

The Point Reyes National Seashore’s pastoral zone remains a favored coastal environment, offering a solid foundation for a sustainable grass-based agriculture that, with informed and articulate management by the families that have stewarded the landscape for generations, can continue to thrive into the indefinite future. 

The highest and best use of the Point Reyes Peninsula is neither cattle, nor elk, but a working example of how human engagement with the land can lead to a maximization of both ecosystem function for its own sake and support a sustainable human ecology for generations to come. Contrary to popular myth, these are not incompatible goals. That we have yet to see the promise of Point Reyes realized does not mean that it cannot be. But it will take a level of collaboration and dialogue both broader and more nuanced than that we have seen thus far. 

 

Jeff Creque is the director of rangeland and agroecosystem management at the Carbon Cycle Institute and a co-founder of the Marin Carbon Project. He lives in Petaluma.