POINT REYES, Calif.— Three conservation groups today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the National Park Service’s controversial management plan for expanding private agriculture at California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, one of a handful of national parks that permits cattle grazing.
The Park Service plan paves the way for 20-year leases for beef and dairy ranchers in the park, enshrining and expanding commercial ranching on public lands at the expense of native wildlife and natural habitats. The plan would also allow harmful water pollution to continue, and permit the agency to kill native tule elk — a unique subspecies found in no other national park — that ranchers say interfere with cattle operations.
“This plan is a giveaway to the cattle industry,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute. “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. One-third of the national seashore is fenced off from public use.”
“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 Center for Biological Diversity. “Now the agency wants to treat our beloved tule elk as expendable problem animals to be shot or removed. 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.”
“The Park Service needs to stop authorizing chronic water contamination, harassment and suppression of Tule elk, degradation of public recreation and destruction of native coastal prairies for the sake of a handful of unsustainable ranching operations,” said Laura Cunningham, California director at Western Watersheds Project. “Having studied California’s native grasslands for decades, I’m shocked at the destruction of native ecosystems and the epidemic of invasive weeds at the Point Reyes Seashore, and the agency’s callous disregard of its mandate to protect and preserve the park’s ecosystems and wildlife for the use and enjoyment of the people.”
“The Park Service is unlawfully prioritizing the commercial needs of ranchers over the natural environment and the public’s use and enjoyment of these majestic public lands,” said Lizzy Potter, a staff attorney at Advocates for the West, which represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The Park Service decided that ranching should continue in perpetuity without fully disclosing its plans or the environmental consequences.”
The plan violates several federal environmental laws, including the Point Reyes Act, which established the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 for the purposes of “public recreation, benefit and inspiration;” the Organic Act, which requires the agency to leave natural resources “unimpaired” for the benefit of future generations; and the Clean Water Act by allowing ranches to circumvent water quality standards. The Park Service’s inadequate environmental review for the plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act.
The plaintiffs — the Resource Renewal Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project — first sued the Park Service in 2016 for failing to update its antiquated General Management Plan and perpetuating commercial ranching in the park without adequate environmental review and public comment.
A settlement agreement required the Park Service to produce the first-ever Environmental Impact Statement for Point Reyes ranching. More than 90% of public comments opposed ranching and killing native tule elk. The Park Service adopted the plan in September 2021, ignoring tens of thousands of public comments and coalition letters from more than 100 environmental and social justice organizations representing millions of members calling on the agency to phase out ranching.
For decades the National Park Service has leased about 28,000 acres of public lands within the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area for beef and dairy ranching, despite significant conflicts with natural resources, wildlife and public recreation. Ranching has led to overgrazing, soil erosion, degraded water quality, damaged vegetation and endangered species habitats, increased levels of invasive weeds and suppressed wildlife populations at these parks.
The plan expands the public lands zoned for ranching; quadruples the potential terms of existing grazing leases from five years to a maximum of 20 years; allows ranchers to pursue new commercial activities such as mobile slaughterhouses and row crop production; and provides for ranching to continue in perpetuity. The plan perpetuates overgrazing and does little to restore public lands and resources harmed by ongoing commercial cattle operations in the national park.
It also allows the Park Service to shoot native tule elk to appease ranchers and to harass elk away from leased ranch lands. It sets an arbitrary population cap of 140 elk for the Drakes Beach herd, currently estimated at 138 elk. The Park Service can also kill any free-roaming elk to prevent new herds from forming in the park.
Some 91.4% of public comments submitted on the plan opposed ranching on the Point Reyes National Seashore, while only 2.3 percent approved of allowing cattle ranching to continue.
The Park Service improperly rejected a “no ranching” alternative that would provide maximum protection for the environment — as required under the Point Reyes Act — along with reduced-ranching alternatives that would provide greater protection than the adopted plan.
The Park Service also refused to consider whether private ranching operations in the park damage Coast Miwok archeological sites. The Park Service discarded a proposal to protect those sites in 2015 and instead adopted a plan that protects “historic” ranches. The Coast Miwok Tribal Council, lineal descendants of the original inhabitants of Point Reyes, formally objected to the Point Reyes ranching and elk-killing plan.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California. The attorneys for the plaintiffs are Lizzy Potter, Laird Lucas and Andrew Missel with the nonprofit, public-interest, environmental law firm Advocates for the West, and Michael Lozeau, of Lozeau Drury LLP.
This article was first published by The Center for Biological Diversity on 10 January 2022. Lead Image: Tule elk. Photo courtesy of Katie Booth, National Park Service. The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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