Congress can’t give ranchers a pass when they abuse national park access

Congress can’t give ranchers a pass when they abuse national park access
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Point Reyes is about as far west as you can go in the lower 48 states. Here, where coastal prairies meet the sea, Congress established a National Seashore “to save and preserve, for the purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration.” That 1962 legislation began a two-decade process of acquiring, at fair-market value from willing sellers, all of the private agricultural lands within the National Seashore, a grand bargain in which the public gained scarce lands, the ranchers gained a cash windfall, and real estate speculation was quashed.

Today, the ranchers have long overstayed their leases and are orchestrating an anti-conservation bill (HR 6687) that would lock in their commercial leases on the National Seashore for 20 years, and lock out the native tule elk that are just beginning to re-establish their populations. The legislation has already slipped through the House under “suspension” procedures.

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Imagine the precedent that this sets: Only 13 ranch operators get their own legislation to retool a National Park Service unit’s management to prioritize their own private uses. What’s next? A bill to reverse 30 years of livestock closures on what is now Gold Butte National Monument, so Cliven Bundy’s trespassing cattle can graze there for free? A return of the Utah Public Lands Initiative provision that increased cattle numbers on all public lands where they had been reduced? A bill to re-open Yellowstone National Park to livestock grazing, on the basis of historic dairies that once operated there?

In 2016, conservationists (including Western Watersheds Project) filed suit against the National Park Service to ensure a full and fair public review process before the agency extended private livestock leases on the National Seashore. The conservationists asserted that the intention of the National Seashore’s establishing legislation was being violated by the livestock operations that were harming or destroying natural systems on Point Reyes, including polluting waterways, frustrating the recovery of rare tule elk, spreading noxious weeds, and spraying manure slurry on the hilltops. At the very least, those impacts should be disclosed and evaluated, the conservation groups argued.

In response to the litigation, the Park Service agreed to a long-overdue update of the General Management Plan for Point Reyes, with full public input, and which would consider a range of options for livestock leases, including maintaining, reducing, or eliminating cattle from the National Seashore. As part of the settlement, the ranchers agreed not to seek legislation that would undermine the planning process. This session, Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanFive things to know about Ocasio-Cortez’s 'Green New Deal' Lawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief House Dems split on how to tackle climate change MORE (D-Calif.) has teamed up with the well-known advocate for abolishing public lands, Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopZinke picks fight with key Dem at an odd time House GOP and Puerto Rico governor agree on statehood vote Overnight Energy: Outdoor retailer Patagonia makes first Senate endorsements | EPA withdraws Obama uranium milling rule | NASA chief sees 'no reason' to dismiss UN climate report MORE (R-Utah), to introduce a bill that does just that.

The original Point Reyes National Seashore Act, signed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, authorized the federal government to buy out private landowners within the boundary of the newly-created National Seashore, but contrary to the revisionist history advanced in Huffman’s bill, the original legislation expressed no intent regarding how long beef and dairy ranchers might be allowed to stay on after they sold their land to the Park Service.

Amendments and adjustments to the Point Reyes Act began eight years later, and of the congressional intent expressed during this process, none can be clearer than the intent that was codified into law in 1978, granting remaining ranchers “a right of use and occupancy for a definite term of not more than twenty-five years, or, in lieu thereof, for a term ending at the death of the owner or the death of his or her spouse.”

This remains the law of the land to this day, and these leases have now expired.

The Huffman-Bishop legislation is a direct attack on the National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s most fundamental environmental law. NEPA requires federal agencies to look before they leap, to examine a variety of alternatives, and to request — and respond to — public input, every time a plan or project is under development on public lands.

On Point Reyes, the NEPA process for the new General Management Plan is already underway, and the public has already begun to offer their input. But Huffman’s legislation would pre-empt that public process and dictate the outcome of the plan to “issue leases and special use permits of 20 years for working dairies and ranches on agricultural property.” All for the benefit of special interest.

The ranches and dairy operations, which include several Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are clearly incompatible with recovering the National Seashore to a natural state. Cattle pastures are so overgrazed that the native bunchgrasses have disappeared, to be replaced with annual weeds of European origin, and further invasive weeds are actively planted and cultivated as “silage crops” to feed to the cattle.

Fecal coliform contamination from livestock in Kehoe Creek, which drains into one of the National Seashore’s most popular public beaches, has reached levels far above safety standards for human contact. And perhaps most importantly, herds of the extremely rare tule elk are trapped behind barriers or frustrated in their natural movements by barbed-wire fences. 

When livestock operations cause extreme conflicts with native wildlife, conservationists often suggest a win-win solution in which livestock leases are bought out for fair-market value, and wildlife is given the opportunity to thrive. On Point Reyes, that win-win bargain was completed 30 years ago. The ranchers just haven’t kept up their end of the bargain, with the help of friends in Congress.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.