The Future of Point Reyes

by Laura Alice Watt, author of The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

Today is the 54th anniversary of the establishment of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a much-beloved destination for people around the Bay Area and far beyond. Over the years I have been researching the peninsula’s landscape history, many people have asked, why are there still ranches in the park? Classic national parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone do not contain active agriculture, so indeed the presence of dairy cows and beef cattle adjacent to Point Reyes’ beaches must seem puzzling to some.

9780520277083Yet these historic agricultural families have remained in place for a reason, as my forthcoming book The Paradox of Preservation explores in depth. For over a century before it became a national seashore, Point Reyes was famous for its agriculture. Starting in the 1850s, renowned dairy and beef ranches were established on privately-owned property across the peninsula. In the late 1950s, the area was first proposed as a Seashore, aimed at providing recreation opportunities close to the metropolitan Bay Area—but even in the earliest discussions, a key concern was the possible effects of establishing a park on the local agricultural economy. As early as 1958, in a letter to Senator Clair Engle (one of the initial sponsors of the legislation), then-president of Marin Conservation League Caroline Livermore wrote: “As true conservationists we want to preserve dairying in this area and will do what we can to promote the health of this industry which is so valuable to the economic and material well being of our people and which adds to the pastoral scene adjacent to the proposed recreation project.” Throughout two years of Congressional hearings, no one testified at any time in favor of shutting down existing ranching, dairying, or oystering operations. Instead, the 1962 legislation reflected a strong commitment to retaining and sustaining existing agricultural uses, as they served the public values that the new national seashore was created to protect.

The continuing presence of cattle ranches on Point Reyes’ rolling grasslands offers a vision of how working landscapes—places characterized by “an intricate combination of cultivation and natural habitat,” shaped by the work and lives of many individuals over generations, maintaining a distinct character yet responding to the changing needs of its residents—should be recognized as part of both natural and cultural heritage worth protecting. The U.S. national park system contains areas that primarily aim to preserve natural scenery as well as those that primarily preserve history and cultural heritage; Point Reyes offers the suggestive possibility of protecting all types of heritage resources together, as a landscape whole and including the resident users’ input in management, rather than separately. I hope you will join me in celebrating the Seashore’s anniversary on the 13th, in hopes of many more years of public enjoyment of this unique and inspiring model of land protection and stewardship.

Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.

One thought on “The Future of Point Reyes

  1. The author claims that there was no suggestion of shutting down cattle ranching or dairying on the Seashore throughout two years of Congressional hearings.

    It is worth pointing out that this discussion was brought up before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. It was a discussion that helped appropriate the majority of the funding for Point Reyes National Seashore. It was not instigated by a Congressman, but by Boyd Stewart, the spokesperson for the ranching community. It was Mr. Stewart who, on February the 26th, 1970, told Senator Bible that the ranchers realize that dairying is not going to continue indefinitely. When pressed on this, Mr. Stewart stated that the ranchers did not make the National Park Service aware “that dairying, with the necessity of confining large herds of cattle tightly into pastures, is not compatible with public ownership of land.” Stewart relayed to Congress that the ranchers were willing to deal with the park for the sale of Point Reyes without any conditions, “meaning that they recognize that they aren’t going to dairy indefinitely, in Marin County. None of us are. People are going to take over our land, and dairying will eventually go away from there.” Mr. Stewart did suggest, however, that cattle grazing would be compatible with the park.

    These statements led Senator Bible to reply, “I couldn’t see anything inconsistent with having a few cows or cattle out grazing in a beautiful pastoral zone…Your testimony gives us clear guidance as to what we should do, and whatever we do, we are going to do very quick, and we are going to put the dollars forward to do it.”

    These Congressional statements are in direct conflict with Laura Watts reporting and the broader scope of Congressional hearings on the establishment of Point Reyes N.S. should be acknowledged. The misinformation should be amended for the sake of academic integrity and public education.

    Thank you.

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