“Apocalypse Cow:” Point Reyes National Seashore Launches a Propaganda War Targeting Independent Journalism

Point Reyes Beach from the Lighthouse Visitor Center – CC BY-SA 3.0 Grab your popcorn: The battle over livestock destruction of natural ecosystems at Point Reyes National Seashore…

Point Reyes Beach from the Lighthouse Visitor Center – CC BY-SA 3.0

Grab your popcorn: The battle over livestock destruction of natural ecosystems at Point Reyes National Seashore is heating up. For years, conservationists have pointed out the ecologically catastrophic toll that beef and dairy ranching has been having on native coastal prairies, the wildlife that depend on these places, and public health and safety. As the news media has caught on, the tide of public opinion has turned against the livestock producers, in favor of protecting the very rare tule elk population and shifting management of the National Seashore away from livestock production toward public recreation and enjoyment. Now, a National Park Service unit is launching a propaganda war in a desperate effort to control the media narrative, and to cover up decades of laissez-faire mismanagement of livestock operations leasing Park Service lands on the National Seashore.

The flap centers around an investigative journalism piece titled “Apocalypse Cow: The Future of Life at Point Reyes National Park,” which ran in The Bohemian and the Pacific Sun, two local weekly newspapers that serve the counties surrounding Point Reyes National Seashore, and subsequently in Counterpunch. The article characterizes the Park Service analysis of environmental effects of cattle ranching on Point Reyes as “deeply flawed scientifically, culturally and ethically” and “politicized.” It’s a long and in-depth article, covering the politics of Point Reyes, and highlighting the ecologically harmful confinement of elk behind a massive fence on sometimes-waterless Tomales Point, the negative impact that cattle operations are having on climate change, commercial ranching’s destructive influence on rare and protected species of fish and wildlife, water contamination by livestock manure, and the contrast between coastal Miwok stewardship of Point Reyes’ native ecosystems and today’s destruction of those ecosystems at the hands of commercial ranching. Based on responses to the article, the locals seem to appreciate the insightful reporting.

The Park Service is doing its utmost to discredit the piece. On its webpage, “Frequently Asked Questions about the General Management Plan,” the Park Service has a section called “Corrections regarding misinformation published in the press.” The Park Service alleges errors; The Bohemian checked the verity of the article and stands behind it as factual reporting.

The Park Service argues that the unit in question is Point Reyes National Seashore rather than National Park, and they’re technically correct. The Bohemian counters that Point Reyes is commonly referred to as “the Park,” and that this description has been published by the Park Service itself. Also true. We’ll give this one to the Park Service on a technicality, with the caveat that it has no material bearing on the quality of the journalism presented in the article.

The Park Service takes issue with the news article’s characterization that stopping pollution from ranches could save rare species from extinction, and the agency instead asserts that the rare species “are not nearing extinction within their respective ranges” and “are all influenced by a variety of threats not pertaining” to its plan to extend cattle ranching. Here, The Bohemian got it right, and the Park Service deserves to be rated at a “Pants on Fire” level of dishonesty by Politifact. By virtue of being listed as “endangered species” under the federal Endangered Species Act, the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly, California freshwater shrimp, and Central California Coast runs of coho salmon are by definition in danger of immediate extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges. Perhaps if Point Reyes National Seashore was doing a competent job to be a steward of key habitats for these species, they would be abundant on the National Seashore, and the threat level could be relaxed to “threatened.” Instead, the Park Service has focused on permitting harmful cattle operations at the expense of fish and wildlife habitats, so the survival of these species remains at high risk.

Additionally, the western snowy plover, California Coast runs of chinook salmon and steelhead, and California red-legged frog are designated as “threatened species” under the ESA, meaning that they likely to become danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges in the foreseeable future if current trends continue.

For the salmon and steelhead populations, pollution from livestock operations is one of the biggest threats to their survival, because erosion and siltation from cattle overgrazing smothers the spawning gravels where salmon and steelhead lay their eggs, killing the eggs and ending reproductive success. While there may be other factors also affecting the survival odds of all of these species, on Point Reyes National Seashore cattle pose a significant threat to each. In its denial, the Park Service is clearly trying to cover up its complicity and culpability for extending livestock leasing on Park Service lands, while abrogating its affirmative responsibility to protect and recover rare species of fish and wildlife.

The Bohemian decried the fence imprisoning what it characterized as some of “the world’s few remaining tule elk,” described as “a federally protected species,” and its role in elk die-offs related to a lack of fresh water. The Park Service argues that tule elk aren’t presently a listed species under the ESA. That’s true, but beside the point. Tule elk are extremely rare, globally, without question, and the Park Service has a legal obligation to protect all native wildlife on NPS units. Tule elk warrant listing based on the science, and if the Park Service doesn’t start protecting them on Point Reyes, their actions will put tule elk on the fast track to listing.

The Park Service further argues that it never admitted that drought and thirst were the cause of past die-offs behind the fence, instead pointing to studies that suggest nutritional deficiencies could be the cause of deaths instead. But the Park Service didn’t perform necropsies on each elk that perished during the die-offs, so it doesn’t know which elk died from thirst, and which ones died from starvation. And while it’s known that the soils on Tomales Point are deficient in key nutrients that elk need to survive, this point only underscores the reality that confining tule elk on Tomales Point behind an 8-foot-high fence is completely irresponsible, and that the fence needs to come down so that elk can have freedom to roam throughout Point Reyes National Seashore and seek out the food and water they need to survive.

The Park Service quibbles with The Bohemian’s assertion that “the ranching industry covering one third of the park should be expanded and protected” under the proposed plan. The agency has no legitimate complaint with this claim. The Bohemian didn’t say that ranching would be expanded spatially, and the Park Service’s proposal would in fact expand the different types of permitted uses, adding new classes of livestock and allowing many other new commercial activities, beyond those already degrading Park lands and destroying Park resources.

The Park Service engages in some hair-splitting about whether $57.5 million in taxpayer dollars were appropriated to buy out the ranchers, or to acquire “all of the lands, waters and improvements” on the National Seashore. This is a distinction without a difference, given that the overwhelming majority of lands, waters, and improvements that were bought out were bought from the ranchers. The Park Service also contests The Bohemian’s claim that most ranchers signed below-market leases — during the 1960s and 1970s — and agreed to vacate within 25 years, arguing that “The park’s enabling legislation gives the Secretary of the Interior the discretionary authority to offer agricultural lease/permits.” In truth, the original enabling legislation didn’t give the Park Service discretion to extend leases (as long as the agency satisfies its legal obligations to protect the environment, which it is not doing, by the way); that came later by amendment. Subsequent amendments also limited leases to just 25 years or the life of the original occupants. So the Park Service has a limited authority to extend livestock leases further, but the ranchers have no right to expect that to last more than 25 years from the original purchase, or the lifespan of the original owners. The Bohemian is essentially right, and the Park Service is providing an unwarranted “correction” to a factually true statement.

In the final analysis, The Bohemian was right in almost all of its assertions, and technically incorrect on the formal title of the National Seashore. The Park Service was wrong on almost every point it tried to make, even though, as the manager of Point Reyes National Seashore, it ought to be expected by its bosses – the American taxpayers – to have the subject-matter expertise to know what it is talking about.

The Park Service’s actions must be interpreted in the context of many years of political pressure by the livestock industry — and politicians in the industry’s pocket — and the concurrent (and perhaps inevitable) bureaucratic instinct of government officials everywhere to go along to get along, and not make waves. Point Reyes has always been a pressure cooker for its employees, where supporting the livestock industry’s hegemony was a necessary evil for career survival and advancement.

The political corruption surrounding the intersection of livestock interests and conservation in this may well go beyond just Point Reyes National Seashore. Another local newspaper reported on allegations that ranching interests rigged property sales to financially benefit the board members of a local land trust. This appears to be a whole region seething with corruption, with the livestock industry right at the heart of it.

But perhaps the more troubling aspect is that of a Park Service unit that is supposed to be acting in the public interest, but instead seems to be engaging in fake-news peddling and spin control in a desperate effort to tell the public what to think. This seems a holdover from a systematic Trump administration policy to undermine the credibility of the media and propagate false narratives to achieve their political goals. There’s a new administration in town now, and it’s long past time for federal agencies to abandon the failed policies — media, anti-environmental, pro-industry, and otherwise — of the old administration.

The Park Service management at Point Reyes National Seashore shouldn’t have a political agenda, and shouldn’t be engaged in spin and disinformation. They should be responding to the will of the people, and protecting the environment as federal laws require of them. The Bohemian should continue shining its investigative light into the dark recesses of Point Reyes. And the public should continue to demand honesty, integrity, and environmental protection on Point Reyes National Seashore.


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