Last week an opinion piece in this newspaper suggested that environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, might be gunning for the Point Reyes National Seashore’s dairy and beef ranches through the recent Ranch Comprehensive Management Planning process. The authors, and others who support the continuation of ranching, may have good cause for concern. 

This would not be the first time advocacy groups have used planning processes to target the leased ranches in efforts to steer management toward a greater emphasis on wilderness and wildlife. While current environmentalists may be far more supportive of sustaining agriculture at the seashore, there is a long history of opposition that they will need to overcome.

As early as 1971, only nine years after the seashore was first established, the National Parks Conservation Association wrote a “Wilderness and Master Plan” that called for designating nearly the entire peninsula as wilderness, shutting down all the working ranches at the time (many of which were still in private ownership). The association’s plan did not receive support from other wilderness advocates, who instead rallied behind a more moderate plan from the Sierra Club—but that was not the last time elimination of agriculture was proposed.

In 1997, under Superintendent Don Neubacher’s leadership, the seashore began the processes of updating its 1980 General Management Plan. A Notice of Intent was published in October, stating that “comments on the scoping of the proposed GMP/EIS should be received no later than January 31, 1998,” and that public scoping sessions would be announced. It went on to anticipate a draft in Spring 1999, and a final document in early 2000.  

Oddly, the first comment letters actually pre-dated the notice; the earliest is stamped as received over a month before the request for comments was published. It was also a form letter, with text identical to, sometimes even down to the font type, at least 10 other letters, many of which came from out-of-state and all urging the same thing: that the National Park Service “not renew any grazing leases as they come due.”

A second form letter, longer and more subtly worded than the first, began appearing in letters in November 1999; one paragraph asserted that, “with 13 operating ranches, there are potential conflicts between natural and cultural resource management,” giving an example of “runoff from ranching harming salmon and steelhead runs and the water quality in Tomales Bay.” An identical sentence appeared in the N.P.C.A.’s official comment letter, suggesting the organization was likely the source of the text.  

Several scoping meetings were held during the following months, but nothing more happened until a newsletter sent out in 2003 identified five management “concepts” as “preliminary ideas for the General Management Plan.” The concepts represented a range of vague approaches, each promising increased emphasis on a different area of management, from natural resources to visitor experience to sustainable agriculture. The language in several concepts implied that continuing agricultural uses at current levels, as a form of protecting cultural landscapes, was incompatible with natural resource preservation and restoration. Each proposed expansion of wilderness and natural areas came coupled with a reduction of working agriculture.

Public comment was invited, and a single scoping meeting was held on Jan. 14, 2004. Over 120 people crammed into the Red Barn, with more spilling out the doorway. A proposed “Concept Six” was published in the Light, suggesting the enhancement of cultural and natural resource restoration and preservation through sustainable agriculture, modeled on the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s “Countryside Initiative” plan. (I was one of the uncredited co-authors.) Concept Six received a good deal of support in scoping comments from local citizens, yet anti-ranching sentiments were once again expressed in a scoping letter sent by the Sierra Club Marin Group. Authored by Gordon Bennett, the organization’s letter demanded extensive scrutiny of agricultural operations at the seashore:


PRNS should prepare a list of all other National Park Service units that have grazing or oyster operations, whether those are permanent or temporary uses, and the extent of these uses in these units. We would also urge PRNS to commission an exhaustive legal analysis (including actual legislation, testimony before committees, floor statements, and committee reports) to see whether Congress intended existing beef, dairy and oyster operations to be permanent or temporary within the PRNS management areas … We urge that this legal analysis determine with a reasonable degree of certainty the extent to which there may exist any legal obligation on the Park Service to renew or extend leases for these existing agricultural or maricultural operations.  


The letter went on to ponder whether Congress intended to allow diversified practices such as row-cropping; asked for numerous studies on habitat impacts of grazing; questioned the economic importance of agriculture locally; and finally argued that agriculture should indeed be phased out of the seashore.  

The park service projected that a draft general plan would be available for public review in late 2005 or early 2006, but nothing was ever released. Seventeen years have now passed since the initial notice was published, and pressure appears to be building on the ranches once again. The very same day the park published a scoping report for this process, on Sept. 18, the Center for Biological Diversity sent out a detailed press release, trumpeting public support for a free-ranging tule elk herd and arguing that “grazing permits are a privilege and certainly not a free pass to try to dictate Park Service policy.” The C.B.D.’s press release also made veiled threats of legal action if the seashore takes any steps toward fencing or relocating elk in its efforts to assist ranchers being harmed by herds in the pastoral zone.

This kind of political pressure against the working ranches is clearly not new, and could seriously threaten the long-term viability of those operations. Supporters of maintaining the historic working landscape at Point Reyes, as intended by Congress when it first established the seashore, should be sure their voices are heard above the fray—and environmental groups genuinely interested in supporting the continuation of local agriculture must understand that the reasons for mistrust are real. While past deeds are not the only measure of present intentions, trust that there is not an agenda to push out the ranches needs to be rebuilt through actions in addition to words.


Dr. Laura A. Watt is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Planning and Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book manuscript on the history of land management at Point Reyes National Seashore.