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Environmental groups target Point Reyes ranching in new lawsuit

Environmental groups are suing the National Park Service over the agency’s decision to extend agreements with dairy farmers and cattle ranchers at Point Reyes National Seashore, calling the move “a giveaway to the cattle industry.”

In a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court, the Resource Renewal Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project say the use of tens of thousands of acres for commercial agriculture at the protected national park is antithetical to the park’s purpose as detailed in the Point Reyes Act.

The September decision by the National Park Service to extend leases for 20 years on 18,000 acres of the 71,000-acre park, the group said, conflicts with the vast majority of public comments on record, and will also continue negative impacts on the park’s dwindling tule elk herd.

"This plan is a giveaway to the cattle industry,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Marin County-based Resource Renewal Institute, in a news release this week. “It perpetuates decades of negligence by the very agency charged with protecting this national treasure. The Trump administration fast-tracked the plan without regard for the climate crisis or the hundred rare, threatened and endangered species that depend on this national park.”

A spokesperson with the Point Reyes National Seashore did not return a phone message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The region’s dairy legacy stretches deep into the 1800s, carrying on even as generational ranching families sold their sprawling acreage to the federal government in the mid-20th century in exchange for the option to lease the land back from the National Park Service.

Today, ranching operations home to six dairies and more than 2,500 cows, occupy about 20% of the park, lining the winding roadways of the seashore that also welcomes 2.2 million visitors annually.

The National Park Service’s management plan at the center of the lawsuit, though, takes in portions of the nearby Golden Gate National Recreation Area, adding another 3,000 head of cattle.

Cattle ranching has long been a flashpoint for environmental groups, who point to watershed pollution, decimated natural habitat for elk herds and other animals and climate change-inducing methane emissions as driving forces for their push to rid the park of commercial agriculture.

“The Park Service has long mismanaged Point Reyes by allowing ranchers to use and abuse the park for private profit,” said Jeff Miller with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity in the release. “Point Reyes belongs to the public, not a handful of ranchers. It’s time to manage the park the way Congress intended when it passed the Point Reyes Act — for public benefit and protection of the natural environment.”

But the National Park Service, citing “decades of Congressional support for beef and dairy ranching on lands,” concluded in September 2021 that “ranching remains an appropriate use of park lands.”

That characterization falls in line with a prior review that came as a result of a previous lawsuit. In that review, the service stated that active ranches help “protect the pastoral character of the districts, which is consistent with the purposes of the park as articulated by Congress. Continued multi-generational ranching under the selected action will therefore have direct and cumulative beneficial impacts on cultural landscapes, historic districts, and historic structures.”

The decision allows the federal government to continue to lease lands to the ranchers for up to 20 years, with environmental and other conditions in place.

The park service’s plan also aims to increase monitoring of the tule elk herds and add to their range. The area has two free-ranging herds, with 2019 estimates of 138 in the Drakes Beach herd and at least 163 in the Limantour herd.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that the lawsuit centers on the entire National Park Service management plan, which deals with agriculture-related leases beyond the borders of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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