Bipartisan bill seeks to settle Point Reyes Tule elk issue

Eleven bull Tule elk with velvet-covered antlers at the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Efforts are still being made to protect historic ranching in Northern California.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA-02) and Rob Bishop (R-UT-01) recently introduced a bill to the House of Representatives that would effectively enshrine historic agricultural operations into the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA. It would additionally allow cooperation with local tribes on the management of Tule elk, as well as 20-year lease renewals for agricultural operations.

The bill—H.R. 6687—seeks to amend the 1960s law that established the Point Reyes National Seashore “to manage the Point Reyes National Seashore in the State of California consistent with Congress’ longstanding intent to maintain working dairies and ranches on agricultural property as part of the seashore's unique historic, cultural, scenic and natural values.”

Specifically, the majority of the bill’s amendments deal with managing the Tule elk, a California-specific subspecies of elk. The relevant portion of the bill reads:

“In areas of agricultural property where Tule elk present conflicts with working ranches or dairies, the secretary [of the interior] shall manage the Tule elk to ensure separation from the working ranches or dairies. To minimize the conflicts and prevent establishment of new Tule elk herds on agricultural property, the secretary may work with Indian Tribes interested in the following:

(A) Partnering with the secretary in the relocation and reestablishment of Tule elk on tribal lands.

(B) Participating in hunting Tule elk on a subsistence or ceremonial basis.

(C) Other partnerships and activities that the secretary determines are suitable and feasible for this purpose.”

As mentioned, the bill also includes a provision about renewal of existing leases and permits. It directs the secretary of the interior to “complete, without delay, the General Management Plan Amendment for Point Reyes National Seashore and the north district of Golden Gate Recreation Area, its Environmental Impact Statement, and, upon completion of the Record of Decision, issue leases and special use permits of 20 years for working dairies and ranches on agricultural property.”

“Agricultural property” is defined in this case as including ranches in the northern portions of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that have historically “been managed by Seashore personnel under Park Service policy.”

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“This bill provides a measure of support for the continuation of sustainable ranches and dairies as part of the fabric of our spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore, without compromising any environmental standards and consistent with the current General Management Plan update process,” said Huffman in his announcement of the bill.

Environmental litigation groups were quick to criticize the bill, however. Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity said, “It’s disturbing to see Rep. Huffman teaming up with a political extremist who hates public lands to evict native elk from one of America’s most beautiful national parks.” This latter was a reference to Bishop, who Miller later called “one of the country’s biggest enemies of public lands.”

The Western Watersheds Project issued an email to subscribers shortly after the bill was introduced, urging them to call their representatives and voice opposition.

Characterizing the bill as “a back-door attempt to change the purposes of Point Reyes National Seashore,” the group said, “This legislation undermines the 2017 settlement that conservationists, ranchers, and the Park Service all agreed to and which included a four-year plan to transparently address controversial cattle ranching and Tule elk issues at Point Reyes.”

General Management Plan

Despite claims by Huffman and Bishop that the bill “does not impact the General Management Plan amendment process that is currently underway,” the inclusion of the 20-year lease renewal element in the bill seems to support the environmentalists’ criticisms.

There were six potential alternative plans presented in the General Management Plan for the Point Reyes National Seashore currently under consideration. The six plans included anything from allowing 20-year permit renewals for all existing ag operations to removing ranching and dairy farming from the region entirely in the two extremes.

There was a 30-day comment period on the six alternative plans that ended in November 2017. According to the National Park Service website dedicated to the General Management Plan process, it has not yet moved to step 2 of its eight-step process. It is required to have a record of decision for the selected plan signed by July 14, 2021. — WLJ

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