When a national park erodes environmental justice

When a national park erodes environmental justice
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In mid-September, the National Park Service finalized a General Management Plan Amendment (GMPA) for the Point Reyes National Seashore, changing a rule to allow livestock production to continue for 20 years in this national park in the San Francisco Bay area of California. This rule change, and the ranching it enables, poses an immediate threat to the local environment, the global climate and the people of San Francisco, especially its underserved communities. It also sets an alarming precedent for degrading national parks throughout the country.

Northern California is facing some of the most dangerous climate impacts in the United States. This region leads the nation in terms of drought, wildfires, smoke and ocean degradation. Our summers are gone, and each year is worse than the last. Livestock production in Point Reyes directly fuels these climate impacts by emitting thousands of tons of methane gas from cattle, which goes on to trap heat in the atmosphere. According to the recent IPCC report, one of the most important steps we can take as a global community to mitigate global warming is by addressing methane — and that can start by phasing out ranching in what should be a pristine wilderness area.

Livestock production creates other forms of pollution as well, degrading the health of the ocean and coast. Ranchers in Point Reyes liquefy their cows’ manure and spread it over the landscape to grow the plants that later get eaten by the cattle. After rainfall, this effluent washes into the ocean and into the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, threatening the marine mammals and endangered species living underwater in Point Reyes and the nearby marine sanctuary. This has negative impacts on native species like coho salmon. There is no other national park in the entire system that is degrading the land and water as significantly as Point Reyes is, contrary to the laws that require it to be protected.

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On top of the pollution, livestock production in Point Reyes impedes public access to the park — directly contradicting its established purpose. Ranching takes up one-third of the park’s acreage, and almost 400 miles of fencing keep visitors out.

Lack of public access is a critical issue for many reasons. From a purely economic perspective, tourism generates billions of dollars every year, and the economic benefits of national parks number in the trillions for the mental health gains alone. But the harmful environmental impact of ranching has the opposite effect on tourism and mental health. At a time when COVID-19 is threatening public health, time spent in parks can help improve physical health, by addressing the comorbidities that make the disease more severe, and by improving mental health, by exposing people to more biodiversity.

The burden of pollution, lack of public access, and loss of these mental and physical health benefits do not fall equally on everyone — it is actively detrimental to equity and racial justice. For one, fencing, cows, ruts and guard dogs make the area hostile to visitors and especially unwelcoming to communities of color. Also, it reduces access for disabled visitors with mobility or vision impairments — imagine your main experience of Point Reyes is the smell of cattle operations. Lastly, thousands of children from underserved communities are brought to the park each year on scholarships. Many of them have never seen a beach and are rarely able to play in some of the dangerous neighborhoods where they live. But instead of a first-class national park experience, we are bringing these children to a cesspool of commercial ranching. 

This is at a time when communities of color are suffering the most from COVID-19 and climate impacts and need accessible green space all the more. The idea that we have taken a national park and degraded it to make it a worse place for communities is shocking. Where is environmental justice in this reality?

Instead of approving a new rule that would entrench and expand livestock production in a national park, the National Park Service should phase out the ranches, as was originally planned when the park was founded. The land must be restored, the invasive species removed and the cattle lots turned into vibrant coastal ecosystems. 

We can make this park a much healthier area for the public, especially for those who don’t have access to other parks in the national park system. By removing sources of methane and fecal pollution and restoring the original landscape and vision for the park, we can make Point Reyes a key component of California’s climate action and vision for 30x30 — and a model for restoring environmental justice. 

Shanna Edberg is the director of conservation programs for Hispanic Access Foundation