Reflections On 58 Years of Point Reyes National Seashore

For the entire history of the park, two disparate ideals of land stewardship, protection vs. production, have faced off. Right now production has the upper hand.

As a boy I was witness, a fly on the wall, to the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore. Through the prolonged labor that preceded the birth of this extraordinary park, I became acquainted with the cast of characters who fought to bring it into existence — the first, and still the only, national seashore on the West Coast.

photo of kennedy signing legislation
September 13, 1962. JFK signs the enabling legislation for Point Reyes National Seashore. Last month the National Park Service released a management plan that would expand cattle ranching within the borders of this park and introduce sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, and row crops, all at the expense of native wildlife and natural habitat. Photo by White House photographer Abbie Rowe.

In the photograph above, surrounding President Kennedy as he signs the seashore into law, are a number of familiar faces. The tall, graying man on the far right is most familiar, my father, David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club. At this gathering he represents the environmental movement, as that cause has yet to be named. For now the term for him is “conservationist.” In seven years he will found Friends of the Earth, which will grow to 75 sister organizations in nations around the world. In 20 years he will found Earth Island Institute, with nearly 80 environmental projects worldwide.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, in his “conservationist” incarnation, he threw the resources of the Sierra Club into the campaign to make Point Reyes a national park and he lobbied for that designation on both coasts. He edited, designed, and published a Sierra Club book, Island In Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula, by the great environmental reporter Harold Gilliam, whom he persuaded (“relentlessly needled,” in Gilliam’s words) to write the text. He wangled a foreword from Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. He ran the text and layout by me, his 14-year-old son.

It was my father’s custom, whenever one of his Sierra Club books had a bearing on green legislation, to grease the skids by passing out copies to Congress. Island in Time is everywhere in this photograph. Secretary Udall, third from the left, holds his copy in hand. Congressman Clem Miller of California, author of the Point Reyes legislation and the point man in the campaign for the park, stands at JFK’s left shoulder with the book under his arm.

Congressman Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, farthest left, has laid his copy down on the Resolute Desk.

None of the 13 men pictured here is alive. The John Kennedy of this photo has a year and nine days left before his assassination. Congressman Miller, who suspected that this moment — creation of the park — would be the highpoint of his career, has just 28 days left before the plane crash that kills him. Old age has claimed the rest. We can no longer quiz any of these men about their feelings that day in the Oval Office, or their intent in framing this legislation, or their hopes for Point Reyes National Seashore. This is unfortunate, for these are questions being debated today.

The controversy is over cows. Point Reyes is an unusual national seashore in that nearly a third of its acreage is in a “pastoral zone” of dairy and beef ranches. A few other national parks allow grazing, but not on this scale, and nowhere else in the National Park System do all working barns and ranch residences — not just grazing livestock — find themselves inside park boundaries.

At the start, the peninsula’s ranchers fiercely resisted the idea of a park. The dairy business was dying in coastal California, however, and the ranchers came to realize that subsidization by taxpayer was a road to survival. They sold out to the government, and their acreage was incorporated in a new realm of “historic” ranches, lettered A through Z. Today they continue to graze cattle, but on permits. The money they were paid for the land is in the bank, or was used to buy ranchland outside the park, and they, or their descendants, live on in the ranch houses, paying token rents and submarket grazing fees — from one-half to one-third the rate for grazing land elsewhere in Marin County. The National Park Service (NPS) builds and maintains the roads and fences. The ranchers are required to do routine maintenance, but major repairs are a duty of the Park Service. When a new barn is needed, the NPS pitches in financially.

It has been an interesting experiment. A third of the park is in the hands of commerce, and the remainder in the hands of an agency created a century ago to protect American landscapes from commerce. The national seashore has a split personality. For the entire history of the park, two disparate ideals of land stewardship, protection vs. production, have faced off. The park is a house divided.

One lesson of the experiment has been its demonstration of the power of commerce, once it has established a beachhead in a national park. In their half-century of residence in the park, the ranchers have become a political force, with powerful allies in several California farm bureaus and in nonprofit organizations advocating agricultural open space. In this national seashore, ranchers are now the tail that wags the coyote.

The Point Reyes Ranchers Association and ranching advocates have propagated a number of myths to justify continued ranching on the peninsula. Foremost is an origin myth. The ranchers contend that ranching is integral to the idea of this park, was a formative principle. This is false history. The idea for a national seashore on the peninsula was first suggested in 1935 by Conrad Wirth of the Park Service, who in 1951 became director of the NPS and in that role continued to advocate the seashore idea until 1962, when it became reality. What he touted on Point Reyes were the virtues of its biological diversity and beauty. He never mentioned ranching as an asset to be preserved in the park.

Congressman Clem Miller, in writing the Point Reyes bill and persuading his colleagues to vote for it, never suggested that “historical” ranching was integral to the national seashore, nor did he advertise ranching as a selling point. Rather the opposite, as his fellow congressmen, Republicans included, were uneasy, justifiably, at the prospect of a national park with commercial ranching inside. Anyone interested in these particulars — the actual origins of the seashore, as opposed to the myth — should read Paul Sadin’s excellent, NPS-sponsored administrative history of the park.

The ranchers argue that the founders’ intent was that ranching remain in the park forever. In truth, a period of continued ranching was a stopgap measure. The government was short of funds to acquire all the ranchland needed. The idea, and the deal, was that ranching would continue in the park on leases while funds were raised. This would make for a transition period easing the ranchers’ separation anxiety and the county’s loss of tax base. Congress allowed owners of agricultural property to reserve a right of use and occupancy for 25 years or the life of the owner or spouse as a condition to acquisition — a sunset clause, on which the sun has long since set. Eventual termination of ranching was the founders’ intent from the start.

Between 2012 and 2014, years of severe drought, nearly half the elk herd in the park’s Tomales Elk Reserve reserve died of thirst, cut off from water by a high, elk-proof fence built by the National Park Service to mollify the park’s ranchers In 2016, three environmental organizations sued the NPS for elk neglect and failure to ever have a comprehensive analysis of the impact of ranching on the seashore — an omission that violates of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The lawsuit contended that the agency had violated several policies requiring a current and valid General Management Plan (GMP) in the park.

The NPS settled. The terms of the settlement required the agency to consider various management alternatives in an amended GMP. In the public comment period, the NPS presented Americans with a series of alternative futures and they asked us to weigh in. Alternative A would maintain the status quo. Alternative F would end ranching. Alternatives C, D, and E would allow for various permutations in between. Alternative B would give the ranchers nearly everything they wanted.

Slipping a finger onto the scale, the NPS designated this last option, Alternative B, as “preferred.” It would provide ranchers 20-year leases, allow them to diversify their livestock from cattle to chickens, pigs, goats, and sheep; to plant row crops; and to establish B&Bs and retail farm stands on national parkland. It would guarantee that the park’s native tule elk be culled in favor of cows. The herd of 120 free-ranging elk at Drakes Bay, a particular annoyance to the ranching community, would be “maintained” by shooting the excess — from 10 to 15 elk each year, according to NPS estimates.

There are presently ten cows for every elk in the national seashore. For the ranchers, and now the NPS, too, that is one elk too many. Of all possible futures for Point Reyes enumerated by the agency, it prefers the one most favorable to private business in the park and least favorable to wild nature and public access to it.

The public weighed in. When its comments were tabulated, 2.3 percent supported ranching in the park and 91.4 percent opposed it. When the magnitude of the landslide opinion against the NPS preference became clear, the agency reminded the public that public commentary does not amount to a vote. On September 19, the NPS officially announced Plan B as its choice. The approval period for the plan is 30 days. Plan B could go into effect on October 18. When the first elk is shot under the new policy is anybody’s guess.

Before me now, as I write, I have laid a pen from the Resolute Desk, the one John Kennedy gave my father after signing Point Reyes National Seashore into law.

The act that this pen legalized specifies that the park’s first priority be the natural environment. Property acquired for the park by the Secretary of the Interior, “shall be administered by the Secretary without impairment of its natural values, in a manner which provides for such recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research opportunities as are consistent with, based upon, and supportive of the maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment within the area.”

The italics are, or would have been, my father’s. The question he would ask, if he could, is this: can commercial ranching operations ever be consistent with maximum protection, restoration, and preservation of the natural environment?

Another myth propagated by the Ranchers Association is that cattle are somehow good for the land, beneficial to the Point Reyes ecosystem. The ranchers argue that without cattle grazing, invasive weeds would take over the park.

The truth is that the NPS, in its 2013 Coastal Watershed Assessment for the national seashore, noted that among the principal threats to water quality on Point Reyes was bacterial and nutrient pollution from with ranches and dairies. The Drakes Bay, Limantour, Kehoe, and Abbots Lagoon areas were particularly polluted. “Extremely high fecal coliform concentrations have been documented in streams adjacent to existing dairy operations,” according to the assessment. Areas where dairies spread manure “are correlated with the increased presence of invasive and noxious weed species.”

A commandment of Management Policies (“the primary source and foremost authority in the Park Service’s directives system,” according to the NPS) decrees that commercial grazing will be allowed only where it “does not cause unacceptable impacts on park resources and values.” Are heavy fecal coliform concentrations in waterways, eutrophication of creeks and ponds from nutrient run-off, and the spread of invasive and noxious weeds all acceptable impacts?

Cattle are responsible locally for “the vast preponderance” of greenhouse gas emissions at Point Reyes, according to another NPS study. Are these proper atmospherics for a national park?

A further directive of Management Policies is that the NPS “will phase out the commercial grazing of livestock whenever possible.” What makes phase-out impossible at Point Reyes?

My father, in his publisher’s note for Island in Time: The Point Reyes Peninsula, opens with an account of a trip our family took to Point Reyes at the height of the battle to establish the national seashore, a drive out to the beach at Limantour. We, his four kids, were anxious to get down to the sand, but we never made it. “You can’t park there. That’s private property,” a man with a hammer, a carpenter, shouted when we reached shore.

“Where then?” asked my father.

“This is all private property, down to the tide line. If you want to get to this beach, go down to Bolinas and walk up along shore.” Some walk. That hike from Bolinas would have been a 14-mile death march along the foot of steep cliffs pounded by surf.

The carpenter was part of a land rush. As creation of a national seashore grew ever more likely, developers hurried to fabricate a fait accompli that would defeat the park. Big signs went up along the shore. “Here soon. Drakes Paradise Estates,” read one. “Drakes Bay Estates. Beach Development,” read another. A new asphalt road ran along the Limantour dunes, marked off at intervals by red fire hydrants, with street numbers posted and some lots marked “sold.” East of Limantour Spit, on the mainland shore of Limantour Estero, the bulldozers had gouged out a grid of subdivision streets, and several houses had gone up. The carpenter was nailing the frame of a new one.

But he miscalculated. No trace of his carpentry remains. You can still find a few house foundations in the brush at Limantour, but the walls are long gone. The shore that the carpenter declared private property is now public, part of the Phillip Burton Wilderness. As such, it is the property of the ospreys that overfly it, the snowy plover that nest in its dunes, the harbor seals that haul out at the tip of the spit, and the humans who come just to see. It is a national seashore owned equally by all Americans and open to all peoples of the world.

“The peninsula is what we have and there is no more where it came from,” my father concludes his note in the book. “It is part of a shore that must serve uncountable millions in the more crowded time to come. We need to have what it takes to act boldly on their behalf — to save enough in the first place, and to remember, ever after, that the important things are not those we put on that shore, but those we find have always belonged there.”

The Park Service needs to act boldly, once again, on behalf of those uncountable millions in more crowded times to come. The agency needs to remember, ever after, that the important things are not those we put on that shore, like cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs, but those native creatures that have always belonged there.

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