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11
Apr

Recap of California Coastal Commission Decision on Point Reyes Water and Climate Plan

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On Thursday, the California Coast Commission (CCC) unanimously rejected the National Park Service’s (NPS) “First-Year Water Quality Strategy and Climate Action Plan,” for Point Reyes National Seashore. One year ago, the Commission, by one vote, approved a controversial General Management Plan Amendment (GMPA) for the Point Reyes National Seashore on the condition that NPS come up with a “strategy” to fix the water pollution and greenhouse gases spewing from private cattle operations in the national park. It gave the Park Service one year to do so. To the surprise of exactly no one, the NPS failed to follow through.

Per NPS reports, beef and dairy ranches account for roughly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in the park, and nearly 5 percent of emissions for the entire County of Marin. The sixty thousand tons of manure that cattle at the Seashore produce annually across one-third of national parklands managed by Point Reyes National Seashore earned Point Reyes dubious distinction of being in the top 10 percent of U.S. locations most contaminated by feces. A 2017 study by the Center for Biological Diversity found the highest E. Coli levels in California at a cattle ranch in Point Reyes National Seashore.

For decades, the NPS has turned a blind eye to the impacts of the 24 cattle operations that lease 28,000 acres of national parkland on the California Coast. In 2013, the NPS published a report documenting excessive levels of bacteria from cattle waste in Seashore creeks. As a result, it simply stopped testing the water. Ranchers who lease land in the park do their own water testing. The results aren’t made public. The NPS signs off, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) issues waivers from the Clean Water Act when ranches fail to meet water quality standards. Neither federal agencies nor state agencies regularly test the water at the park, where more than 5,000 cows and millions of annual visitors converge.

Environmentalists blew the whistle last year. They hired an independent lab to test creeks downstream of the dairies and found pathogens at levels dangerous to public health. The NPS shrugged off the findings despite public outcry and the CCC’s admonition that it come up with a fix-it plan within one year. The NPS has yet to address the problem.

The NPS submitted a half-cooked water quality strategy and climate action plan to the CCC only a few weeks before its April meeting, leaving Commission staff no time for analysis. At the Commission’s first in-person hearing in two years due to COVID, Seashore Superintendent Craig Kenkel phoned in his presentation, offering the bureaucratic equivalent of “the cows ate my homework.” He downplayed concerns, noting that the park saw all-time record visitation in 2021—some 2.7 million visitors. “If conditions are so tragic at the Seashore,” he protested, “why are the visitors still coming?”

The Commission is acutely aware that cattle impacts at Point Reyes Seashore continue to threaten the climate, coast, and public health. Resource Renewal Institute and Turtle Island Restoration representatives attended the hearing, in Ventura, to testify to the NPS’s ongoing failure to do its job.

RRI cited that park visitors—not NPS staff—discovered egregious and long-standing lease violations by ranchers, including a massive hazardous dumpsite (E Ranch); cattle wading in and fouling Drakes Estero—a federal marine wilderness area; a rancher bulldozing a creek known to harbor endangered species (Home Ranch); pumping human sewage into a manure pond for cattle waste that is spread on parklands (L ranch); and untreated human waste pooling under worker housing (B Ranch, supplier to Straus Creamery), endangering farmworkers who live in dilapidated housing at the ranches.

These same ranchers are seeking 20-year lease extensions at the Seashore under the GMPA. These same ranchers paying below-market grazing fees with rents subsidized by taxpayer funds.

Dozens of individuals and organizations testified to the Commission remotely, including the National Wildlife Federation, National Parks Conservation Association, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, and Marin Audubon. In addition to RRI’s CCC comment letter on public health and CCC comment letter on the deficiencies of the NPS plan, RRI and the National Parks Conservation Association submitted a letter signed by over 120 environmental and justice organizations and local businesses, representing millions of members and supporters across the country, asking the CCC to consider reconsider their conditional concurrence of the NPS plan. The CCC also received nearly 15,000 public comments asking the Commissioners to hold the NPS accountable.

Dubious that the NPS has either the ability or the intention to meet its agreements, Commissioners rejected the NPS’s water quality and climate plans by a vote of 9 to 0. Commissioners clearly were frustrated and wanted to do more, but have few options to remain involved. They directed the CCC staff to work with the NPS and the RWQCB to come up with a plan that includes goals, timelines, and benchmarks—as well as consequences for noncompliance.

The Commission will take up the matter again in September, so stay tuned as we prepare for the hearing this fall.

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Meanwhile, here’s how you can help:

  • Contact Congressional Representatives. E-mail, call or send a letter to Marin County’s Congressional Representative, Jared Huffman, and the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Raul Grijalva demanding the protection of our lands, water, and wildlife at Point Reyes National Seashore. Congressmember Huffman can be reached at https://www.jaredhuffman.com/contact. Congressmember Grijalva can be reached at https://house.gov/contact-raul/
  • Contact the Marin County Supervisors. Demand County health inspections of ranch worker housing in the Seashore and the ranches’ failing septic systems. Marin County’s supervisors may be reached here: https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/contact-us
  • Report your observations to the NPS.  Cattle in creeks? confrontations with livestock or ranchers? Discovery of illegal dumpsites, unsanitary conditions, broken fences? Encountering locked gates? Finding sick or injured or sick wildlife?  Report your information to the National Park Service’s Outreach Coordinator, Melanie Gunn at melanie_gunn@nps.gov. Be sure to copy the California Coastal Commission, pointreyesmanagementplan@coastal.ca.gov, and the Resource Renewal Institute ccutrano@rri.org on your e-mails.
  • Write a Letter to the Editor. Submit your thoughts to the Marin Independent Journal. Learn how here.
  • Send comments to protect the Tule Elk behind the fence at Tomales Point. The NPS has announced it is updating the plan for the elk at the Tomales Point Tule Elk Reserve. Submit public comments here. The submission deadline is May 2.

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