In the latest showdown over the National Park Service’s controversial plan to allow continued cattle ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore, the California Coastal Commission could decide this week whether or not to withdraw its support.
At issue is the park’s recently adopted plan to extend leases for private cattle and dairy ranches that rent parkland for terms of up to 20 years. The plan also allows park staff to shoot some of the park’s free-roaming tule elk to prevent conflicts with ranches over damaged property and competition for grazing forage.
A year ago, the California Coastal Commission narrowly voted to endorse the plan, but under the condition that park staff return in a year to provide detailed strategies on how it will reduce water contamination and other environmental impacts caused by the ranches.
After initially requesting a delay, the park service has submitted the strategies. The commission plans to review them on Thursday.
Should the commission withdraw its support, it does not have the ability to kill the park’s plan because the seashore is managed by the federal government. However, the commission could, through its opposition, help galvanize public support against the plan or even tie it up for years in litigation.
While park staff declined to comment this week, park Superintendent Craig Kenkel wrote in a letter to the commission on March 24 that its plan was modified since the commission first saw it. The changes included a reduction in the amount of grazing land in the park, a reduction in the number of cattle and other livestock in the park and new environmental requirements for ranch owners.
These changes, Kenkel wrote, “address the Commission’s concerns related to ranching and are supportive of the parties’ goals to improve water quality and climate-related adaptations.”
Coastal commissioners expressed concern in March after the park asked to delay its update. Some commissioners considered withdrawing their support.
Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh, a Marin resident and a candidate for the state Assembly, said in an email Friday that she cannot “opine on the issues until after I’ve seen and heard all the evidence, but I am very concerned regarding the Park Service’s apparent lack of effort on water quality issues over the years and since the big hearing and decision a year ago. “
Cattle ranches have existed in Point Reyes long before President John F. Kennedy signed legislation to form the national seashore in 1962. The federal government spent tens of millions of dollars to purchase ranchers’ lands but also allowed them to continue operating in the park under leases .
In September, the National Park Service adopted a plan to extend lease terms from five years to up to 20 years to provide ranchers more financial certainty. The latest plan affects 28,000 acres of ranching area within the 86,000 acres in the seashore and the neighboring northern portion of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Some environmental groups and thousands of public commenters have called for ranching to be greatly reduced if not removed entirely because of the environmental impacts on the national park, including manure runoff and greenhouse gas emissions. Park staff, ranchers and their supporters say the ranches are part of the cultural and historical fabric of western Marin and provide a local source of food.
As part of its strategy to reduce environmental impacts from ranching, the park is working to expand water quality testing within the park while also requiring ranches to upgrade their operations and facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water runoff contamination as a requirement of their new lease .
Kenkel told the commission that these plans will become more detailed when the park issues the longer ranching leases. However, the park is delaying issuing these new leases by at least one year because of a federal lawsuit by three environmental groups that are challenging the ranching and elk management plan.
The environmental groups are urging the coastal commission to withdraw its support of the park’s plan, saying the water quality and climate strategies are too vague.
“I think the can is getting kicked a little bit down the road too much,” said Laura Cunningham, California director for the Western Watersheds Project environmental group. “There is still water pollution happening out there as we speak.”
“There is a real urgency to addressing these problems, but in spite of that, the park service continues to treat these things as issues they can address incrementally over time,” said Deborah Moskowitz, executive director of the Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley.
David Lewis, the director of Marin County’s University of California Cooperative Extension, has been working on watershed management issues, including conducting studies in Point Reyes.
Lewis said the park’s management plan was “rigorously prepared and gives the park service and ranchers the tools to achieve the goals that everybody wants in terms of good water quality, cultural and natural resources goals for the Point Reyes National Seashore.”
Some of the strategies have already begun to be implemented. The park has restarted its long-term testing of water bodies and creeks on the coastline that were monitored for fecal bacteria from 2000 to 2013. The monitoring had stopped after the park determined that pollution-control projects during those years such as fencing, manure control , installation of onsite water sources and creek stabilization projects led to major reductions in bacteria levels – in some areas by as much as 95%.
Lewis says it is typical for monitoring efforts to cease after projects to improve water quality are shown to be effective.
“Once we get confirmation and confidence that practices work, the general resource-responsible approach is to use what you have to get the practices in place as much as possible and use a smaller amount of resources for any type of monitoring and evaluation,” Lewis said.
The park also plans to deploy short-term water testing at various locations to try to isolate sources of contamination. These areas include places where ranches drain into creeks and other water bodies.
Others are wary of the park’s efforts to reduce pollution. Tests led by the Western Watersheds Project in the park in early 2021 found bacteria concentrations were many times higher than deemed safe to recreate in by the state, including up to 40 times the state health standards for E. coli at one location.
Lewis and county water quality monitoring officials say many factors can lead to bacteria and mineral contaminant levels testing high on a given day and that years of data are often necessary to identify trends.
Cunningham said the park should have never ended its tests and is now only doing so after public pressure.
“I’m glad they’re doing something, although I’m concerned because it seems like they’re deferring some important details into the future,” she said.
As part of its climate change strategy, the park noted that the closure last year of one of the park’s six dairies, the McClure Dairy, and the removal of 2,900 chickens are estimated to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 16% and ammonia emissions by up is 27%.
Livestock in the park would account for 17.2% of Marin County’s agricultural greenhouse emissions and 4.8% of emissions countywide after these changes, according to the park service.
The park would also require ranchers to invest in upgrades as part of their new leases. The five dairy ranches will also need to modernize manure management practices and would be removed if they did not commit to doing so within two years of their lease. These dairies still would have the option to convert to beef cattle ranches.
Chance Cutrano, programs director with the Resource Renewal Institute, said the park citing the closure of a dairy because it ran out of water is not a climate strategy.
“It’s saying that our climate action strategy is once the other dairies shut down, greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced,” Cutrano said.