In the latest showdown over the National Park Service’s controversial plan to allow cattle herding to continue on the Point Reyes National Seashore, the California Coastal Commission could decide this week whether to withdraw its support.
The problem is the park’s recently adopted plan to extend leases for private cattle and dairy ranches on park land for up to 20 years. The program also allows park staff to photograph some of the park’s free-roaming tule elk to prevent conflicts with the ranch over property damage and competition for forage.
The California Coastal Commission narrowly approved the plan a year ago on the condition that park staff return within a year to provide detailed strategies on how to reduce water pollution and other environmental impacts from the ranch.
The Park Service has submitted a policy after the initial request was delayed. The committee plans to review it on Thursday.
If the council withdraws its support, it has no ability to kill the park’s plan because the waterfront is run by the federal government. However, the committee could help galvanize public support for the plan through its opposition, even tying it to lawsuits for years.
While park staff declined to comment this week, park superintendent Craig Kenkel wrote in a March 24 letter to the committee that the plan has been blocked since the committee first saw it. Revise. These changes include a reduction in the number of pastures in the park, a reduction in the number of cattle and other livestock in the park, and new environmental requirements for ranchers.
The changes, Kenkel wrote, “address the council’s concerns about rangelands and support the parties’ goals to improve water quality and climate-related adaptation.”
The Coastal Commissioner expressed concern in March after the park asked for the update to be delayed. Some commissioners considered withdrawing their support.
Commissioner Sara Aminzadeh, a Marin resident and state legislature candidate, said in an email Friday that she “cannot comment on these issues until I have seen and heard all the evidence, but I am very concerned that the Park Service has evidently over the years and There has been a lack of effort on water quality since the big hearing and decision a year ago.”
Point Reyes cattle ranches existed long before President John F. Kennedy signed legislation in 1962 to form the National Seashore. The federal government spent tens of millions of dollars buying ranchers’ land, but also allowed them to continue operating in the park under leases.
In September, the National Park Service passed a plan to extend leases from five to 20 years, providing ranchers with more financial certainty. The latest plan affects 86,000 acres of waterfront and 28,000 acres of ranch just north of the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Some environmental groups and thousands of public commenters have called for grazing land to be drastically reduced, if not completely eliminated, because of the environmental impact 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 Marin West and provide a local source of food.
As part of a strategy to reduce the ranch’s environmental impact, the park is working to expand water quality testing within the park, while also requiring the ranch to upgrade its operations and facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and runoff pollution, as a requirement of the new lease.
Kenkel told the committee those plans will become more detailed when the park issues longer leases for the ranch. However, the park has delayed the issuance of these new leases for at least a year due to a federal lawsuit by three environmental groups over the ranch and elk management plan.
Environmental groups are urging the coastal council to withdraw support for the park plan, saying the water quality and climate strategies are too vague.
“I think the cans have been kicked a little too far,” said Laura Cunningham, director of conservation at the California Western Watershed Project. “As we said, there’s still water pollution going on there.”
Deborah Moskowitz, executive director of the Mill Valley Resource Renewal Institute, said: “There is a real urgency to addressing these issues, but despite this, the Park Service continues to view these issues as issues that can be addressed incrementally.”
David Lewis, director of UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County, has been working on watershed management issues, including conducting research at Point Reyes.
Lewis said the park’s stewardship plan “was carefully prepared to provide the park service and ranchers with the tools to achieve the goals everyone wants, including the goals of good water quality, culture and natural resources for the Cape Reyes National Seashore.”
Some strategies are already being implemented. The park has resumed long-term testing of shoreline water bodies and creeks that monitored fecal bacteria from 2000 to 2013. After the park identified pollution control projects (eg fencing, manure control) over the years, monitoring ceased, and the installation of on-site water sources and creek stabilization projects resulted in dramatic reductions in bacterial levels – as high as 95 percent in some areas.
Lewis said monitoring usually stops after projects to improve water quality have proven effective.
“Once we’ve identified and believed that the practice is working, the general resource-responsible approach is to use the practice you have as much as possible, and use fewer resources for any kind of monitoring and evaluation,” Lewis said.
The park also plans to conduct short-term water testing at various locations to try and isolate the source of the pollution. These areas include where pastures drain into creeks and other bodies of water.
Others are wary of the park’s efforts to reduce pollution. In early 2021, tests led by the Park West Watershed Project found bacterial concentrations many times higher than what the state believes is safe to multiply, with one location having levels of E. coli up to 40 times the state’s health standards.
Lewis and county water quality monitoring officials said many factors can cause bacterial and mineral contaminant levels to test high on a given day, and it often takes years of data to determine trends.
Cunningham said the park should not end testing and is only doing so now under public pressure.
“I’m glad they’re doing something, although I’m worried because they seem to be delaying some important details to the future,” she said.
As part of its climate change strategy, the park noted that closing one of the park’s six dairy farms, McClure Dairy, and removing 2,900 chickens last year reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 16 percent, ammonia emissions increased to 27%.
Following these changes, livestock in the parks will account for 17.2 percent of Marin County’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and 4.8 percent of countywide emissions, according to the Park Service.
As part of the new lease, the park will also require ranchers to invest in upgrades. The five dairy farms also need to modernize their manure management practices and will be demolished if they don’t commit to doing so within two years of the lease. These dairy farms still have the option to convert to beef cattle ranching.
Chance Cutrano, program director at the Resource Renewal Institute, said the park’s citing of a dairy plant closing because of a lack of water was not a climate strategy.
“That said, our climate action strategy is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions once other dairy farms close,” Cutrano said.