Past, Present, and Future

History Unfolding

The Point Reyes National Seashore squeaked into existence as a national park in 1962.  At the time President John F. Kennedy wanted to establish a national park on Cape Cod, where his family had a compound in Hyannis Port. His savvy advisers told him that he had better do something out west to balance this or the pork barreling would be much too obvious.

California was not then the pro-environment, pro-open space state that it has since become. Developers were chomping at the bit to build scores of houses with ocean views and turn the coastal wilderness of West Marin into a land of lawns and golf courses, with the enthusiastic support of local governments. But Congressman Clem Miller had long cherished the idea of a seashore park where the public could freely roam and had the plan ready when this political opportunity appeared.

At the time much of the land in the area was in the hands of dairy ranchers and their backing of a park was essential to convince Washington that this was a popular idea among locals (as it only later came to be). Ironically it is the ranchers who now represent the greatest barrier to a park that is truly for the people, as national parks are intended to be.

After the park was authorized it took ten years for the federal government to appropriate the money necessary to purchase all the land within the park boundaries. It was decided to include the ranches in this purchase, with very generous buyout prices and lease agreements with RUOs  (Reservation of Use and Occupancy permits).The original RUOs were not to exceed a period of twenty-five years and were not to be extended beyond the death of the leaser or their spouse.  it is clear that it was the specific ranching families that were to be protected, not necessarily ranching itself.  

Two thirds of the ranches are now leased to people unrelated to the original ranchers. There are four or five times as many cattle on this land then when the park was established, the ranches now pay less in lease fees than the park service has in its budget to “manage the ranches,” and there are numerous documented accounts of egregious abuses of the land and water on the part of the ranchers.  Most critical for the local wildlife is that streams are being polluted and fencing has caused massive deaths among the native tule elk in times of drought.

In 2021 the Parks Service ignored the overwhelming number of public comments in favor of getting the ranches out of the park and went with a plan to increase the range of their livestock activities. Unless consistent public pressure is brought to bear the future of the park will be more ranching and less public enjoyment of the wild beauty of Point Reyes.

The comparison slider below vividly demonstrates the ecological transformation of Point Reyes from its pristine state before 1830 to the present day. Initially teeming with diverse native flora and fauna, the landscape has been drastically altered by the introduction of cows, donkeys, and boar. These non-native species have caused significant environmental degradation, including overgrazing and habitat disruption, highlighting the profound impact of human agricultural practices on this delicate ecosystem.