The Sad Truth of Using Public Lands for Cattle Grazing

     

Thanks to a legal settlement between conservation groups and the National Park Service, Point Reyes National Seashore has now stopped blindly rubber-stamping long-term dairy and beef grazing leases on public land, and the agency will write a general management plan that hopefully will guide this cattle-bitten area toward a more environmentally sustainable future. Today, about one-fourth of the National Seashore is committed to intensive, industrial-scale agriculture on public lands that by law is supposed to be managed for “public recreation, benefit, and inspiration.”

There is no shortage of severe damage from livestock overgrazing on public lands in my home state of Wyoming, but when I first visited Point Reyes a year ago, I was appalled to find that livestock operations have completely converted the native coastal prairies to closely-cropped lawns of European annual grass on the lands where they operate. In the Intermountain West, one can at least find remnant patches of native vegetation; on Point Reyes pastures, non-native grasses dominate.

On Point Reyes, the Park Service allows ranches to plow under the grasses across thousands of acres of National Seashore land to plant invasive weeds, wild mustard and white charlock, as “silage” to feed the cattle. Ground-nesting birds use these silage fields for nesting, and when they are mowed during nesting season, these birds and their chicks are often killed. Silage weeds spread from the fields where they are planted to invade the surrounding grazing lands, and even lands that have been closed to grazing.

And throughout the grazed pastures, mounds of invasive milk thistle spring up everywhere like clumps of contagion to put the sickness of the land on full display.

These pastures serve as supplemental feed for open-air feedlots that accumulate piles of manure taller than a basketball player on Park Service lands. The manure is then liquefied and sprayed all over the tops of the bluffs, where the sea breezes waft the pungent sewage scent throughout the National Seashore.

It is a well-known fact that livestock operations produce significant amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Converting deep-rooted perennial grasses native to the region to shallow-rooted annual grasses from Europe in livestock pastures also depletes the land’s ability to sequester carbon. While ranchers claim they’re trying to reduce their carbon footprint, in reality livestock removal is a far more effective option from a climate change standpoint.

Meanwhile, the rare tule elk has been reintroduced at Point Reyes, and is starting to make a comeback. But the main population is imprisoned on a 2,600-acre spit of land called Tomales Point behind an eight-foot-tall fence, designed to keep elk away from the livestock operations. While there is plenty of fog on the central California coast, rainfall can be scarce at times. Drought conditions between 2012 and 2014 caused mass die-offs of elk at Tomales Point due to lack of available water (and perhaps dietary deficiencies due to the absence of diverse soil types on this small peninsula), in which 250 elk perished.

Add this problem to E. coli contamination of streams, estuaries, and even beaches, throw in miles of fences that entangle wildlife, and top it all off with the loss of threatened and endangered plants and wildlife from the coho salmon to the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, and commercial livestock operations are revealed as completely incompatible with the conservation requirements of the National Seashore.

The livestock industry is now scrambling to try to characterize modern beef and dairy operations as “historic ranches” that should be protected. Though they get some credit for being organic, they are still doing a tremendous amount of environmental damage to the lands, waters, and wildlife of the area.

Between 1962 and 1978, every single one of the private ranches on the National Seashore was bought up at fair-market value by the National Park Service, with the intention to phase out commercial agriculture. Beef and dairy operations were paid a total of $57.7 million to sell their lands to make way for a National Seashore, and in 2018 dollars, that’s an average of $12.5 million apiece. The Park Service even offered a bonus to sweeten the deal: “life estates,” which allowed the former ranch owners to stay on in houses owned by the Park Service, and run their livestock operations on leased National Seashore lands for a 25-year period.

Today, almost all of the life estates have run their course, and it is time for the agricultural operations to live up to their end of the bargain. Private lands abound in the surrounding region, making it relatively simple to relocate a ranch operation. It must be hard to give up the highly privileged lifestyle of living in National Park Service housing by the sea. But it’s time to phase out ranching and phase in the native grazers — the tule elk — just as the Park Service committed to do in its 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan.

Meanwhile, the fate of the one real historic ranch on the National Seashore — the Pierce Point Ranch — offers hope for a better future. Here, livestock were removed in 1973, never to return. These lands became the Tomales Point elk preserve. On the elk preserve, the rare native coastal prairies are returning, bringing an abundance of wildlife with it.

In place of stinking, degraded pastures dominated by invasive weeds, visitors now can enjoy a natural coastal landscape. It’s a gorgeous contrast to the degraded livestock zone, and provides a glimpse of what a recovered National Seashore will look like.

Point Reyes National Seashore is within an easy day’s drive of 7 million local residents, and already receives more than 2 million visitors a year. The agriculture industry controls the lands that are the gateway for most recreational visitors. In one of America’s most densely-populated regions, public lands with high recreation value are in short supply. We can no longer afford to saddle scenic National Park Service Lands with ugly, smelly, and high-impact agricultural operations. By tearing down the fences and returning these livestock-damaged lands to nature under the new General Management Plan, Point Reyes can take its rightful place as a second Yellowstone along the California coast, and a jewel in the crown of the National Park system.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect wildlife and watersheds on western public lands. Western Watersheds Project was a plaintiff in the case that resulted in a settlement preventing long-term livestock leases on these Park Service lands and requiring a new Point Reyes General Management Plan.

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