A visitor’s perspective on the Point Reyes National Seashore


Note: A correction to this op-ed is posted below. 

The Point Reyes National Seashore is a superb natural area, about 71,000 acres in size, and is in many respects without parallel in the national park system. Its south-most corner is less than 30 miles from the teeming metropolitan areas surrounding San Francisco Bay, and its 30-mile length separates the rich marine sanctuaries of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve from the rural interior of Marin County. As a central part of the biosphere reserve, Point Reyes offers spectacular scenic and natural values via its bays, estuaries, headlands, beaches and rugged interior highlands. The national seashore migratory-bird counts on the Pacific Flyway are known worldwide, as are its beaches that host sea lions and birthing elephant seals and its viewpoints for whale watching. These are complemented by its opportunities for hiking, fishing and water recreation. These features attract more than 2 million visitors each year, including repeaters such as me, bringing essential local income and business opportunities to the area.

The major significance of the seashore, as related to preservation of its natural values, education and tourism, was recognized by its National Park Service designation in 1962, and by the later designation of almost half of its area as wilderness in 1976. A major initial deficiency, however, was the inclusion of extensive commercial ranch lands. This deficiency was intended to be eliminated by federal purchase in 1972 of about 28,000 acres of land used for ranching and oyster-farming operations, these being incompatible with its mission to “meet the highest possible standards for protecting the environment,” in part because they isolated the western beaches and Tomales Point part of the wilderness area from the larger wilderness highlands and beach areas to the southeast. In conformance with national and California wildlife policies to preserve and protect the nearly-extinct tule elk, which is native only to California, 10 were re-introduced into the seashore in 1978, released on an enclosed, 2,600-acre elk  reserve encompassing Tomales Point. 

In many respects, the protection afforded by designation of the seashore has lived up to the high expectations of its founders; a new-born elephant-seal pup was observed on its beaches in 1981, salmon and gobies were observed in its streams in 2002 after their 30 to 50-year absence, and a black bear was seen in 2003 after a 100-year absence. The elk population initially increased dramatically to over 500 animals in 1998, when the population was deemed excessive for the constricted reserve area; then, a contraception program was undertaken and 28 animals were removed in 1999 to establish a free-ranging population in the southern, Limantour Beach wilderness area. A few of these immediately moved west to the Drakes Beach area, where a third population has evolved. Unfortunately, the constrained Tomales Point population has not fared well over the past 20 years, seesawing between 580 and 280 animals and evidencing deformities and declines for reasons only partly understood. Population-wise, the two wild herds have fared better, each increasing consistently to about 100 animals or more.

Unfortunately, political machinations later interfered with the intended removal of damaging ranching operations. To facilitate the public buyout of private lands in 1972, agreements were reached for the owners to continue occupancy and livestock operations for a period of 20 to 25 years if they so desired. These agreements were later modified to allow an individual owner to renew or obtain additional grazing allotments, on either his or other lands whose prior owners had ended operations, leading to continued livestock operations on most or all of the initial 28,000 acres that were purchased with funds provided by public taxpayers. 

These manipulations have resulted in a tragic failure to manage these national seashore lands in conformance with the preservation and/or restoration of the biological and other values for public use. In contrast to the lush native vegetation in the wilderness areas, including the elk reserve and other areas where livestock operations are prohibited or are impractical, the vegetation covering much of the grazed lands resembles that of a sterile golf course, mowed weekly. 

A number of the ranching operations, perhaps due to the integration of multiple allotments, have expanded to include industrial-scale facilities, accompanied by foul feed-lot type enclosures, weed and excrement-choked waterways, and large quantities of manure, removal of which requires large mechanical scraper-loaders and trailer trucks. The principal roads, especially Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that leads to the lighthouse and elephant-seal and sea-lion overlooks, pass directly through these facilities and outbuildings. 

Management of the wild elk herds is an ongoing travesty, with continued hazing disturbances, animal entanglement in livestock fences, and public-maintenance costs of facilities to support livestock operations. The health of the confined herd continues to be adversely affected, due in part to lack of adequate natural water sources and/or mineral requirements to prevent bone and antler deformities. In short, the constraints imposed by the commercial ranching operations are entirely inconsistent with the National Park Service charter to protect its extensive natural values. 

Although the natural beauty and native wildlife in the protected areas of the seashore will continue to attract many visitors like myself, the degradation from commercial operations in a large part of its area will only increase over time as increasing temperatures and drought conditions prevail.  


Doyle McClure is a retired aerospace science and technology manager who has conducted environmental assessments and surveys for nonprofits and state and federal agencies. A resident of Boulder, Colo., he has often visited the Point Reyes National Seashore.   


Correction from a reader:

The May 10 opinion column by Doyle McClure contains some basic factual errors. Mr. McClure asserts that the commercial ranching lands at Point Reyes were “intended to be eliminated” when they were first purchased by the National Park Service, and that agreements were reached (which he characterizes as “political machinations” and “manipulations”) that allowed the families to remain longer than their original reservations of use and occupancy (R.U.O.s). This is factually incorrect.  

As my book “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore”documents in detail, the seashore was initially designed in 1962 for the pastoral zone to remain in private ownership. While the 1970 legislation changed that model to one of federal purchase and R.U.O.s (which the families paid for by taking one percent less of the purchase price per year that was reserved, so a 20-year R.U.O. “cost” 20 percent of the total sale), Congress did notintend to eliminate the ranches.  

To the contrary, Senator Alan Bible, chairman of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs that produced the 1970 legislation, clearly stated in the congressional record that, despite amending the 1962 act, “the federal government in effect made a promise to the ranchers in the pastoral zone that as long as they wanted to stay there, to make that use of it, they could do it. We must keep our word to these people.” In case his meaning was not clear, Bible continued, “it is the firm intent of the committee [on Interior and Insular Affairs] that the amendment shall in no way operate to impair the integrity of the dairyman who wants to continue dairy farming.”

Almost all of the ranching families, when their land was purchased, retained 20-year R.U.O.s. One family retained a 30-year reservation, and Johnson’s Oyster Company’s reservation lasted 40 years. 

In 1978, Congress wrote another piece of legislation to create a pathway for agriculture to continue in the national seashore, amending the 1962 enabling act to allow R.U.O.s on agricultural properties to be converted to leases or special use permits, and giving the historic ranching families “first right of refusal” for those agreements. An act of Congress can hardly be called a “political machination,” especially when it continues Congress’s original expressed intent.

I realize it can be difficult for visitors to understand this history, since it is not made clear at the visitor center or in other park interpretative materials. I hope that my book will contribute to improving those materials in the future, so that visitors like Mr. McClure can become better informed about Point Reyes’s unusual history and the significance of its pastoral lands to the local community and sense of place.

Dr. Laura A. Watt

Professor, Sonoma State University