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Cattle Ranching Is at the Center of a Battle Brewing in Point Reyes

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A group of dark brown cows stare at the photographer in a grassy area near the beach
Cattle graze at Point Reyes National Seashore, where some areas are designated wilderness zones and others pastoral zones. (John Loo/flickr)

Read a transcript of this episode here.

This story is inspired by a question from Bay Curious listener Beth Touchette. She asked, “How did we end up allowing cattle in Point Reyes National Seashore?”

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aturday, Aug. 28, 2021, brought a dramatic scene to the normally peaceful, windblown hills of Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore. Dozens of people, from small children to older adults, hauled jugs of water over hills and through valleys only to dump their precious cargo into nearly dry ponds.

The volunteers were trying to keep the Tule elk that live on a fenced preserve alive during one of California’s longest droughts. In 2019, nearly a third of the herd died from a shortage of water and malnutrition — in part because they could not roam beyond the tall fence that contained them.

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The Tule elk are an endemic species found only in California. They were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s, but have been making a comeback in places like Point Reyes. The elk are big, averaging around 400 pounds, and need room to roam and forage. But this herd is isolated behind the fence to keep them away from another animal grazing in the park ​​— an animal that some environmentalists say is being given priority: cattle.

Since Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962, it’s been a lot of things to a lot of people. To the general public, it’s a beloved park that offers beautiful coastline, lush forests and windswept grassy hills. To environmentalists, it’s a habitat worth preserving. To ranchers, it’s the land their livelihoods depend on. To the area’s Native people, it’s long been a homeland with sacred sites.

At one time, these competing interests could exist in relative harmony on the 70,000 acres that make up the park — but increasing demands on the land have caused things to sour.

A group of female Tule elk lounge on a green hillside. The rugged California coastline and ocean are visible in the background.
Once abundant in Point Reyes, Tule elk were nearly hunted to extinction. (Amanda Font/KQED)

How cattle came to graze on Point Reyes

The Point Reyes peninsula is the homeland of the Coast Miwok people, who lived here for generations alongside the Tule elk. When Spanish missionaries colonized the area, they brought cows with them. Although the missionaries were based in San Rafael, their cows would roam as far west as the Point Reyes peninsula. Later, when Spain granted the land to Mexico, rancheros divided up the peninsula and continued to run cattle. After the Mexican-American war, California changed hands once again to become part of the United States. In the chaotic transition period, the boundaries of the Mexican ranches on the peninsula were challenged.

“If you look at some of the Spanish land grants, they literally said from the tree to the rock,” said Loretta Farley, a former park ranger at Point Reyes National Seashore. “So that’s really open to interpretation.”

Squatters moved in and settled on the land. The Mexican rancheros took them to court, but lost because they didn’t have the paperwork to demarcate the boundaries of their land. The legal battles were many and complicated, but when the dust settled in 1857, the law firm of Shafter, Shafter, Park and Heydenfeldt emerged as primary owners of the peninsula we now know as Point Reyes.

“After a series of tremendous fights we have beaten our adversaries at all points and, what is more, have humbled the strongest and the proudest of them,” wrote Oscar Shafter (PDF).

A historic map of the alphabet ranch parcels in Point Reyes.

The Shafter brothers divided their property into more than 30 sections and leased the land to immigrants flooding into the area from places like Ireland, Switzerland and the Azores, in Portugal. The Shafters named the ranches from A to Z, what we now call the historic alphabet ranches, and developed a flourishing dairy business.

San Francisco was growing rapidly and people were hungry for the butter and cheese produced at the dairy farms. Later, when refrigeration was invented, the farms would also ship milk. At one point, the Point Reyes dairies produced more butter than anywhere else in the state.

In the early 1900s, the Shafter families sold some of their land to the farmers who had been leasing it from them. Some of those families are still operating beef and dairy ranches to this day.

Home of the Coast Miwok

Many of the laborers on those early dairy ranches were Coast Miwok people who had been enslaved by Spanish missionaries, but returned to their homes along Tomales Bay if they were able. Their way of life had been completely upended, and now white ranchers owned the land and offered some of the only employment around.

“My grandmother was a ranch cook,” said Theresa Harlan. “My uncles worked on ranches as ranch hands.” Harlan is now the founder and director of the Alliance for Felix Cove; the cove is known as Laird’s Landing on maps. Harlan’s mother is Tomalko (Coast Miwok Tomales Bay) and grew up in a small wooden cabin here.

“My family would row a small skiff across the bay to get mail or supplies that they couldn’t make themselves,” she said. “They say it was a 30-minute row.”

Harlan’s family was evicted in the 1950s by the white dairy farmers who owned the land at the time, Sayles Turney and James Lundgren. Harlan’s family tried to fight the eviction, saying they’d been there since the 1800s, and the case went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Her family ultimately lost.

A couple stands below the porch of an old wooden cabin
Theresa Harlan and her husband, Ken Tiger, pose in front of the wood cabin her great-grandfather Joe Felix built. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

“This is a historic site,” Harlan said. “This needs to be protected. This little house sits neglected. Why? Why? Because it was the home of Tomalko people, California Indian people?”

She’s been pushing the National Park Service and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the federally recognized tribe with whom it partners to preserve Coast Miwok sites, to do more to explain and protect her family’s legacy here. In particular, she wants visitors to know that as recently as the 1950s Tomalko people lived here, but were pushed out, repeating the violent history of Indigenous people throughout California. This is family lore to her, not ancient history.

There are other Coast Miwok archaeological sites in Point Reyes, but many of them are kept confidential because they are sacred. The cabins in Felix Cove represent a more modern side of Native American history here, one that existed alongside the ranching history, which has already been designated as historic. Still, far fewer people know about Theresa Harlan’s family than about the historic alphabet ranches.

From private ranch land to national park

For decades, West Marin remained quite rural, with the ranches dominating local life and culture. But after World War II, when the Bay Area population was booming and demand for housing was high, real estate speculators started eyeing the Point Reyes peninsula for subdivision and development. Conservationists and local residents didn’t want to see that happen. They rallied together to advocate for a national seashore that would preserve the coastline for the public in perpetuity.

A local U.S. representative, Clem Miller, was the primary force advocating for the national seashore in Washington, D.C. To achieve the dream, park advocates had to convince the ranchers to sell their land to the federal government. At first, many ranchers were adamantly opposed to the idea, but they also saw that if it wanted to, the government could use eminent domain to take their land, so instead they made a deal.

At the time, the government was most interested in preserving the coastline. So, they divided the park into pastoral zones and wilderness areas (PDF). The ranchers sold their land to the government, but retained the right to ranch the land in the pastoral zones. It took years for the federal government to acquire the land, but by 1978, most of the ranchers had signed 25-year leases. At the end of the lease, the Park Service could decide whether to renew or not.

The arrangement made most parties happy. Conservationists were proud to have saved the area for the public. And the ranchers had earned a chunk of cash, while retaining the right to lease their lands from the government. The Coast Miwok, however, continued to struggle for recognition.

The original 25-year leases have long expired, but for decades the Park Service has renewed them on a five-year basis. This longevity has made the ranches an important part of the economy and culture of West Marin, as well as key players in the local organic food scene.

Recent controversies challenge the status quo

In 2014, the National Park Service, which manages Point Reyes National Seashore, started a public process to update its Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan. Environmental groups watching the process believed the Park Service was heading down a road that would give ranchers more of what they wanted, without considering the rest of the park’s needs. So in 2016, a coalition of environmental groups sued the Park Service. They pointed out that the Point Reyes General Management Plan (PDF), the document that governs park activities, hadn’t been updated since 1980. Awareness of sensitive habitats, endangered species, climate change and the impacts of cattle on ecosystems had evolved since then, they said.

The parties came to a court-approved settlement agreement (PDF) that required the Park Service to amend its general management plan with an emphasis on the 28,000 acres affected by ranching activities. They had to come up with several scenarios, including one that would eliminate all ranching from the park. They also had to detail the environmental impacts of their preferred option, which involved several rounds of public comment and a presentation before the California Coastal Commission, which safeguards the state’s coastline and is concerned with the health of the waterways that run into the ocean.

Protesters hold signs that say "Save the Elk" and "Protect the Herd."
People protest the National Park Service over a plan to cull Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California. (Peg Hunter/flickr)

Over the past several years, in public comment and through advocacy, environmentalists have argued that it’s time for cattle ranching to end in Point Reyes National Seashore. They say cattle suppress endemic plant species and endanger protected animals like the California red-legged frog when their manure gets into waterways. And, they’re concerned that as climate change worsens, drier conditions will be the norm, further upsetting ecosystems. If water and grass are scarce in Point Reyes, they say, it should go to the endemic flora and fauna, not cattle raised by private businesses.

Complicating the matter are the Tule elk, which have no natural predators now that grizzly bears no longer roam the area. Current management practices used throughout the state call for lethal termination to keep herd sizes in check (PDF). But in the 1990s, the Park Service got major pushback from the public when they proposed killing some of the Tule elk behind the fence once their numbers had grown too large.

Instead, in 1998, the Park Service moved some of the elk from behind the fence to a wilderness area near Limantour Beach. In the early 2000s, some of those elk migrated to an area near Drakes Beach, creating another herd.* These free-roaming herds have increasingly created problems for the ranchers, knocking down fences and competing for the same grass cattle eat. The Park Service has said it will actively keep these unfenced herds at specific sizes, terminating elk if need be.

Four male elk walk down a grassy hillside
In the ’70s, the Park Service designated the northern tip of Point Reyes as an elk preserve. (Amanda Font/KQED)

The elk situation has increasingly called attention to the Park Service’s management of the national seashore. Some Bay Area residents, like our question-asker this week, Beth Touchette, are wondering whether ranching is still appropriate there.

“[Cattle ranching] never really bothered me until the drought got really bad,” she said. “There’s just limited resources and it’s like, well, how do we decide who gets this limited water? Should it be cattle ranching or should it be trying to keep the wildlife in the national park?”

Ranching advocates and the National Park Service say the issue needn’t be so cut-and-dried. While they admit they do need to plan for more extreme dry conditions in the future, they contend there are ways for the agency to balance ecological diversity with the direction from Congress and the Department of the Interior to continue to grant leases to ranchers. They say they are committed to more monitoring and regulation of the ranches in the park to ensure high environmental standards are met. In public comment, the ranchers also have committed to complying with environmental requirements. The Secretary of the interior could decide to end the decades long agreement, but so far each one, including the current Secretary Deb Haaland, have not chosen to exercise that authority.

All eyes on what’s next

History is at the heart of the debate about the future of Point Reyes National Seashore. The Coast Miwok were pushed off this land by Spanish colonizers, and again by ranchers decades later. Environmentalists and ranchers once found middle ground to create this 70,000-acre park. That ground has gotten shaky. How and if the Park Service can balance the interests of all parties going forward is yet to be seen. But the economic future of part of the community, the health of the environment and the very spirit of this land are at stake. Everyone will be watching what happens here next.

*An earlier version of this story said the NPS created the Drakes Bay herd, when in fact the second herd was a product of the original elk migrating to a new area. We regret the error.

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