When I moved to California and first saw cows grazing along on cliffs overlooking the Pacific ocean I have to admit I thought it was pretty cool. Where I grew was cow country, but it was a desolate, flat, treeless landscape filled with seemingly endless feedlots...there was literally nothing but dirt, cows, and their manure stretching entire expanses between each of the little farm towns. So, yeah, on my first drive down to Monterey the contrast of cows in a setting of green trees and the blue ocean left quite an impression.
It took the next 25 years before it occurred to me that cows and the coast wasn’t a rare or special sight; it was a common sight. Too common. In fact, now that I’m aware of the issue, I realize the grazing of cattle dominates my field of view both when I’m traveling on the coast and when I’m further inland, but for whatever reason I just didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until the Point Reyes National Seashore park service announced their plan of killing wildlife for the sake of ranching that I began to wake up.
Throughout the course of learning about Point Reyes this last year I heard over and over and over from the ranching community how “important and special” these ranches in the seashore were, which caused me to realize, “Wait a minute, I just drove through 2 straight hours of being surrounded by ranches on both sides of the road, and come to think of it, I was driving through grazed land on the main highways before turning onto these smaller roads as well!” And if not livestock then I was witnessing some other form of agriculture which then is only broken up when there’s a city or a park or the ocean itself. In the case of Point Reyes even the national seashore isn’t safe from cattle ranching.
Back in southwest Kansas where the terrain is suitable only to rattlesnakes and coyotes, the presence of land converted to feedlots was all I ever knew. In California we have forests, a wide variety of plant and animal biodiversity, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Although I now understand that the harsh habitat of where I grew up was still important to the animals that lived there, seeing California’s dynamic, beautiful habitat reduced to livestock grazing seemed especially egregious.
As an animal advocate and someone who highly values nature’s gifts I will never forget the day within the national seashore that I pulled over to verify what I feared I was seeing. I had just completed an incredible, fog-shrouded, mysterious hike to the end of Chimney Rock. All I could hear was the ocean, a few birds, and the occasional bellowing of elephant seals somewhere in the invisible distance. I was so thankful such a place existed. But as I was heading home I noticed the little, white isolation pens for the baby dairy cows that are removed from their mothers. Sometimes I wish I’d never gotten out to look, but I did, and the experience was crushing and life altering. What I witnessed didn’t belong anywhere in a compassionate universe, but it certainly had no place within a national seashore renowned for its beauty, scenery, and wildlife. It was like taking a black marker and scribbling all over the Mona Lisa.
Yet, not only was this nightmare prevalent inside the seashore, the wildlife of the seashore were going to be killed for the sake of of the private profits of that very same industry. That notion defied the realms of possibility for me, so I was then motivated to understand what was happening. I never wanted to make a film about Point Reyes, but once I started asking questions, sadly, I discovered a very deep well of horrific realities most of the public is completely unaware of.
The “cultural importance” of what I consider a disgusting cultural practice is one of the main arguments for keeping ranching in the seashore. Celebrating an industry like that rather than removing it is disturbing enough to me, but this can be swept into the category of personal opinion. Yet opinion-based arguments are really all that exist regarding keeping the ranches, because there are no fact-based arguments for the ranches staying. Ranchers claim that the local economy will suffer greatly and that Marin County itself will be adversely affected, not to mention supposed “importance of local food products”. Well, these arguments never made sense to me logically. If we desperately need the land of that peninsula in Point Reyes in addition to already using the rest of Marin and surrounding counties to get by financially and for food production then we are screwed, because human demand is only going to get worse. If we can’t spare one little strip of seashore for fear of collapse and hunger what does that say about our future? Fortunately, none of those arguments are true.
It turns out that these were the exact same arguments that were being used in 1961 when the ranchers fought the creation of the seashore. Yes, you read that correctly. The ranchers fought the creation of the seashore and today are using the same arguments they used 57 years ago. The economy will collapse, the dairy industry will collapse, the area that depends on the dairies for food will suffer, etc. etc. Two of my favorite arguments from the testimony claimed that the cows would not be able to produce milk because tourist vehicles in the seashore would disturb them from their busy days of eating and resting. Wow. My other favorite argument was the attempt to convince Congress that the seashore wasn’t special and no one would want to go there.
None of the claims came to be true. Quite the opposite, in fact. The reality is that the seashore has brought an incredible source of tourist-driven income to the area that today the locals wouldn’t know how to survive without. If we want to get honest about the value of nature VS. the value of the ranches, force the locals to choose only between money generated from the peninsula’s dairies or the money generated from tourists attracted to the seashore itself.
The proranching side will be rather upset by what I’m writing here and they will respond with the same typical noise consisting of emotional, but not factual arguments. They will talk about culture and tradition and even talk about America and patriotism in order to get their way, but my side of the story, by contrast, is based in reality. Unfortunately, for them, I documented everything. Everything. And I’ve conveniently placed it all one one website, ShameofPointReyes.org. I DARE readers to go to the documentation section of the website. The Congressional testimony against the creation of the seashore - it’s there. The use of today’s excuses in the 60’s - Also there. Financial statistics comparing the value of the dairies to that of tourism. Proof that the park service ignores public surveys on how to manage the park. Park funded studies that show Point Reyes to be one of the worst managed lands in the country. Rancher lease violations. How much taxpayer money the park service spends on private ranching affairs. Ranchers harassing wildlife. Ranchers overstocking. The park service cowering to the ranchers. The park service killing elk on request of the ranchers. Studies proving the negative effect of ranching activity on native wildlife. Studies proving the negative effects of ranching on the soil and water. Proof of a long history of Jared Huffman and other politicians trying to influence the park service to support ranchers above the wildlife. It goes on and on.
And if the documents weren’t proof enough, there is the visual evidence...Hours of heartbreaking footage of what the ranchers have done and are still doing to the seashore. You’re going to hear sob stories from the ranchers about how they protect and contribute to the habitat, but it’s just not true. Period. And I’ve provided all the proof you could ever need.
The ranchers have gone through a great deal of effort hiring lobbyists and electing pro-ranching politicians to make their overstayed presence in the seashore seem legal. But the fact that they are trying to change the original legislation should be proof enough that they were never meant to stay, otherwise why would they need to change it. But more importantly, I believe we are too distracted by arguments over interpretations of what people have written to see the plain and simple truth; the ranches are bad. What I discovered is that even if they were legal, they need to go. What they have done in the seashore as tenants is grounds for eviction on any level. The reality of ranching activity in Point Reyes National Seashore is shameful.
But if the park staff, charged with preserving the natural state of the seashore, feels the dairies that destroy that same seashore are culturally important enough to protect, maybe they should go all out and add some plaques to other cultural practices that come at a direct cost of nature. Maybe a plaque about seal clubbing? Dolphin hunts? How about a statue in honor of the greatest elk trophy hunter in the west’s history? How about an annual wildlife killing contest right in the seashore? (yes, killing contests are actually considered a cultural practice). Maybe we could serve shark fin soup at the visitor center. It’s all culturally important.
The natural wonders of the seashore are rare. Humans exploiting animals and the planet for profit is not. Recognition of this fact is the very reason this seashore was created. The ranchers weren’t paid millions of dollars for their land just so they could continue to stay on that sam land. Let it sink in just how absurd that notion is. Get the ranchers out of there, restore Point Reyes National Seashore to its full potential, as was Congress’s intention for the seashore, and then you’ll truly see the value this amazing place has to offer. Point Reyes, as great as it is, is currently only a shell of what it could be. The potential for future tourism and public enjoyment crushes anything ranchers could ever hope to provide to the economy. But don’t let anyone voting for the ranchers today have a piece of the cash cow that nature will provide tomorrow.