Tag Archives: Point Reyes National Seashore

The Lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore

On The Way To The Lighthouse

By Mary Olsen

Most visitors to the Point Reyes National Seashore head to the Lighthouse. The roundtrip can be made in as little as two and a half hours, but there is so much to do on the way that it can easily be stretched to a pleasant all day trip. Although it is only about 17 miles to the very end of the road, the speed limit is 40 miles per hour (unless otherwise posted) and the road is narrow and twisty in parts.

The area is intensely patrolled and tickets are issued, so be advised. The road is rough and rife with potholes. However, the intrepid will be rewarded with stupendous views of the countryside and the coastline. The very lucky may also see a bobcat, a fox, Tule Elk or even, possibly, a mountain lion. Elephant seals and sea lions are always on the agenda and bird lovers are sure to spot raptors and ospreys or any one of the thousands of species that soar the skies of this wild landscape.

And there is plenty to please history buffs and day hikers as well. In short, it’s sure to be a day that will delight the entire family – that is, IF the weather cooperates. Rain or coastal fog could be a spoiler although hardy romantics may enjoy the moody gloom. Be sure to bring warm jackets, sturdy shoes, water, snacks and binoculars.


The lighthouse is the terminus of the 40 mile Sir Francis Drake Boulevard which begins in San Rafael. The road is named for the infamous pirate -or English explorer, depending on the historical perspective, who is said to have landed at Drakes Bay in 1579.

It is believed that Drake made contact with the Coastal Miwoks who may already have been here for more than 5,000 years at that time.

The next to arrive were the Spanish Missionaries, followed by settlers who came after the US annexed California in 1848.


After entering the National Seashore you’ll notice Park signs designating The Alphabet Ranches, as they are known. After a messy lawsuit in 1857 lawyers divided the ranch lands of the Pt. Reyes peninsula into leased parcels and gave each a letter name, the exceptions being the ranches given more poetic names by one of the lawyers, such as Drakes Head, Muddy Hollow, Oporto and Sunnyside.

Read the fascinating history of ranching on the peninsula on the park’s website: www.nps.gov.


To get a great perspective of the Park, climb the road to the top of Mount Vision. Look for the small brown sign on your left just inside the park boundary. (See “The Grandest View in West Marin” just a few pages away.)


Next along the route notice the small brown sign “Drake’s Estero”. Until recently the sign read “Drakes Bay Oyster Company”. A long battle between the aquaculture operation and the Park Service was won by the latter. The road out to the kayak put-in spot is made of crushed oyster shells, now taking on a new and ironic meaning.


For a not-too-strenuous short hike, turn at the small sign, “The Estero Trail”. It’s just four miles out and back and offers some excellent birdwatching. A Christmas tree farm of long ago has grown into a little forest where beautiful egrets make their nests. Just beyond is a wooden bridge with some built in benches that makes a lovely spot to rest and look for leopard sharks in the water below.

The trail ends a short distance later with a pleasant view of the Estero – the Spanish word for estuary – a place where fresh and salt water meet.


The next interesting stopping point along the Boulevard is the historic RCA building.This is the site of a Marconi era (Morse code) ship to shore communication station. To get to the 1929 Art Deco building drive through the Monterey cypress tree tunnel. This tunnel has suddenly become a popular site due to its similarity to The Dark Hedges tree tunnel (near Armoy in County Antrim, No. Ireland) made famous in the popular HBO series Game of Thrones.

Sarah Rolph on Public Scoping

Rolph defends rehash

Ed Nute calls my piece “Weaponizing NEPA” a rehash. That was by design; the repetition seemed necessary to fully make my point that the Park Service at Point Reyes seems to be using the same dirty-tricks playbook against the ranchers that it used against the oyster farmers.

The second half of the story contained new information:  My analysis of the public scoping comments on the Ranch CMP, over half of which were generated by a coordinated effort and sent in by people who have almost certainly never heard of either West Marin or the Ranch CMP. Over 1500 people were duped into believing that greedy ranchers in a national park somewhere are trying to kill off the wildlife.

Instead of setting aside these clearly irrelevant comments, the Park Service tallied them in a report and released it to the public. Just as it did with the 45,000 non-substantive comments about the DBOC Draft EIS–until the very end of the process, when those same comments were quietly discarded, categorized as non-substantive as the law requires.

Abuse of power by a federal agency is not something that should be swept under the rug. If it disturbs anyone’s “healing” process to read about this, I recommend skipping my op-eds. I don’t plan to shut up any time soon.

Sarah Rolph
Carlisle, MA


Couple selects PRNS for their final repose

By Shelly Ingram
Thousands of people come to the Point Reyes National Seashore every year seeking to escape into a natural setting. Tod Fletcher, 62, and Susan Peabody, 66, of Petaluma did just that last weekend. But this was their final journey.
Their bodies were found by hikers near the Sky Camp trailhead parking area at approximately 9:30 on the morning of Tuesday, September 30. According to a close friend of Tod Fletcher the gun found at the scene was most likely his father’s World War II service revolver, but this has not been officially confirmed. A copy of Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma was left on Limantour Road. The hiker who discovered the pair had camped at Sky Camp overnight and recalled seeing the couple earlier the previous evening.
Jeff Stahl, a colleague and close friend of Fletcher’s since they met in Berkeley in 1987, told the Citizen that West Marin had long been a favorite hiking spot for Fletcher.
“I would go to visit him and go hiking and we would always go to West Marin,” said Stahl, recalling that there was a particular beach in the vicinity of Limantour that he enjoyed and visited frequently.
Fletcher wrote and mailed letters of explanation and farewell to three of his colleagues. A letter dated September 28 to Fred Burks, Fletcher’s colleague at the non-profit Public Education and Empowerment Resource Service (PEERS) explains the couple’s deaths simply and directly.
The first sentence of the letter reads:
“Susan has reached the point at which she requires release and as she can’t effect this herself, I must help her, as I promised her long ago I would do.”
Susan Peabody had suffered from a chronic illness for nearly three decades, and had previously attempted suicide. Still, the decision to take the final step seems to have been a sudden one precipitated by a recent extremely painful period.
“Dr. Griffin and I are devastated by this,” Canadian colleague Elizabeth Woodworth told the Citizen “We think it was as sudden crisis. He was still planning to work.” Fletcher had written to her twice on the 27th discussing the posting of an upcoming online review.
Stahl said he had spoken with Fletcher just a few days prior to the deaths and they had talked at length about the challenges the couple was facing.
“I saw him a few days before it happened and I thought he had decided against it,” Stahl said. “I thought they were going to get through this.”
Peabody and Fletcher met in graduate school at UC Berkeley and were married in 1980. They are both survived by siblings, but had no children. Peabody held a PhD in English Literature and Fletcher had a master’s degree in geography. Both pursued teaching careers until Peabody’s illness forced her to remain housebound and finally bedridden. Fletcher, eventually also gave up teaching and accepted work that would allow him to remain at home to care for her. They were extremely close and had made a pact that he would help her end her life if the pain became unbearable, Burks said.
Since 2005, Fletcher had worked closely with Dr. David Ray Griffin, currently a co-director of the Center for Process Studies and one of the foremost contemporary exponents of process theology. Fletcher worked as an editor on ten of the professor’s books and was his frequent representative on interview programs. The past few year he had been working as editor on Dr. Griffin’s forthcoming book, Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis, which is now in publication.
Fletcher was well known as a 9/11 truth activist. Since 2011, Fletcher had been a member of, and has contributed substantially to, the international 24-member 9/11 Consensus Panel, which offers 44 peer-reviewed Consensus Points opposing the official account of 9/11. The Panel derives its “best evidence” from a rigorous medicine-based review methodology, said colleague Elizabeth Woodworth.
Fletcher was born Thomas Christopher Fletcher in Alameda County February 27, 1952 but was known professionally as Tod Fletcher. He was an outstanding student who received both his bachelors and masters degrees in geography from UC Berkeley and had completed all but the dissertation for his PhD in the same subject. He was the author of Paiute, prospector, pioneer: The Bodie-Mono Lake area in the nineteenth century.
He wrote prolifically on a variety of subjects ranging including global ecology under his own name and several pseudonyms. Much of his work is posted on the www.wanttoknow.info and www.dailybattle.pair.com web pages.
But it was process philosophy that served as the basis for all his interests, Stahl said. “I would like to have him remembered for his work in process philosophy,” Stahl said.

A tribute to Tod Fletcher from a Davi RaY Griffen can be found at



Ranchers letter to Seashore Wednesday July 23, 2014

Below is a letter Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association members hand delivered on Wednesday to National Seashore Superintendent Cicely Muldoon regarding buildings at the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm


Dear Superintendent Muldoon,

The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association is writing to inquire about the plans of the National Park Service for the buildings located at the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm. We are concerned that the Park Service may intend to demolish the retail sales building after July 31, 2014, and the worker residences at some later date. These buildings can provide significant benefit to the association members. They should not be demolished before their future use can be considered as part of the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan Environmental Assessment process. While that process is pending, the buildings should be used on an interim basis to benefit the ranchers and the public.

After the oyster farm leaves, the retail sales building should be used to provide retail and educational opportunities for the ranchers, and to provide clean bathrooms and running water for the kayakers and other public visitors who visit Drakes Estero and use the running water to clean off themselves and their boats. After the oyster farm workers leave, the worker residences should be used as residences for workers at the Seashore ranches.

The concerns about the oyster farm, which were centered on wilderness policy, are not applicable to these buildings, which are not in wilderness or potential wilderness areas. Even the section of Schooner Bay adjacent to the buildings is not wilderness or potential wilderness. Grazing occurs on and around the building site.

As the association explained in its scoping letter for the Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan Environmental Assessment, there is a need to establish new on-farm retail opportunities, including the preparation and sale of local food items. (PRSRA scoping letter, sections 3a,viii). There is also a need for a location at which the public can learn about the history of the ranches. Ample septic system capacity and abundant water delivered by a certified public water system currently exist for the five housing units and the retail building. Adequate parking, public restrooms, walk in refrigeration and health department approval also exist for small scale food processing, storage and sales. It would require extensive permitting and construction to replicate these ranch assets elsewhere in the seashore. Here, only upgrades would be required.

The Seashore also allows other commercial uses at this site, including guided kayak trips. Presumably, the park will continue to allow this use. Currently, the kayakers and other visiting public regularly use the fully equipped public restrooms in the retail building. It seems appropriate to allow both compatible permitted commercial uses to continue on site.

The five housing units can be used for housing workers at the Seashore ranches. As the assocation explained in its scoping letter, there is a need for housing for these workers. (PRSRA scoping letter, section 3a, x). Building new housing for the ranch workers would be difficult, time- consuming, and expensive. Once the current residents have left, the units should be used for ranch workers.

The Seashore has publicly stated its commitment to the continuation of the ranches within the seashore. The assocation has made it clear to the National Park that these uses are vital to the long term viability of the ranches. Allowing these buildings to remain to continue to provide benefit to the ranches as they have in the past, to allow a transition from oyster worker housing to ranch worker housing, to transition from oyster processing to local value added farm product processing and to re-focus the interpretive services at the site to focus on history and sustainability of the working ranches located in working landscapes of Point Reyes National Seashore would help demonstrate the park’s commitment to the viability of the ranches.

Sincerely, Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association

Cc: US Senator Dianne Feinstein, US Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressman Jared Huffman, Assembly Member Marc Levine, Supervisor Steve Kinsey


Point Reyes National Seashore and the tule elk: an historical background

As Point Reyes National Seashore begins a new process focused on comprehensive ranch planning, it is important for people to understand the basic background of why there are ranches within the Seashore, as well as how and where the elk were reintroduced. This article is based on the presentation I gave at the West Marin Chamber of Commerce’s elk forum last week, and the research comes from a book I am currently finishing about working landscapes at Point Reyes.


The Role of Agriculture at PRNS

Point Reyes was first studied by the National Park Service (NPS) as a potential park location in the 1930s; in 1959 it was formally proposed as a National Seashore, and was established in 1962. At that time, the peninsula supported fifteen active dairies and ten beef ranches, all privately owned and operated, and mostly by families with multi-generational connections to the landscape.


PRNS was originally intended to provide beach and recreation access close to an urban population, part of the NPS’s “Parks for the People” campaign of the early 1960s. Yet it was established with a 26,000-acre pastoral zone, stretching from A Ranch up to Pierce and back down to Home Ranch, intended to remain in private ownership; parcels larger than 500 acres could not be acquired by the NPS except with consent of the owners, as long as the land stayed in a natural state or agricultural use. At one of the hearings, Senator Bible stated that the legislation fostered “long-established ranching and dairying activities which. . . will not interfere with the public enjoyment” of Point Reyes; Senator Kuchel added that the pastoral zone would be “an equitable solution for preserving the local economy.”


For a variety of reasons, the pastoral zone ended up being acquired by the NPS after additional legislation passed in 1970; at the time, a compromise was reached where the ranchers agreed to support this change, as long as they could continue to operate within the Seashore. Most of the ranches were acquired by the NPS in 1972-73, most with 20-year Reservations of Use and Occupancy (RUOs) in exchange for discounted purchase prices. In 1978, Congress added language allowing agriculture to continue indefinitely; RUOs on agricultural properties could be converted to leases or special use permits, giving the historic ranching families “first right of refusal” for those leases. Most ranching reservations made this transition in the early 1990s.


During discussion of the 1970 legislation, Congress clearly directed continuing ranching as a permanent part of the Seashore, which it reaffirmed with its 1978 legislation. This was echoed in the 1980 General Management Plan for the park; “Although the establishment of the seashore and influences within the dairy industry have resulted in a reduction of agricultural activity at Point Reyes, Congress clearly intended that the ranches continue to operate.” However, the number of working ranches within the boundaries has dwindled significantly since the Seashore was established. Today there are only six dairies still in operation on the peninsula, and five beef cattle ranches.


Establishment of the Tomales Point Tule Elk Herd


Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) are a subspecies endemic to California, particularly the Central Valley, which had been reduced by market hunting nearly to extinction in the late 1800s, when a lone population of roughly ten individuals was discovered on a private cattle ranch near Bakersfield in the 1890s. This small population remnant was protected by the ranch owner, and increased to roughly 400 elk by 1914; later, some of the elk were relocated to other areas around the state.


By 1971, concern for this subspecies prompted the California Legislature to enact Senate Bill 722, sponsored by Peter Behr, to encourage expansion of the statewide population of tule elk to 2000, building from a population at that time of about 600 animals. According to PRNS’s Administrative History, “when discussions regarding the possibility of elk reintroduction to Point Reyes began, the biggest concern among both locals and park staff was the potential for disrupting peninsula dairy and grazing operations. State Fish and Game officials wanted the reintroduced elk to remain inside an enclosure, because of problems that free-ranging elk had created in the agricultural sector of the Central Valley.”


In 1976, Congress designated over 25,000 acres of PRNS as wilderness, and included Tomales Point, which was considered a prime location for establishing a transplanted tule elk herd. Long-time rancher Mervyn McDonald was forced to give up his lease at Pierce Point Ranch to make way for the new arrivals.


In 1978, the first herd of ten elk arrived at PRNS, and were eventually released onto Tomales Point behind a 10-foot-high elk fence to prevent elk and cattle from intermixing—both to prevent possible disease transmission, and to avoid management conflicts. Several elk died in their second year, but gradually the herd stabilized and started to grow. A population study conducted by graduate student Pete Gogan at UC Berkeley estimated the carrying capacity for Tomales Point was 140 individuals, and that “once the elk reached that level, the population would naturally stabilize.”


Yet after the drought of the late 1970s ended, the population began to soar at an exponential rate: by 1988, 93 individuals were recorded by the NPS; by 1994, the elk census showed 254 individuals, and in 1996, the population stood at 380.


In May 1997, PRNS staff gave a presentation at a Citizens Advisory Commission meeting, regarding the over-large size of the elk herd on Tomales Point; the Point Reyes Light reported, “About 100 calves were born last year,’ researcher Judd Howell told commissioners at a meeting in the Dance Palace. ‘That was a wake-up call. Suddenly we had a 33 percent increase in population.’” Superintendent Neubacher was quoted as saying, “I see no easy solutions to the management of the elk. . . But it’s important to create a long-term plan.”


The 1998 Elk Management Plan and Relocation of Elk to Limantour


This resulted in the 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. At this time, the Tomales Point herd size was approximately 550 individuals, and the statewide population of tule elk was 3,200 and growing. One of five objectives listed in the plan was to establish a free-ranging elk herd at Point Reyes by 2005.


Implementation did not take that long; in December 1998, a number of elk were relocated via helicopter from Tomales Point to a 25-acre fenced range just north of Coast Camp, to be quarantined and monitored for several months to ensure they were not carrying Johne’s disease. According to the Light, some residents expressed concern that the relocated elk would spread to private property on the east side of Inverness Ridge, and “several ranchers in the National Seashore said that they’d like park staff to fence in areas so that cattle would not mix with the elk.” In June 1999, Seashore staff released twenty-seven elk from their quarantine holding pen into the wilderness area near Limantour Estero. Each released adult animal wore a uniquely identifiable radio transmitter collar designed to allow tracking of locations and early detection of mortality.


The 1998 Elk Management Plan clearly states, “The Park Service has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to adjacent and nearby landowners. Anticipating the effects of tule elk management strategies on the property or perceptions of neighbors is an important consideration. Any depredations by elk on fences, crops, or other property would require mitigation actions to correct or avoid problems.” The Plan specifies that it “makes no effort” to hasten the closure of ranches within the Seashore, and while it considered an alternative (B) that would have allowed elk to free-range throughout the Seashore, that alternative was explicitly rejected.


Under the preferred Alternative A, the Limantour area was chosen for relocation due to its “large acreage in natural zoned with buffers from major highways, ranches, and lands outside the Seashore,” and clearly articulated that, “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.” It goes on to specify, “Damage to property could occur if elk move outside the Seashore onto private lands and consume crops or damage fences or other property. The Seashore will be ready to recapture or destroy problem animals should these situations arise, or establish partnerships with state and county agencies with the necessary skills and personnel to assist with the recapture. The Seashore should be prepared to provide funding for compensating property damage if necessary. It may be possible for the Seashore to modify parts of the habitat to help prevent such occurrences, or construct barriers to dispersal.”


The elk range identified in the 1998 Plan is restricted to the wilderness area around and south of Limantour, not extending into the Pastoral Zone. Any possible impacts of relocating elk that have wandered out of the elk range back to the wilderness area have already been analyzed (in the context of “neighboring” private property), and the resulting document was a Finding of No Significant Impact. Hence there should be no need for additional NEPA review for returning the elk to their originally intended range in the wilderness area near Limantour, as such actions have already been determined to cause no significant impacts.



A New Herd Established Near Drakes Beach


Yet by summer 2000, at least two elk had turned up across Drakes Estero on the former Horick (D) Ranch, which had just been decommissioned/lease terminated the previous year. They eventually grew into an established herd, which currently is affecting ranches in that area of the Seashore, as the elk cross into leased pastures, not only eating the cattle’s forage (which needed to be replaced with expensive hay), but also damaging fences and irrigation systems. Holes in the fencing left by the elk allow dairy cows to stray from their proper pastures, and potentially to be bred at the wrong time or by the wrong bull. Similarly, tule elk from the Limantour herd are regularly seen on ranches north of that area, causing similar problems.


The PRNS Annual Report for 2001 stated, “Since their release, the new herd [at Limantour] has been carefully monitored to ensure animals remain within Seashore boundaries, do not interfere with cattle ranches within the park and are not shedding the organism that causes Johne’s disease.” Yet the tule elk have been interfering with ranches for years now, with little response. Furthermore, like the original population at Tomales Point, the free-ranging herds at both Limantour and the Horick Ranch have continued to increase; by early 2014, the herd sizes were 71 and 76, respectively, and a 2010 study of their population dynamics estimates that, without intervention, both herds will likely increase to approximately 400 individuals by 2018.


The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association has requested that PRNS take action as soon as possible to relocate the tule elk away from the pastoral zone, or several ranches could be in danger of going out of business entirely from the impacts.

Published May 8, 2014


Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor and Chair of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at PRNS, titled “The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore,” to be published by the UC Press.


Elk putting National Seashore ranches at risk-Part 2

As reported in the Citizen last week, the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association (PRSRA) has stepped up pressure on park officials to take immediate action to remedy overgrazing and other elk problems they claim threatens the very survival of the ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). This week, PRNS officials respond to that article, plus answer additional questions on the issue.

As background, tule elk, native to California, had all but disappeared from the Point Reyes area by 1860. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), in cooperation with US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service (NPS), reintroduced tule elk to the 2,600 acre Tomales Point Wilderness in 1978. They are kept from roaming into the ranch areas, restricted by the Pacific Ocean to the north and west, Tomales Bay to the east, and a three-mile-long, ten-foot-high wildlife fence to the south.

In 1998, NPS officials moved 45 elk from that original herd to the Limantour Estero Wilderness area to “establish a free-roaming herd”. No fences were built to contain this new herd, although a formal Elk Management Plan was developed.

In 1999, two elk from this herd “showed up behind the barns on the C Ranch”, across Drakes Estero some six to eight miles away, “with tracking collars on their neck” according to C Ranch manager Ernie Spaletta. The NPS says they did not relocate this herd, rather they migrated out of the unfenced, free-roaming wilderness area on their own.

It is this third herd that is causing consternation among the ranchers in the Drakes Beach area of PRNS. Now 74 animals strong, according to the last official NPS count, they are now roaming around the B, C, and E ranch pastures in the Pastoral Zone with the cows.

Asking for help

Ranchers, in their September 23, 2013 letter to NPS Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, assert “The Drakes Beach herd is affecting ranchers in this area on a daily basis by damaging fences and other infrastructure allowing cattle to get into the wrong pastures, impacting forage and water resources, causing physical harm to livestock, and putting the ranchers’ organic certifications and overall livelihoods at serious risk. Despite the Seashore’s promises of commitment continually made to the PRNS ranching community that their sustainability is ensured, the current problems created by the elk guarantee an end to agriculture in the park.”

In that letter, the PRSRA quotes a March 2012 letter from Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey: “Their concern, and mine is the considerable damage and economic impact that grazing elk are having on their operations. Additionally the elk population is growing by 12% each year and migrating further onto agricultural leased property.”

David Press, NPS Wildlife Biologist for PRNS, and NPS Outreach Coordinator Melanie Gunn discussed rancher concerns, the 1998 Elk Management Plan, and other tule elk herd management issues during a recent Citizen interview at Park Headquarters.

Press stressed the 1998 Elk Management Plan specifically addressed the “reintroduction of a free-range herd in Limantour, but it did not anticipate the elk wandering into the Pastoral Zone, and the plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It only addresses what the park should do if elk migrate outside the park.”

New plan needed

Press said while ranchers have asked the NPS to move the elk back to the wilderness area, the PRNS Elk Management Plan does not allow for that, according to Department of Interior (DOI) attorneys. “So we need to develop a new Elk Management Plan to address the movement of elk from wilderness to pastoral ranching areas inside the park itself,” he said.

“PRNS wants to strengthen relationships with the ranchers,” Press continued. “We are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife. We are committed to preserving ag and finding the right balance with wildlife management.”

Gunn added emphasis to Press’ comments saying “NPS officials truly want to work closely with the ranchers to solve the problem, and continue to build on the historical NPS support of ranching in the park.” She said they are guided by a letter written by former DOI Secretary Ken Salazar in May 2012 to Senator Diane Feinstein, in response to the Senator’s request on behalf of the PRSRA that he review the NPS efforts to address the elk situation to “protect the rights and property of ranching leases.”

Gunn said the NPS continues today to follow Salazar’s lead in the agency’s commitment to the ranching community as stated in his response to Feinstein: “The NPS actively supports historic dairy and beef operations at Point Reyes and has made significant investments in ranching infrastructure. PRNS recognizes that beef and dairy ranches operate in a challenging economic environment and we take the concerns raised by the park ranchers seriously. The 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan and Environmental Assessment for Point Reyes did not contemplate, analyze, or assess the establishment of a tule elk herd in the pastoral ranching zone of the Park,” his letter continued.

Two interpretations

The PRSRA has stated that 1) the ranchers simply want the NPS to follow the existing 1998 NPS Elk Management Plan that provides for relocating elk that cause damage to private property; and 2) the association disagrees with the NPS contention that the 1998 management plan does not apply to this herd of elk and that NPS hands are tied until a new Environmental Assessment (EA) which would contain a new Elk Management Plan must be completed before anything can be done.

Press, however, said the NPS interprets the plan differently. “The 1998 EA allowed for reintroduction of tule elk into a new area as a free range herd (the Limantour Wilderness herd noted above). It did not anticipate that the tule elk would wander or migrate into the Pastoral Zone, and so the 1998 plan does not address what the park should do in that situation. It talks quite specifically, I think, about what the NPS must do if the tule elk leave the park and enter private property—not if they end up in areas of the park where they were not expected to roam.”

Ranchers point to several statements within the 1998 EA they believe gives the NPS authority to act, including “Under alternative A the Seashore will maintain the elk fence on Tomales Point and continue to separate elk from cattle.” They also point to the section of the EA titled “Relocation of Elk to Limantour” which states “Tule elk will be allowed to roam outside the area as long as new home ranges are not established where conflicts with traffic corridors or neighbors are likely.”

“We too are concerned about elk impacts on ranching operations,” Press emphasized. “The statement that the park has not been doing anything to help the ranchers is just not accurate. We are preparing for the planning process, by meeting with ranchers and we have more field biologists spending time in the Pastoral Zone monitoring elk. The ranchers are saying we want you to move the elk back to the wilderness area, and it is their opinion that the 1998 Elk Management Plan allows for that.” However, Press pointed out “We contend that we cannot, because of our solicitors and DOI lawyers guidance that says ‘no the 1998 Elk Management Plan does not give you that authority.”

A new plan

Gunn interjected, “In fact, it would be going against NEPA law if we did that. As much as we would like to help solve the problem now, we don’t have the authority.” (As required by federal law and NPS management policies, management plans must be developed through a public process that conforms to the National Environmental Quality Act (NEPA). The NEPA process consists of an evaluation of the environmental effects of a federal undertaking including its alternatives.)

She said she was “Happy to announce today that we have finally secured the funding to do a new comprehensive dairy and ranching management plan which is also needed because of Secretary Salazar’s decision last November to extend the ranches’ special use permits to 20 years. The tule elk will be addressed in the new plan that covers the new lease terms.” (Special use permits are often referred to as “leases” that govern the ranching operations. In this instance, the NPS is the landlord and the ranchers are the tenant operators. Originally written for five years, and then extended to 10 years, the permits were issued to the original owners of ranches whose land was condemned by the government and then leased back to the original owners when PRNS was designated national park.)

Gunn and Press were then asked “How do you respond to people who say the elk should not have been reintroduced into the pastoral zone from the wilderness because doing so is a violation of California Coastal Act because the elk are displacing ag land and that is violation of the California Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) that says “federal agencies shall comply with the CZMA o the extent possible under federal law and that enforceable policies of the CZMA provide that lands suitable for agriculture shall not be converted to nonagricultural use unless continued or renewed agricultural use is not feasible?”

“The NPS is staying in ag, we support ag in the PRNS,” Gunn responded. “We are grateful we now have funding to begin the new 20-year planning process we’ve been talking about, that is going to get underway after the first of the year, that will focus on the future of ag in the park. And, actually some ranchers are not sure they want 20 year leases, so it could be for a period of up to 20 years.”

Not ‘if’ but ‘how’

She pointed out “There has been some talk about Drakes Bay Oyster Company leaving the park as the first sign that ranches will be pushed out of the park, and that is absolutely not true.” She continued, “The Secretary has confirmed that with his announcement of 20-year leases. This planning process is not about whether the ranches will stay in PRNS, but how they will stay. PRNS is a model for the country when it comes to ranches inside parks. This is a real opportunity to change the tone in the community about ranches and the park. We are looking forward to how we can strengthen relationships with ranchers in the park.”

Press added, “As another example of the fact we are not phasing out ag for tule elk or other wildlife in the park, I want to point out that when D Ranch closed during 2001, and reverted to park management, the main pastures remained in ag; they were divided up between the C Ranch and the E Ranch. We are committed to preserving ag in the park.”

The D Ranch reverted to NPS when Horick family heirs decided to exit the ranching business after their mother Vivian died. Most of the pasture area of the ranch was added to adjacent ranch leases: pasture acres were added to the adjacent Historic C Ranch lease, managed by Ernie and Nichola Spaletta, and to the Historic E Ranch managed by Tim Nunes. Press noted that the D Ranch farmstead buildings (house, barns, sheds), livestock watering ponds, and the land that runs down to Drakes Beach reverted to PRNS management, and is no longer permitted for grazing.”

Press and Gunn were also asked to respond to another prickly question: “What do you say to the ranchers who remind me that when they went back to Washington, D.C., they ‘agreed to lay down their swords and stop fighting condemnation of their land for the establishment of the new PRNS if the government would allow them to run the ranches as they always had done’—and there were NO elk involved when they made that agreement, and no EIS was done in advance of reintroducing elk onto their ranches?”

“It’s true, no EIS was done,” Press said, continuing “There is no current document around elk, and that’s an issue for us out there, too. Again, no one anticipated the elk would migrate out into the ranches.”

Elk movement tracked

One of the biggest challenges associated with managing elk, of course, is their impact on available forage for both wildlife and livestock, Gunn noted. A full time NPS range management specialist is assigned to work with the Seashore ranchers “as it is complicated to run a ranch on NPS property given NEPA rules.”

Press has employed the use of sophisticated GPS tracking devices to monitor where the elk are roaming. Two cows and two bulls were outfitted with tracking collars in the Drakes Bay area in October 2012 with three-hour data points. The computerized system generates an email to Press every three days, from which he can create a map of where the elk have been. That data, along with visual observations by biologists who are in that area two or three times per week, will be included in the preparation of the elk management plan component of the new 20-year management plan for the Pastoral Zone. Gunn said “We are generating valuable research data. Thus far, we have 650 surveys of elk movement completed since the fall of 2009.”

Getting back to the specific requests of the ranchers who have reported damages that are affecting their economic well being, Press noted two key complaints: damages to fences and forage consumption by elk. (The operating leases require ranchers to pay for the cost of fencing, building maintenance such as new roofs, ranch roadway maintenance, and general upkeep of the entire infrastructure on the properties.)

“We are exploring opportunities to provide additional pastures to affected ranchers, from areas now controlled by the park that are not part of the ranch leases, forage areas that are adjacent to affected ranches.” Gunn noted.

‘Elk crossing’

Press said they are working on fence damage concerns. NPS has installed “elk crossings” that allow elk to move across fence lines without tearing up the fences, as shown in the attached photo provided by the NPS. Press noted that they want to help with fence repair, and “some ranchers request we don’t repair their fences, and some do.”

Press also noted that in an attempt to alleviate pressure on ranch forage and water resources—especially in this recent drought year when many livestock watering ponds dried up—and to keep elk bunched up away from ranch pastures, PRNS has started an elk watering project at the D Ranch.

Two, 5,000 gallon water tanks have been set up outside the old barn on D Ranch and tapped into the Drakes Beach Visitor Center water system. Water is pumped up to the holding tanks so it can be “de-chlorinated” before it is piped out to two old livestock watering ponds and one spring area below the barns, keeping them full. “This project is designed to encourage the elk to stay on the NPS property at the D Ranch, instead of roaming onto leased pastures,” Press said.

According to Press, 60 cow elk are congregating around the D Ranch watering areas, and GPS monitoring shows a significant reduction in the use of neighboring ranch pastures, even though no supplemental feeding is provided.

Population control options are controversial to say the least, but the ramifications of doing nothing can have far reaching impacts on wildlife habitat as well as agricultural operations. According to CDFW reports, at the Tupman Tule Elk Reserve, where no cattle compete with the elk for forage, the elk were confined to a 953-acre enclosure, and no mechanisms for population control were used. As a result, the herd expanded to a point where the habitat was essentially destroyed and artificial feeding was necessary.

Hunting option

The hunting option to control population numbers has been controversial at all national parks. While most NPS policies do not allow hunting of native wildlife in official “national parks”, The Wildlife Society’s 2012 technical report titled “Ungulate Management in the National Parks of the US and Canada” notes the enabling legislation for the NPS authorizes hunting in some types of park units, such as national seashores and national preserves.

Press noted “hunting will not likely be an option for PRNS given the history of West Marin community advocates who are against all hunting. Controlled reduction of herd size will be addressed in our new management plan. We don’t have answers to that now, that is another reason why we need a new Elk Management Plan,” he concluded.

Currently there are 21 herds of tule elk in California, with numbers estimated at about 3,800 animals. PRNS is home to 708 animals or 19 percent of the state’s tule elk population, according to CDFW.

Interestingly, herd management plans for all of the other tule elk relocation areas in California include hunting. But they are managed by CDFW, with decidedly different policy mandates than the NPS. Last year, 12,537 applications were received for 125 hunting permits. The highest demand for permits was for hunting at Grizzly Island, where over 2500 hunters applied for two permits.

Ranchers are not pushing for a park hunt. They want all the elk in the Pastoral Zone to be relocated to either the existing fenced Tomales Point Wilderness herd, or they suggest the NPS could build a new fenced area that would prohibit movement onto Pastoral Zone pastures.

And, they want action now. As one rancher noted, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting another two years for another management plan—a plan we don’t think we need because NPS already has an elk management plan. The feed costs we are incurring now because elk eat the pasture our cows used to eat are going to run us out of business. We don’t have the option of cutting herd size to accommodate elk, we must maintain an economically viable cow herd size. The elk herd has been growing at 12 percent per year since we first asked the NPS to get the elk out in 2000. You figure those 70 or so elk out there right now are eating about what 70 cows would eat. We are in the Pastoral Zone, and no elk should be in that zone according to our original deal with the Government.”

by Ann Miller. Published December 2013