Cattle Ranching Has ‘Hijacked’ A Protected Seashore, Environmentalists Say

CREDIT: Shutterstock

The standoff in Oregon between a small group of ranchers and the federal government might be over, but the debate over ranching on public lands is heating up thanks to a new lawsuit in California.

Earlier this month, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Resource Renewal Institute, and Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit against the National Parks Service, claiming that the Park Service is moving forward with renewing ranching and grazing leases without first assessing how the current cattle operations might be impacting the environmental health of the seashore.

“Our lawsuit doesn’t call for an end to ranching in Point Reyes,” Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, told ThinkProgress. “But the park has really been hijacked by commercial lease activity, and it’s time to go back to step one: update the General Management Plan and come up with a plan that is consistent with the purposes of the park.”

Most of the dairy and ranching operations located inside of the park date back to the 1860s, predating the creation of the park as a nationally protected area in the 1960s. The Park Service purchased the land from ranchers and dairy operators in 1962, when the park was created, so cattle have been a fixture in the park from the beginning — and, so far, they’ve existed largely in harmony with the surrounding environment.

“[The Point Reyes National Seashore] has become one of the biggest success stories in terms of national parks conservation,” Neal Desai, director of field operations for the Pacific Region of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), told ThinkProgress. “Historically, there has been a good relationship [between ranchers and conservationists].”

But the current lawsuit came out of the Park Service’s plan to move forward with renewing 20-year leases for the ranching operations, something that the plaintiffs argue violates the Park Service’s mandate to ensure that the Point Reyes National Seashore provides maximum protection to wildlife and natural resources. The groups are requesting that before issuing a Ranch Management Plan — which they argue would not just renew, but greatly expand, leases for the cattle operations — the Park Service conducts an environmental impact assessment.

“[The Ranch Management Plan] is not a substitute for a General Management Plan,” Miller said. “It doesn’t consider any alternative uses, and it has a predetermined outcome that cattle grazing is going to continue at current levels.”

One source of conflict between conservation groups and the ranchers in recent years has been the reintroduction of Tule elk, a breed indigenous to the region that was thought to be on the edge of extinction over a century ago. In 1978, a herd of elk were reintroduced into a penned off area in the park, but their population suffered huge losses between 2012 and 2014, likely due to a lack of food supply caused in part by California’s drought. Over the same period of time, two herds of free roaming elk grew in number, causing run-ins between their herds and the cattle that live in the park. Ranchers have claimed that the free-roaming elk feed on grass intended for their cattle, as well as trample fences and spread disease to their herd. Conservationists, on the other hand, argue that the elk should be a greater priority for the park than the cattle, and have accused cattle operators and Park Service workers of killing the elk under the guise of testing for disease.

A pair of male tule elk are shown on Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore.

A pair of male tule elk are shown on Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg

“I think there are ways that ranching and elk reintroduction could be compatible, but ranchers don’t seem interested in pursuing those,” Miller said. “They are framing it as the elk being the problem, impacting the cattle and profits of private lease holders.”

The Park Service, for its part, has said that it has no plans to remove ranching from Point Reyes.

The Point Reyes lawsuit comes at a time when public lands grazing has been in the news, due in part to the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, which was born out of a conflict between a small group of ranchers and the federal government.

But despite a few headline-grabbing conflicts in recent years, many ranching communities that have leases to operate on public lands exist in harmony with conservationists.

“There are cases in the not too distant past where there are good examples of conservation communities and public land ranchers working together to find common ground and solutions,” Jeremy Garncarz, senior director of designations with the Wilderness Society, told ThinkProgress. “Ultimately, what it came down to is people really having trust in the system and trust in the partners they were working with.”

Garncarz pointed to work between conservationists and ranchers in Nevada in the early 2000s, where both parties worked side-by-side to establish protections for environmentally sensitive lands while allowing ranchers to voice their opinions, and use their particular expertise, to help find a solution that worked for both parties. Conservationists, Garncarz said, would ride around with ranchers over the areas they were proposing to protect, making exceptions for areas that seemed integral to the rancher’s operation, like leaving out a strip of land that ranchers needed to drive over to reach a water tank. Getting out on the ground with the ranchers, rather than debating the merits in an office, Garncarz said, is what made all the difference in their situation.

“It’s all about people putting their own interests aside and working together in a collaborative fashion,” he said.

But conservationists and public lands experts also stress that every area managed by the Park Service is unique, and what works for one region might not be a suitable compromise for another region.

Still, groups like the NPCA point to the fact that ranching has been a historical use in the park, even predating the creation of the park itself, and that many of the ranchers are willing to work with conservation groups to ensure that their operations are as sustainable as possible.

“The most important issues always come down to how are things playing out on the ground?” Desai said. “We see this [ranch management plan] as an opportunity to actually highlight and standardize the practices that are truly reflective of sustainable operations and in harmony with all the other issues of the seashore.”