How should the National Park Service manage land that has hosted private cattle ranching and dairying operations for the greater part of two centuries? Is ranching detrimental or beneficial to the environment? How should ecologists help maintain a healthy population of tule elk, a native species reintroduced to the Point Reyes Peninsula? There are 26 more days to weigh in.
On Tuesday evening, around 200 people filed into the West Marin School gym for an informational workshop on the draft environmental impact statement released earlier this month that outlines six possibilities for the management of elk and agriculture across 28,000 acres in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
At the event, park employees broadcast large poster boards around the gym that depicted the alternatives delineated in the hundreds-of-pages-long environmental document—which explains the park’s preference of allowing existing ranch operations 20-year terms and culling elk to meet a population threshold.
Attendees were invited to write down comments for the record, though the public has through Sept. 23 to submit comments online or by mail. The park is required to address every substantive comment in the final environmental impact statement, which it plans to release this winter.
“Everyone brings a really different perspective, but the comments, both from the public and the permitting agencies, literally make it a better and better product,” said Melanie Gunn, a seashore spokeswoman.
The six alternatives in the draft document, which guide how the park service will amend the 1980 general management plan, align with preliminary concepts released last year but provide greater detail, including an analysis of environmental, economic and cultural impacts.
Though the draft lays out extensive land management strategies, mitigation measures, and a new zoning framework aimed to reduce the current environmental impacts of agriculture in the park, it also determines that reducing or eliminating agriculture would benefit the soil, water and air. The impacts of ranching on the flora and fauna, including federally protected species, are mixed, the report states.
Per the terms of a settlement agreement reached with three environmental advocacy groups in 2016, one of the six alternatives would shutter the ranch operations; another would reduce the acreage leased to ranchers and a third would convert the six existing dairies to beef cattle operations.
Different elk management schemes pair with each of the alternatives, ranging from letting the three existing elk herds grow without interference to eliminating one of the herds by lethal means.
In the park’s preferred alternative—which the agency can alter for the final version of the environmental impact statement—it would newly manage the population level of the Drakes Beach herd. That would involve culling an estimated up to 15 elk per year by shooting them—a possibility that has generated outcry from some members of the public.
On Tuesday, the entrance to the gym was surrounded by pro-elk posters, primarily the work of Diana Oppenhein, a San Francisco resident and previous seashore volunteer who recently founded the campaign ForElk.org.
“We are in a state of climate crisis,” she told the Light, “and if we can’t protect wildlife in a national park, I really question the leadership of the park service. There’s this confusion about why the ranchers are in the seashore: just because it has always been done? Our tax dollars are paying for this—something that is actually harming the environment.”
But other people took a more nuanced view. Laura Watt, a Sonoma State University professor and author of “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” attended Tuesday’s open house. “By presenting a choice of totally hands-off elk management, or culling, with no other options, the plan creates a false choice. In reality, there are other options, like a separation fence, that they’ve chosen to ignore,” she said.
Dr. Watt added, “The plans’ authors have to know that proposing culling is going to inflame public opinion. There are a lot of people who might not be concerned if the Drakes Beach herd was relocated to the Limantour wilderness, but who will be up in arms at the idea of even just a few elk being shot by the park service?”
The public can expect a determination in fairly short order: the park plans for the record of decision to be signed by next spring.
The Marin Conservation League will offer a workshop for residents to learn more about the structure and content of the draft environmental impact statement, and how best to formulate comments, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 5 at the Lagunitas School. The document can be found and commented upon at parkplanning.nps.gov/POREGMPA. Comments can be mailed to Point Reyes GMP Amendment EIS, Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, 94956.