The National Park Service has received nearly 3,000 public comments on its initial concepts for an amendment to its general management plan that will determine the future of ranch and elk management in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the northern reaches of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Though it is standard practice to release the comments, the park service published them prematurely in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from a local group that believes the agency is leading ranchers to “death by a thousand cuts.” Longtime farming activist Phyllis Faber and others, banded together in what they called the Resilient Agriculture Group, recently obtained a host of other documents. Their fear is that an institutional bias against ranching has defined the park’s public process around the amendment and shaped its ongoing land management.

Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said that as a result of complying with the FOIA request, the park released the raw comments without an accompanying analysis to identify basic trends. The park will likely complete that task by the end of the month.

As mandated by a settlement agreement reached last summer with three environmental groups that sued in 2016 over concerns about the environmental impact of agricultural production on the roughly 28,000 acres of federal parklands in West Marin, the park service has until July 2021 to complete an amendment to its general management plan and an environmental impact statement to solidify and possibly redefine the land’s use.

Last fall, the park proposed six management alternatives for the ranchlands and opened a month-long public comment period. The six scenarios ranged from extending ranch leases to 20-year terms and limiting elk on ranchlands to eliminating ranching altogether while allowing the elk to expand. 

The park’s “initial proposal,” the option the agency suggested the public focus on, allows for 20-year leases, operational flexibility and diversification on ranches, along with increased elk management in the pastoral zone.

“Currently, we are looking at the comments that we received—looking at them all very specifically—and then we will modify our plans,” Ms. Gunn said. 

The next step in codifying the amendment is publishing a notice of intent to draft an environmental impact statement—due out in roughly another year—in which the park will present revised alternatives and possibly even new ones, Ms. Gunn said. 

Among the thousands of commentators who submitted letters nationwide, the three environmental groups responsible for the 2016 lawsuit voiced continued concerns about the impact of ranching on the ecology and visitor experience of park-managed lands, highlighting a conflict they believe can only be resolved with the elimination of the operations and a return to what they deem a “natural” habitat.

Yet within Marin County, other voices such as the Board of Supervisors lent powerful support for the prized and historic agricultural businesses. Conservation groups, ranchers and local residents largely favored the park service’s initial proposal, all the while asking for clarification on the agency’s process and emphasizing their own priorities. 


A call to end ranching

In their comments, the three plaintiffs in the 2016 suit—the Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute and the Western Watershed Project—advocated for eliminating ranching and expanding the range of the tule elk.

All three groups suggest that the park service’s ranch leases conflict with the park service’s own original mandate. The 1916 Organic Act that created the service states that the agency’s “purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The groups characterize commercial livestock operations as fundamentally incompatible with healthy native ecosystems and optimal visitor use on Point Reyes. They argue that the operations fail to provide for the public enjoyment of scenery, historic objects and sites, natural landscapes, natural smell and wildlife. 

The groups implored the park service to both analyze existing data and conduct new studies to evaluate in the upcoming environmental impact statement what they determined are deleterious impacts of cattle grazing on native flora and fauna. Species they flagged with concern include the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, the California red-legged frog, salmonids, western snowy plovers and a variety of native grasses such as Sonoma alopecurus.

The groups envision the park service allowing tule elk to take over the grasslands as the primary grazers and letting loose the fenced population at Tomales Point. (Because that herd is not within the planning area for the amendment, the park does not have to consider altering its management). The groups suggest allowing the three distinct elk populations to grow and shrink naturally, without population control methods.

The Western Watersheds Project, a group that focuses on the negative impacts of livestock grazing on public lands and has been involved in numerous lawsuits throughout the West, called on the park to describe what this hands-off approach might look like in the E.I.S.

“[The National Park Service] needs to estimate the total carrying capacity of [Point Reyes] for tule elk in the absence of competition with non-native livestock and non-native cervids, as a baseline for estimating the current negative impacts of livestock grazing leasing and operations on tule elk,” the project’s letter, submitted by executive director Erik Molvar, stated.

The project also presented the idea of reintroducing native wolves to Point Reyes as natural predators that could help control elk populations.

The organizations were surprisingly critical of the three alternatives that the park had agreed to include in the settlement agreement, which were no ranching, reduced ranching and no dairying.

Though the letter from the Center for Biological Diversity, submitted by spokesman Jeff Miller, was largely in support of the no-ranching alternative, it took issue with the park’s inclusion in that alternative of allowing prescriptive grazing in high-priority areas.

“Describe the science that supports such grazing as beneficial for native and rare plant communities. Describe the science that determines what levels and practices of cattle grazing are compatible with or conflict with maintaining these native and rare plant communities,” he challenged.

In discussion of the reduced-ranching alternative, all three groups specified that they wanted the park service to eliminate ranching operations based on which were the most environmentally harmful or had any history of non-compliance with the terms of their leases. (In the current alternative, the park proposed taking out 7,500 of the roughly 28,000 acres of today’s leased ranchlands, preserving the areas where people are currently living on the basis that they are more culturally and historically significant.)

Concerning the no-dairy alternative, which would eliminate all six operating dairies, the groups objected to the park’s proposal to allow those businesses to convert to beef cattle grazing.

About the park’s initial proposal, which would allow further elk management and 20-year leases, Mr. Miller stated, “There is serious concern that the park service has this alternative listed as an initial proposal, which suggests the agency may have already improperly identified it as a preferred alternative, which would foreclose a robust and fair consideration of alternatives.”

That criticism could foreshadow further litigation. The groups’ original lawsuit criticized the park’s development of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan over exactly that issue, claiming the agency was favoring continued ranching and had not held a fair public process that considered a full range of alternatives.


Unequivocal support 

In their comments to the seashore, the Marin County Board of Supervisors state, “[We] express our full and unequivocal support for the continuation of viable livestock grazing, dairy production, and diversified agriculture on the fullest expanse of PRNS and GGNRA pastoral area. Marin is only now fully understanding and benefitting from the critical role the ranchers have as partners in achieving our shared goals.”

They continued, “In developing [general management plan] alternatives, the farmers’ and ranchers’ role as managers should be elevated because they represent the most direct connection to and provide the management needed to maintain and enhance the pastoral landscape of PRNS and GGNRA.”

The supervisors said the ranches and dairies in the seashore account for nearly 20 percent, or $20 million, of all gross agricultural production in the county. They also cite the operations’ longstanding collaboration with county departments, federal agencies such as the National Organic Program and agriculture department, and community organizations such as the Agricultural Institute of Marin, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Marin Resource Conservation District.

As far as the amendment process, the letter highlights a few priorities. It argues that the park’s current lack of “clear guidance” on agriculture “hinders the decision-making ability of the rancher and [park] staff field-level relationships,” and supervisors encouraged the park to develop guidelines that allow for real-time operational decisions. 

Their letter cites the ecological and financial impacts of delays in addressing needs such as repairing fences, reroofing barns and managing invasive plants.

The supervisors also recommended that each alternative include a plan for succession to new members of existing farm families and alternative agricultural candidates if that option is not available.

They were in support of diversification, which they defined as selected crop production, forage production, farm sales, farm processing, farm stays and tours.

Taking a strong position on elk, they deemed elk and ranching “not compatible,” and criticized the park for allowing the animals to leave the Phillip Burton Wilderness and disrupt agricultural operations. 

“When livestock are found in wilderness, they are removed. Likewise, when elk are found in the pastoral zones, management methods should be used to control their population and remove their impacts,” they wrote.

Finally, supervisors urged the park to incorporate—beyond the minimum requirements of the settlement agreement—consideration of the impacts of the alternatives on areas outside of the planning area. For example, as the six dairies account for a fifth of Marin’s remaining dairy farms, their closure would impact local dairy processors such as Straus Family Creamery and Clover Sonoma.


In defense of ranching

Robert McClure, whose family has operated a dairy farm on Point Reyes for 130 years and who currently manages his certified organic dairy on I Ranch, described the impacts of eliminating or shrinking agriculture and expressed support for the park’s initial proposal, with some clarifications.

“The three settlement-required alternatives will have huge negative impacts on the ranches, the ranchers and their families, the employees and their families, the local community and neighboring areas as well,” he wrote. He estimated that nearly 100 families would be displaced, reducing school enrollment and hurting local businesses. “This would result in the possible closure of support services for the ranches to operate, such as feed mills, veterinary services and ranch supply companies, because of reduced business/lack of volume and lack of critical mass from fewer customers.”

Mr. McClure voiced support for many aspects of the park’s initial proposal, including for 20-year leases, operational flexibility and diversification, which he defined as selected planted or naturally occurring crops, additional livestock, farm stands, retail sales, processing and value-added production, farm stays and educational tours.

As far as the best management practices the park proposed to develop in its initial proposal, Mr. McClure emphasized the importance of streamlining and urged the park to look to the Marin Climate Action Plan and the Marin Carbon Project to integrate methane and climate-change management practices. 

Finally, he appealed to the park to use the data it collected during the development of a full general management plan update in the early 2000s—which was never finalized—and from the recent ranch management plan process, which the 2016 lawsuit effectively terminated.


Other voices

The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin weighed in with conditional support of existing ranching operations in the park. Executive Director Morgan Patton’s letter highlights what the park should consider in order to achieve this goal.

Top among her concerns was that the park’s alternatives do not include a baseline of environmental impact, and she urged the park to develop one for comparison’s sake (the national environmental groups also made this request in their letters).

Regarding the park’s goal of developing streamlined management strategies, Ms. Patton asked the park to clarify its objectives. What are the long-term management goals and what science-based criteria would be used? 

The E.A.C. also gave strong support for carbon farming techniques, but was opposed to diversification or the expansion of current silage production, citing impacts to bird habitat.

In the realm of habitat restoration, all the alternatives are “deficient,” Ms. Patton wrote. Curbing impacts to water quality, erosion and native plant species “must be prioritized over other strategies to ensure that ranching operations are meeting the highest possible environmental compatibility standards.”

On the topic of elk, the E.A.C. chose somewhat of a middle road. “Long-term leases and overall agricultural management strategies may strive to reduce conflicts and find a way to balance and accommodate the presence of both cows and elk, but the elk must not be managed for the purpose of benefiting commercial lease holders,” Ms. Patton wrote.

Last, the E.A.C. called for improved visitor interpretation of the pastoral zone and the removal of locks that prevent public access.

Local environmentalist Gordon Bennett, who has his own group, called Save our Seashore, offered strong support of the park’s initial proposal, underscoring what he said is the seashore’s mandate to preserve agriculture. 

“[We] believe it is consistent with the [seashore’s] enabling legislation, contemporaneous records indicating congressional intent, Secretary Salazar’s [2012 memorandum] and existing park service policies for public access and for cultural and natural resource protection,” he wrote.

Mr. Bennett denounced the no-ranching and no-dairy ranching concepts, tackling an argument put forward by the plaintiffs.

In its letter, the Western Watershed Project wrote that ranching “was never intended to become a permanent, or even long-term, use of public lands” in the park. It went on to question the validity of the park service’s offering of leases past the original reservations of use instated when ranchers sold their land for the seashore’s creation.

At that time, some ranchers left the business and others accepted the lease agreements of varying time periods for what became a designated pastoral zone. As the reservations of use and occupancy expired, the park offered ranchers five-year or 10-year agricultural leases or special use permits, accounting for the range of current lease terms today.

But, the project contends, “For 55 years, private livestock operations have clung to leases on public lands which they sold, accepting generous taxpayer payments to relinquish. It is long past time for these operations to take those monies and use them to move their commercial operations to private lands outside Point Reyes National Seashore.”

In his letter, Mr. Bennett defends the validity of the ranching agreements, referring to a 2012 memorandum from then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar that directed the park service to issue 20-year agreements to demonstrate its commitment to continuing the agricultural legacy on Point Reyes.

Another local conservationist, Burr Heneman, did not endorse any of the alternatives but instead explained why reducing or eliminating agriculture would result in an impairment of the park’s scenic, natural and historic resources and values. Grasslands, he argues, are the historic landscape of Point Reyes, maintained through grazing, mowing and fire dating back to when Native Americans managed the lands.

Elk grazing is not intensive enough to maintain grasslands, and so removing cattle would result in a loss of the historic integrity of the land and negative impacts to natural resources, he reasoned.

The conversion of grasslands to coastal scrub would impact grassland plant species, badgers and nesting birds such as grasshopper sparrows and the Bryant’s sparrow, he wrote. 

Mr. Heneman challenged the park service to create counter arguments, including to demonstrate that removing cattle grazing and other forms of pasture and range management from all or a significant portion of the seashore would not result in the conversion of all or more of those areas to coastal scrub and weed species. He said that, in considering reduced or no-ranching alternatives, the park must present a practical means other than cattle grazing and other forms of pasture management to maintain grasslands.

Finally, he argued that the working ranches, as cultural landscapes defined by the park service’s own policies, include “both a historic and cultural use that is a cultural practice.” And that “cultural practice—ranching—is a key part of the cultural resource and value that is to be conserved unimpaired.”

A number of sites within the planning area are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places due to their significance in the evolution of the California dairy industry. They are expected to be listed in the register this spring.