United States Representative Jared Huffman, referring to the controversy around the future of ranching in Point Reyes National Seashore, told the Environews on March 26, “As some of these ranches blink out, because they will, we’ll have chances to expand wilderness areas and maybe even we’ll be expanding elk herds further.”
Not two months later, the Light reported that the McClure dairy, the largest and oldest dairy in the seashore, will shut down, citing water shortages and a glut of organic milk. As McClure’s blinks out, now would seem the time to follow up on Rep. Huffman’s suggestion. But the park service’s succession policy states that if a current leaseholder does not want to renew, the park will offer the lease to other ranchers first, and only if there are no takers, it would “pursue a public process to identify an appropriate future use of the land.”
Notice how the actual landowner—the public—is last in line for consideration. First is the current leaseholder and next is every other leaseholder, 23 in total. The succession policy was included in the general management plan amendment, whose draft received more than 7,600 public comments. Over 90 percent of comments opposed the preferred plan to offer 20-year leases and diversified ranching activities. The California Coastal Commission received 45,000 public comments on the plan, around 99 percent in opposition.
In 1976, the seashore’s enabling legislation was amended to say the park land “shall be administered by the Secretary without impairment of its natural values…and supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area…” The legal basis for continued ranching in Point Reyes, a 1978 amendment to the enabling legislation, indicates that the Secretary of the Interior “may” offer new leases “where appropriate.”
Appropriateness is perhaps subjective, but the facts are clear. The environmental impact statement issued with the G.M.P. reports that ranching is the primary generator of greenhouse gas in the park, producing the equivalent of 24,000 tons of CO2 annually, and that the ranches are significant sources of water contamination, soil depletion and erosion, as well as being invasive species vectors and bringing sundry additional environmental harms.According to the New York Times, “Agriculture accounts for roughly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, much of them produced by the raising of cattle and lamb.”
So, although the succession policy tells us what is likely to happen, what could happen instead?
Fourth-generation dairy operator Bob McClure is not a journeyman, yet he has decided to pull up stakes. Dairy is dying all over the headlines. Livestock agriculture is undeniably exacerbating the climate and extinction crises. Let’s take those 1,076 acres, 6 percent of the overall ranchland in Point Reyes, and do a dry run for the many similar restorations that inevitably lie ahead. In this pilot, we could develop an equitable, democratic, science-based and repeatable process for future efforts. We could frame and begin to answer questions such as how best to rehabilitate the soil post-cattle, how the indigenous tule elk might function to renew native flora, how traditional Miwok land management practices could regulate fire fuel, how a financial model for restoration might repurpose the current ranch subsidies for public good, and more generally which interventions and to what extent they are necessary to successfully rewild a defunct ranch in this biome. We could identify other questions that are not now apparent and put them on the docket. To support the restoration effort, we could employ the former McClure dairy workers, and keep them in the community.
The only thing preventing this from happening is our government. Photographer Ansel Adams said, “it is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” Adams’s cohort David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club and a driving force behind the formation of the seashore, said, “Politicians are like weathervanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.” David’s son, Kenneth Brower, has advocated for the emancipation of Point Reyes from its bovine shackles, but until now has been merely a voice in the potential wilderness.
If another rancher on Point Reyes does assume the McClure lease, he or she will do so amid ever-growing public concern over various facets of ranching on the peninsula, including water quality and usage, climate change and repeated die-offs of tule elk (in some cases the park service has taken the exceptional step of euthanizing animals behind the elk fence). The approximately 300 protesters who occupied the McClures’ driveway last fall were likely the teat of the iceberg. Add to the list of challenges a scandal at the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and steadily worsening market conditions in the form of over-production and increased competition from alternatives.
The current succession policy sustains a private-profit, taxpayer-subsidized, extractive, and failing industry through restrictive covenants that are historically instruments of privilege. Instead, the park service could do what its patrons clearly want, and what future generations will otherwise indict us for not doing: seizing the golden opportunity to begin healing the park and the planet.
Ken Bouley is a software developer and a resident of Inverness.