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Surrendering Nature To Politics: Are US National Parks In Retreat?
November 3, 2021
Surrendering Nature To Politics: Are US National Parks In Retreat?
The triumph of cattle and farmers over elk in Point Reyes echoes the same public outrage involving wapiti, wolves and bison in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Grand Canyon
Whose interests should the headlands of Point Reyes National Seashore serve? For some it depends upon which side of the fence you choose to interpret the question. Photo courtesy Daniel Dietrich
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, with wild lands that support the last, most diverse assemblage of large moving wildlife in the Lower 48, is not an island. Its content is framed by erosive forces occurring inside the region and beyond. Understanding how it is happening elsewhere is important.
Sometimes, seemingly small “local conflicts” open our minds to pondering larger, more important philosophical questions, such as: should public lands, more specifically wildlands within the US National Park System, exist to promote the persistence of native species or serve private commercial interests or agendas that seem at odds with protecting native biodiversity?
In Grand Teton National Park, debate raged for many decades not only about whether cattle grazing should be allowed inside the park but whether grizzly bears should be removed or killed for preying upon private livestock allowed to roam on grandfathered grazing allotments enjoying publicly-subsidized rates. Eventually, as a result of public scrutiny, the practice was phased out in areas of Grand Teton where the park now gives primacy to bears, wolves and other native species.
Still, every autumn Grand Teton continues to carry out an “elk reduction” program in which armed hunters are allowed to stalk elk inside the park off trail through grizzly habitat even though on the adjacent National Elk Refuge elk continue to be artificially fed in winter and managers recognize that the large number of wapiti has caused damage to native range and represents an incubator for outbreaks of Chronic Wasting Disease, brucellosis and other diseases. Hunting in Grand Teton was grandfathered the same way that domestic livestock grazing was.
Today there are many similar flashpoints involving units of the National Park System. In Montana, livestock interests continue to treat wild Yellowstone bison moving seasonally into the state as an exotic species and insist that park bison be managed at populations so low that they no longer migrate out of the park's higher elevations to escape deep snows in winter and have access to lower-elevation grasslands. The Park Service's sister public land management agency, the US Forest Service, has been reluctant to open up habitat for bison to use year round.
More than 12,000 Yellowstone bison have been shot or sent to slaughter since the late 1980s based on the disproved premise that they represent an imminent threat of passing along brucellosis to domestic livestock herds in Montana. In fact, a study from the National Academies of Sciences proved that the greatest risk of disease transmission from wildlife to livestock occurs with elk, yet the state does not slaughter elk leaving the park nor does it expect them to stay confined inside Yellowstone.
On the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, the Park Service has promoted a plan to lethally reduce the bison population by enlisting hunters. In Grand Teton, the state has recruited hunters to shoot mountain goats encroaching upon habitat for bighorn sheep.
Most recently, the state of Montana has allowed unlimited shooting and trapping of popular Yellowstone wolves when they cross an invisible park boundary into the state though the animals don’t even know the border exists. Already, members of the beloved Junction Butte Pack in Yellowstone, including pups, were killed as “trophies” by hunters in Montana
The essay and interview below involves another touchstone for pondering the question of what should receive priority in and around a national park. This one involves Point Reyes National Seashore, located an hour northwest of San Francisco where the Park Service is allowing portions of the preserve to be used for commodity food production and livestock owned by local ranchers to take priority over a small population of coastal Tule elk.
Below is a perspective on the issue offered by Ken Bouley, a conservationist and software engineer. Following that is an interview conducted by Hank Perry with nationally-known writer Kenneth Brower, and conservationist, photographer, nature guide and noted filmmaker Daniel Dietrich. You can check out Dietrich's collectible photography by clicking here and his guiding services by clicking here. Perry is a professional wildlife photographer, businessperson and conservationist who has spent years going to Point Reyes. He also is a member of the Mountain Journal board of directors and has a home in Teton Valley, Idaho.
Point Reyes National Seashore is a stunning intersection of terrestrial and marine environments, set apart from the crowded human sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Area megalopolis. It invites a meditation on what resides inside rare open space; moreover, it invites the question of how 'natural' is open space that is not able to healthily perpetuate the native species that originally lived there? This is a query as poignant for Point Reyes as for lands in Greater Yellowstone. Photo courtesy Hank Perry. To see more of Perry's photography go to naturalrealm.com
Essay by Ken Bouley
Some time ago, I lived in a location convenient to my workplace, but with a long and windy road to get to the Pacific. As I visited Point Reyes National Seashore northwest of San Francisco with increasing frequency, I realized I had priorities backwards, so I moved adjacent to the park, situated in western Marin County, and now telecommute whenever I can.
I’m lucky—in the summer, I can put in a full day at the virtual office, and still be shooting photos by the golden hour.
Point Reyes is the only national seashore on the West Coast. A peninsula along the Pacific Flyway and backlit by the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, it contains 750 plant species, 500 bird species, and, overall, 50 species registered as threatened, rare, or endangered. It’s a special place, with no entrance fee, an hour or two from San Francisco and Oakland, and reachable by public transportation.
Two-thirds of Point Reyes’ 71,000 acres are enchantedly beautiful, comprising disparate habitats and dramatic land and seascapes, where the recurring fog daubs a palette of Douglas fir, beach lupine, honey scented ceanothus, and much more.
The other third, depending on who you ask, is either a scandalous moo-scape, forsaken by policy to an anachronistic, extractive industry, or an appropriate set-aside for a certain legitimate charge of the national park system, namely to perverse historical and cultural objects — more specifically, ranching.
Livestock operations have existed in the area since the mid-1800s. Previously, the land was occupied by the Coast Miwok people for thousands of years. As ranches were established, Miwok were forced out, the land was subdued to European agricultural practices, and predators, including grizzlies and, likely, wolves, were extirpated.
Point Reyes National Seashore was formed on paper in 1962. Over the subsequent decade, the federal government purchased land from the ranchers to amass the park, extending the sellers Reservations of Use and Occupancy (ROUs) — effectively the right to stay on and work the land for a specified duration. In 1978, the park’s legislation was amended to allow the Interior Secretary to extend leases for continued ranch use, regardless of the status of the original ROUs.
Depending on whom you listen to, either ranching was per-plan perpetual, or the ROUs were transitional, sweetening the purchase agreements but intentionally finite. Memories differ and documents decline to attest, such that disagreements gravitate towards the burden of proof.
Also in 1978, a small herd of Tule elk, a California endemic species once very near extinction, was brought to Point Reyes to establish a preserve inside the park on Tomales Point, behind an eight-foot fence stretching from the Pacific to Tomales Bay.
Two free-ranging herds have since been established outside of the fenced reserve, in the southern part of the park. Point Reyes is the only national park with Tule elk, which were once thought extinct, and are today around one percent of historic numbers. The so-far successful renewal of Cervus canadensis nannodes is a signal achievement of the National Park Service.
But their future is not guaranteed. In 1993, the Report of the Scientific Advisory Panel on Control Of Tule Elk on Point Reyes National Seashore concluded, “The long-range goal of elk management at PRNS should be the re-establishment of free-ranging elk throughout the seashore and associated public lands. This would involve elimination of exotic cervids and removal of the fence across Tomales Point. [The National Park Service] and [California Department of Fish and Game] should develop a long-range management plan with the goal of achieving a large, healthy, free-ranging elk population subjected to a minimum of management intervention.”
Twenty-eight years later, the fence stands. Currently there are approximately 600 elk in total in Point Reyes and about 5,500 cattle cows. During the drought of 2013-2015, half the population of elk died behind the fence in the preserve, whereas the free ranging herds grew over this time. During the more recent (and ongoing) drought, the fenced herd continued to suffer massive attrition, declining by a third between surveys for the winters of 2019-20 and 2020-21. Much has been made about the elk dying of thirst, whereas the park reports that necropsies indicate the elk are dying of “drought-related malnutrition”—they are starving.
The uncomfortable arrangement between wilderness and ranching stood until 2016, when a legal settlement compelled the park service to produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and update its management plan for ranching in the Seashore. The draft plan and EIS were released in August 2019, public comments collected, and a final EIS published in September 2020. The EIS contained six management options, including Alternative B which would extend 20-year leases to the ranches and expand and diversify their permitted commercial activities, and Alternative F, favored by a majority of citizen and environmental groups, which would phase out all ranches and dairies over five years.
In addition to longer leases, Alternative B incorporated numerous, explicit requests from the ranchers’ association in a 2014 letter to the park service, publicly available and copied anyone of any influence, including diversified livestock, expanded retail activities, mobile slaughterhouses, etc., and was identified as the “preferred” alternative in the report. That letter also asked for more permissive lease succession policy and that the park service be careful to call Point Reyes a National “Seashore,” not a “park,” implying a non-existent management and legal distinction (Parks, Seashore, Recreation Areas, etc., are all “national park units” and are governed by the Organic Act of 1916 and other laws.)
Both requests have been honored by the Park Service.
Top: An elk fence at Point Reyes marks a straight dividing line between a landscape managed for ecological health and another demonstrating the converging impacts of drought and overgrazing. Middle: An aerial view of the brown landscape shows the impact of ranching Just above: a field after intensive grazing by cattle.
By the time the public comments were solicited, I was struggling to understand how this could be a question, let alone a controversy. We either placate 16 families who were bought out decades ago and who are squaloring and squatting on public land at taxpayer subsidy, or we restore a national park during climate and extinction crises.
But the ranch families are status quo in Marin and neighboring Sonoma County and have been long been supported by normally green representative, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA, 2nd District) as well as influential US Sen. Diane Feinstein, who sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which writes the checks. Both Huffman and Feinstein receive significant contributions from the agricultural sector.
I volunteered to help one of the 2016 plaintiffs analyze the public comments. We found that 91 percent opposed the plan, 2.3 percent were in favor, and the rest were neutral. Some 94 percent of all respondents who endorsed any plan endorsed Alternative F. More people asked for new bike lanes than asked to preserve ranching in Point Reyes. After the park service’s planning process, the California Coastal Commission solicited additional feedback, and around 99 percent of approximately 45,000 respondents opposed plan B. Co-signed letters from scores of environmental groups pummeled the agencies, and more than 100,000 signatures of protest were hand-delivered to the Department of Interior.
When Biden won the election, and especially when he named Representative Deb Haaland, enrolled member of the federally recognized Laguna Pueblo Tribe, as Secretary of the Interior, many were hopeful that plan B would be thrown on the Trump scrap heap and that greener heads would prevail.
But the “Record of Decision” was ventured on September 13, 2021, and plan B was upheld, with a few token modifications. Although the EIS clearly indicates that removing ranching would significantly benefit the air, water, soil, and wildlife, the final decision somehow reads, “In the best professional judgment of the National Park Service staff … no impairment of the park’s resources or values will result from the implementation of the selected action.”
They say a good compromise is when no one is happy. Here, the ranchers got just about all they asked for, while the public and the environment got shined on. Secretary Haaland, Sen. Feinstein, US Rep. Huffman, and Gov. Newsom are presumably listening to their constituents. Further litigation is also an option.
A Crown Coastal Jewel For Wildlife Or Livestock?
The Pacific tranquility of Point Reyes suggests an idyllic destination but it's really a place of conflicting values. Photo courtesy Daniel Dietrich
A Conversation Between Hank Perry, Kenneth Brower and Daniel Dietrich
HANK PERRY: What is special about Point Reyes, both in general and for you personally?
KENNETH BROWER: How do I love thee, Point Reyes? Let me count the ways. The Point Reyes Peninsula is special in having the only national seashore on the West Coast. It is superlative, too, as the fastest moving of the national parks. The peninsula, a sliver of the North American Plate sliced off and captured by the Pacific Plate, is sliding up the San Andreas Fault at a speed of two inches per year, the rate at which a fingernail grows. Not a sprint, exactly, but much quicker than Yosemite or Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. Point Reyes marches to its own drummer. It has a mind of its own.
PERRY: That's fascinating. And biologically?
BROWER: The peninsula marks the interface between two worlds. From its slopes, a remarkable terrestrial fauna--elk, cougar, coyotes, badgers, otter, mountain beaver, foxes—looks down upon a rich marine fauna of elephant seals, harbor seals, humpback whales, killer whales, blue whales, gray whales, and the densest concentration of great white sharks on Earth. The peninsula is a stop for migrators on the Pacific Flyway; if not the best bird park in the nation, it is one of the best. And this park is unique in our National Park System in that all its wildness and biodiversity lie just an hour’s drive from a megalopolis. The peninsula is next door to the complex of cities that led the high-tech revolution--cities that swarm with affluent folk accustomed to vacationing in parks—but also home to large communities of urban poor, for whom national parks are otherwise out of reach.
PERRY: I think it's important to mention the conservation tradition that flows through your family.
BROWER: Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) is special to me personally because I witnessed its birth. As a boy I knew the people who made it happen. My father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, lobbied for establishment of the park and published a Sierra Club book arguing for it. He was on hand in the Oval Office in September 1962, representing the environmental movement, when JFK signed the national seashore into law. I have a family interest in the park’s integrity.
PERRY: Was ranching written into the park from the beginning? What is the issue?
BROWER: Ranching was not written into the park from the beginning--not in the mission statement of its enabling legislation, and not in any sense that ranching was integral to the concept of this park, or intended to be permanent. The argument otherwise is a myth. Continued ranching was a stop-gap measure. Congress at the beginning lacked the funds necessary to acquire all the land needed. Ranchers were given 25-year leases to continue working the land they had sold to the government, thereby allowing the government time to allocate money, and ranchers time to find other work. Ranching has always been an issue here. The September decision by the NPS to expand ranching operations simply brought it to a head.
PERRY: In the context of the climate crisis and the extinction crisis, isn’t Point Reyes just a drop in the bucket?
PERRY: Please elaborate.
BROWER: Cattle in this park, according to a Park Service study, are responsible for “the vast preponderance” of greenhouse gas emissions (methane) in the preserve. A recent Park Service coastal watershed assessment noted that the principal threat to water quality in Point Reyes is bacterial and nutrient pollution from ranches and dairies. These environmental insults are exacerbated by climate change. We have entered an age of wildfire and drought. A steer drinks about twelve gallons of water a day, and a pound of its beef requires about 2,460 gallons to produce. A dairy cow drinks more, about thirty-five gallons daily. Each gallon of her milk costs 2000 gallons of water. There is no more inefficient way to use water and acres in production of food. Yet at Point Reyes the Park Service has thrown in with cows.
PERRY: Daniel Dietrich, I’ve been an admirer of your photography and observation power. Tell us more. How long you’ve been guiding wildlife safaris in Point Reyes?
DANIEL DIETRICH: I grew up in Buffalo, NY and as much as I loved where I was from, I knew the west coast was where I wanted to be. After some time traveling overseas post college, I landed in the Bay Area to work in high tech. One of my very first hiking trips after moving to California was to Point Reyes National Seashore. I remember driving home saying, “How do I get to live there!?” So, 20 years later, I moved to Point Reyes to start my safari company. I have been here for eight years now.
PERRY: How often are you in the national park and do you have an idea how many guests you have guided?
DIETRICH: Between guiding and my own personal enjoyment, I am in the park nearly every day. I don’t know the exact number of guests I’ve taken out but the park sees over 2.5 million visitors a year and I am booked out several months in advance. Over the past eight years, I’ve guided quite a fair number of people.
PERRY: What do your clients come to see when they come to the park? Is it to see cows?
DIETRICH: The number one and number two things my guests want to see are bobcats and the Tule elk. Bobcats are simply incredible to find and the Tule elk are truly the iconic symbol of wildlife in this national park.
PERRY: Kenneth Brower, you have said the Park Service’s decision creates a bind and sets a bad precedent.
BROWER: Ranching on the peninsula has set the Park Service against itself. A decade ago, the Park Service embarked nationally on a heroic and expensive effort, its Climate Change Response Program (CCRP). With its right hand, through CCRP, the agency has resolved “to address the effects of climate change across the breadth of the National Park System.” With its left and, out at Point Reyes, the agency is undoing that work. At this national seashore, the NPS has resolved, for the foreseeable future, to protect, expand, feature, celebrate, perpetuate, and model an industry that is absolute poison in this age of drought.
PERRY: Daniel Dietrich, what’s your take on the recent Park Service plan?
DIETRICH: The politics are very heavy as Ken notes. Ranchers have been lobbying the Park Service for new income streams for many years, wanting to raise new domestic animals such as sheep, goats, chickens and pigs, to grow commercial row crops such as artichokes, to use historic buildings for Airbnbs and others. They have also been lobbying for the removal of the Tule elk from the public land they lease. Those who oppose these activities say the national park must follow the founding legislation, which is:
“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
“…and to manage the entire Seashore in a manner that does not impair natural values and is consistent with “the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment.”
The finalization of the new plan gives many of these new income streams to the ranchers and also states it will kill native Tule elk to allow more grass for cows.
PERRY: Daniel Dietrich, what is the reaction of your clients when they discover it’s being managed as a ranch for private cattle?
DIETRICH: It is typically met with surprise. Most people don’t know that the Park Service allows private citizens to operate commercial businesses on public land in Point Reyes.
"Ranchers have been lobbying the Park Service for new income streams for many years, wanting to raise new domestic animals such as sheep, goats, chickens and pigs, to grow commercial row crops such as artichokes, to use historic buildings for Airbnbs and others. They have also been lobbying for the removal of the Tule elk from the public land they lease." —Daniel Dietrich, photographer, naturalist and noted filmmaker
PERRY: Ken pointed that out, too. I’d like your take? How has ranching impacted the natural environment? Can you give me an example of how ranching has negatively impacted native species?
DIETRICH: Ranching affects so many aspects of the natural environment, water quality, air quality, carbon emissions, endangered species, invasive grasses and so many more. The most effective way to read about how the natural environment has been impacted by ranching is to read the parks released EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). Recent water testing in the national park showed water with 40 times the safe limit of E-coli.
PERRY: Has drought entered into this?
DIETRICH: The drought has only exacerbated the issues. Over 150 elk recently died behind the Park Service’s fence which keeps native Tule elk from reaching ample water and forage. During an earlier drought between 2013 and 2015, half the herd, died behind the fence!
PERRY: Why are Tule elk so important?
DIETRICH: Tule elk thrived in California to the tune of over 500,000 animals in the early 1800s. They are the land’s natural grazers. They were thought to be extinct by the mid 1800s. A dozen elk were found in the late 1800s which saved the species. Today, there is less than one percent of their native numbers. They are the iconic symbol of Point Reyes National Seashore. They are native to this land, endemic to California and this National Park is the sole park which holds these majestic creatures.
PERRY: Back to you, Ken. How do you align yourself with indigenous tribes, animal rights activists, vegans, or anyone else whose vision for the park might be similar or the same as yours, but whose motivations might be different?
BROWER: People of all these persuasions have risen to the defense of PRNS--a tide of resistance against Park Service plans here. Friction between the groups has so far been minimal. The ideal is a big tent that accommodates all. “Organization,” as such, might best be a loose federation, where each group follows its own bent and genius. It might be wise not to assemble too much—rather just to keep in touch. You mention indigenous tribes. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho who gathered at the Little Big Horn had plenty of disagreements among themselves, but when General Custer arrived they set those aside.
PERRY: One view is that if we remove ranching and flatten the elk fence, we are merely deferring the problem of how to control the elk population. How do you respond to that assertion?
BROWER: If cattle were removed and the elk free to roam the entire park, deferral of control would allow this giant deer to reclaim most of the peninsula where it was once dominant grazer. True, it is likely that someday, decades hence, the herds would exceed carrying capacity. (The cougar is the only local predator that might have any success as a biological control, it seems to me.) Some environmentalists have suggested introducing wolves, but this is to misunderstand the range requirements of wolves and the political difficulty of injecting wolf packs into the middle of rural California, the most populous state in the Union. The elk of Point Reyes cannot legally be relocated anywhere else, because this population is afflicted with Johne’s Disease, caught from the park’s cows. And contraception is difficult to arrange for elk.
My vegan compadres in the fight for the seashore might disagree, but for me the simplest solution—when and if elk carrying capacity is exceeded—would be culling by Park Service marksmen. I am an ecosystems person. For me the health of a given community of life is more important than the rights of its individual members. My animal-rights friends will give me hell, but for me there is a world of difference between culling native elk so to provide more forage for invasive cattle (the present state of affairs in PRNS) and culling elk for the health of the land.
PERRY: A question for Daniel. Is there not outrage on the streets of San Francisco, Oakland and Marin? Why is this issue not getting more attention, or is it?
DIETRICH: There is. In the comment period for the Park Service’s General Management Plan Amendment, over 90 percent of the comments opposed the Point Reyes’ plan. In the California Coastal Commission’s hearing on the issue, over 45,000 comments were received, some 99 percent were against the Park’s proposed plan. The founder of ForElk.org hand delivered over 100,000 signatures opposing ranching in the park. The story has been covered by Nat Geo, The Hill, San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times and so many other outlets. People are outraged. People don’t want to subsidize private for-profit ranching on their public lands, in their national park.
PERRY: Ken, if you were Secretary of Interior for the day, what process steps would you recommend or dictate, assuming re-opening the process was on the table?
BROWER: If I were Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, I would not indulge in too many process steps, for fear of getting lost in process. I would exercise my discretion and end ranching in PRNS. This is a national park, not a feedlot.
PERRY: If instead of Secretary, you were king for a day, what end-state would you dictate, incorporating the concerns of the public, the planet, but also the ranchers and the ranch employees? What is the best ultimate and fair resolution of this decades-old controversy?
BROWER: If I were king, I would incorporate the concerns of the public, who own this park, and of the planet, which is the place we all live. I would not incorporate the concerns of the ranchers, as those have dominated park policy for too long. The ranchers have had their fair shake. This land belongs to the public, not to private commerce. Point Reyes has long endured a forced marriage between two incompatible ideals of land stewardship: protections vs. production. It’s time for divorce.
PERRY: What happens next?
DIETRICH: There are many organizations who are working hard to find a solution. restoreptreyesseashore.org is one of them. ForElk.org is another. And a third great organization is Resource Renewal Institute. Visit their sites and support them all. We seem to get overwhelmed with this request but writing your politicians is critical to let them know where you stand on this issue. Come visit the park. See it for yourself and you can take action based on what you see. This is not a local Marin County, California park. It is one of our nation’s most visited and biologically diverse parks. It needs to be protected.