Battle for the Soul of Point Reyes National Seashore

by Douglas Nelson, ASLA, LEED AP

B Ranch, Point Reyes
The Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District’s B Ranch / image: Doug Nelson

Public Comments on the Point Reyes National Seashore Plan

The public review and comment period is open until September 23, 2019. To learn more or comment, visit parkplanning.nps.gov or write to:

GMP Amendment, c/o Superintendent Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

The National Park Service will host two public meetings to share information and gather public feedback:

  • Tuesday, August 27, 2019, 5 to 7 p.m., at the West Marin School, 11550 Shoreline Highway, Point Reyes Station.
  • Wednesday, August 28, 2019, 5 to 7 p.m., at the Bay Model Visitor Center, 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito.

A multi-year battle for the future of Point Reyes National Seashore may soon be coming to a head—however, the controversy is likely to persist into the park’s future. The future of historic ranches and their cultural landscapes within the park is at stake. The National Park Service (NPS) has recently released an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the future management of the ranches. The public review and comment period is open until September 23.

The 71,000-acre national seashore is located on the Point Reyes Peninsula in California’s Marin County, north of San Francisco. The park was established in 1962 and is administered by the National Park Service. Starting in 1970, existing dairy and cattle ranches within the park’s legislative boundary were purchased from willing families by the National Park Service with a guarantee to lease-back the lands to the families to continue dairy and ranching operations for at least 25 years. The ranches were established beginning in the 1850s and the early settlers found areas of rolling grasslands that were likely the result of thousands of years of landscape management by Native Americans using fire to keep lands open. Without the use of fire, and now grazing, the lands would quickly revert to the densely-vegetated coastal scrub plant community. In 2018, the 17 ranch properties were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, collectively as the Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District.

Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District / image: National Register of Historic Places

In 2012, then Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar decided that the ranch leases should be renewed for a term of 20 years. That decision started a planning process for a General Management Plan Amendment on the management of the ranches. It also ignited a controversy that split environmentalists, with varying factions supporting and opposing the continued ranching activities within the park. Complicating the issue is the status of tule elk in the park and conflicts between the elk and the ranching activities. Tule elk were very common in California, including the Point Reyes Peninsula, prior to 1850. They were thought to have been hunted to extinction until 1874, when a small herd of a dozen or so elk was discovered in Kern County. In 1978, ten tule elk were placed in a 2,600-acre Tomales Point Elk Reserve in the northern part of the park. The elk were very successful in growing the herd and 28 elk were moved to the park’s Limantour Beach area in 1999. As the two herds continued to grow, several elk apparently swam across Drakes Estero and began grazing among the cattle on the historic ranches, an incompatible situation due to possible transmission of diseases.

Point Reyes Peninsula Dairy Ranches Historic District, ranch boundaries map / image: National Register of Historic Places

The General Plan Amendment EIS outlines six alternatives. The preferred alternative will allow for 20-year lease extensions for the cattle and dairy ranches; expand ranching and farming activities in some areas to include non-irrigated crops, raising other animals including sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens; and provide for mitigation measures to minimize environmental impacts from the these activities. The alternative also sets a population threshold of 120 adult elk in the park which would be managed “using lethal removal methods” (likely by professional hunters, and estimated to be ten to fifteen elk annually). As you can imagine, the management of elk population is the primary, but not the only, controversy.

B Ranch, Point Reyes / image: Doug Nelson

Supporters of the plan include advocates for sustainable agriculture (a major component of agriculture throughout Marin County), park supporters, and some environmental and cultural landscape groups. Opponents of the proposal, against the continued existence of the ranches and/or the management of the elk herd, are other environmental and wildlife groups, animal rights groups, and groups promoting vegan lifestyles. Some opponents simply believe that ranching is not appropriate in a national park.

The National Park Service, throughout its history, has been charged with managing the nation’s treasured public lands, often by balancing sometimes opposing goals. They must preserve and steward these resources while also making them accessible to people, balancing access and resource protection. At Point Reyes, the Park Service is attempting to balance long-standing cultural uses and significant cultural landscapes, with the natural resources within the park. When thinking of national parks, many people can only image parks such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon where natural resources predominate. However, even in those iconic national parks, the NPS balances management of both natural and cultural resources. At Point Reyes, the essence of the landscape is one that has been created through cultural use of the land for thousands of years. Point Reyes prominently features both natural and cultural resources.

On a practical matter, without grazing, much of the park’s open grasslands would quickly revert to dense coastal scrub vegetation. This phenomenon can be seen in several locations in the park where ranching activities have been withdrawn. The NPS does not have the staffing or resources to maintain these landscapes without grazing, and the elk alone are not capable of holding off the spread of scrub vegetation. While some ranching opponents may favor this, we would be losing irreplaceable cultural landscapes that have been thousands of years in the making.

C Ranch, Point Reyes / image: Doug Nelson

There is a need to broaden our understanding of Point Reyes and the significant cultural landscapes that should be managed along with the park’s natural resources. The General Management Plan Amendment attempts to do this in a balanced way within the mission of the National Park Service and federal law. The Point Reyes landscapes have been shaped by Native American use for thousands of years and the current use of ranching has been ongoing for over 150 years. For comparison, the majority of national parks in the United Kingdom exist to preserve the cultural landscapes and the rural agricultural uses that have shaped those landscapes over thousands of years.

The public debate on the future of ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore rarely touches on the issue of cultural landscapes. Instead, most of the arguments against ranching relate to private use of public lands, culling of wildlife, how the NPS should not be supporting cattle and dairy production in a time of climate change, and that national parks should only be about natural resources. Many of the opponents focus on one of these issues and rarely is there a broader discussion of the mission of the NPS and the broad range of significant resources that the park service is charged with stewarding. The opponents focus only on the natural resources and turn a blind eye to the cultural landscapes that they unknowingly admire.

C Ranch, Point Reyes / image: Doug Nelson

What is needed is a broader discussion about the NPS mission, national parks in general, and the special landscapes at Point Reyes that would likely be lost if ranching ended within the park. It is frankly difficult to understand the big picture of the Point Reyes issues by reading an EIS. It is too easy to focus on individual facets of the plan, when what is needed is a comprehensive understanding of all the ramifications of the plan. Too many people, upon hearing about the culling of elk, will go no further and oppose the plan. I would agree that it is a drastic action; however, when understood in the larger context of the overall management of the park, and that it will contribute to the preservation of the Point Reyes landscapes that we all love, it can be seen as a necessary measure. The future of the Point Reyes landscape is at stake.

Douglas Nelson, ASLA, LEED AP, is a landscape architect and principal with RHAA Landscape Architects in Mill Valley, CA. He specializes in cultural landscapes and projects in national parks.

One thought on “Battle for the Soul of Point Reyes National Seashore

  1. R. Kennedy August 30, 2019 / 5:10 pm

    This is a very nice article of Point Reyes, and points out a lot of truths in managing the Point Reyes area. Not only did the indigenous population assist in making the area what it is today, but also the first ranchers, the Spanish in their land grants to settlers/ranches. This was followed by the families, dairy ranches, and cattle ranchers of today. It needs to remain as it is today for that is how we all today remember it.

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