(EnviroNews California) — Bon Tempe Dam, Marin County, California — Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA) has one of the highest environmental scorecards in Congress, a lifetime rating of 98 percent, and a perfect score on his 2020 voting record, according to the League of Conservation Voters. He has fought for climate action and is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal; he’s been one of the leading lawmakers taking action to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR); he’s fought for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) and for renewable energy. But there’s one environmental issue that has many of his green-hearted constituents in his highly progressive home district furious, even resulting in them waging protests in the streets: the management of California’s unique tule elk.
Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) are a distinct subspecies endemic to California and are the smallest American elk species. Around 600 specimens live wthin Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS/the Seashore) — a federally owned national park unit outside San Francisco in Marin County. In a highly unique situation, the tule elk share the Seashore with beef ranchers and dairies who pay the government rent so their cattle can graze the land.
When the Seashore was established in 1962, the ranching families sold their land to the federal government but were allowed to continue operating in the park. Now, many Americans and local citizens want them gone for good, but some of the families have been there for 150 years and they’re not going to leave of their own volition.
Also present in the Seashore are countless miles of fencing and barbed wire that keep the cattle and tule elk separate. There is the saying “good fences make good neighbors,” but in this case, many conservationists say the fencing has resulted in deadly circumstances for the tule elk and has hampered their survival and recovery.
The National Park Service (NPS/the Service) just revealed 152 tule elk from the Tomales Point herd died last year in PRNS due to “poor foliage quality,” but critics say the animals suffered and dropped dead because NPS’ eight-foot-high fencing prevented the animals from accessing food and water — and similar die-offs have happened in the past.
In 2016, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, and Resource Renewal Institute brought NPS to court. The lawsuit resulted in NPS having to conduct an environmental impact review, include the public’s input and update its 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan. The update is meant to address the coexistence of tule elk and ranching in park.
During the public comment period, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 91 percent of 7,624 people, in essence, told NPS to boot the cattle from Point Reyes and let all three elk herds roam free. But even though public opinion favored the tule elk over cattle, NPS adopted a plan called “Alternative B” which will hand out more grazing permits and calls for some of the tule elk that live in the Seashore to be killed. Local elk supporters, known as the “elkivists,” have gathered in sizable crowds to protest Alternative B and Congressman Jared Huffman.
In 2018, Huffman proposed legislation that would have given ranchers and dairies 20-year grazing extensions in Point Reyes while evicting the tule elk from some areas of the Seashore. Huffman co-sponsored H.R. 6687 with former Representative Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who is not known for his environmentally-friendly policies. His League of Conservation Voter’s lifetime score is just three percent. The bill, and the political marriage, infuriated many of Huffman’s constituents, who have shouted him down at town hall meetings and staged protests outside of his office.
On March 26, 20201, EnviroNews Editor-in-Chief, Emerson Urry, interviewed Huffman at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County in an effort to get to the bottom of his policies and positions on this iconic species in granular detail. The 21-minute on-camera interview seen here is raw, uncut and unadulterated. The transcript reads as follows:
Urry: Let’s talk about another species then, also in your district, and this one, the tule elk, is very interesting.
Urry: Because at EnviroNews, we kind of specialize in wildlife in the West, and first of all, there’s a lot of passion around this issue. It’s pretty rare for us to see hundreds of people coming out and protesting and doing this kind of stuff.
Urry: And certainly, it’s an issue of growing public interest. The media has been in here; NatGeo, now you’ve got EnviroNews in here too. And so, just a little background there: The Point Reyes National Seashore, there are some ranches that have been there since the formation of that. And a pretty formidable group of environmental organizations sued [and] forced a NEPA-mandated environmental review process.
Huffman: Mm hm.
Urry: NPS (National Park Service) released multiple draft plans of what that would look like: management of the tule elk. They have adopted Alternative B, which I believe is still hanging right now in a review period for overlapping agencies. Do you support Plan B?
Huffman: So, I’ll tell you a little more about this situation. First of all, I love the tule elk. We’ve been talking about all kinds of wildlife issues where wildlife are in really bad shape and the story is frankly pretty grim.
Urry: Mm hm.
Huffman: I think the tule elk is mostly a good news story right now. After hunting and trapping and driving them to the brink of extinction, we have brought them back in California and they’re not a listed species…
Urry: Should they be? They’re only at one percent of their historic numbers…
Urry: …and as you mentioned, they went very deep into the extinction vortex. Should they have more protection?
Huffman: Well, I’ll tell you what I think they should have is a more aggressive restoration plan so that we have other locations that have them, because they’re thriving in Point Reyes. And that’s the good news story. It’s just a wonderful thing. I mean, I marvel at the elk. They’re such a charismatic and majestic species. I bring my kids to see them all the time. Anywhere you do have successful elk reintroduction, and you know this ‘cause you’ve worked in Utah and around the West, you’re going to run into conflicts with people. And so, at some level, the success of your reintroduction will require you to manage them. We’re going to have to have an honest conversation about that with our animal rights friends and others, because if you’re not managing them in Point Reyes, or wherever else you’ve reintroduced them, you’re going to be managing them in the suburban and urban interfaces that they’re going to move into, and that’s good. That’s a sign that they are thriving and I hope we get to the point where we’re having that conversation. Now, someday, we’ve got to talk about the lack of predators and reintroduction of other species.
Urry: Mm hm.
Huffman: The truth is, that Point Reyes peninsula used to look very, very different in the state of nature than it does today.
Urry: And so, there’s been quite a dust-up over this plan, and when you boil it down, the draft plans that they released, if you go to one side of the spectrum, there’s Alternative B which basically gives the ranchers out there a new lease on life for another 20 or 30 years…
Urry: …and on the other end of the spectrum is [Alternative F], which is basically: get rid of the ranches entirely, the fencing, we want to see unadulterated wilderness out here, we want these three tule elk herds to roam contiguously as one herd. Is it Plan B, or do you support any of those other draft plans, or how do you see that there? [EDITOR’S NOTE: Urry misspoke here and intended to say “Alternative F” instead of “Alternative H.” The transcript has been amended as such.]
Huffman: Well, this has been a long and really inclusive process of figuring out the general management plan update for the National Park Service in Point Reyes. It’s not a perfect plan in my opinion, it’s not my plan, but I think it does several important things. It does set very high environmental standards. It doesn’t give everybody what they want. And you’re absolutely right, there are some environmental and animal rights and other groups that want all agricultural out of the Seashore. And that has been their campaign; that has been the agenda behind their litigation and that is where their next lawsuit is going to try to take things. I am not an absolutist on getting agriculture out of the Seashore. I want to hold everything to very high environmental standard. Nobody gets a pass. But I also understand the history, I understand the mission of this unit of the National Park Service, which is not to make the entire Seashore wilderness. It’s a myriad of purposes and objectives; there’s actually a national recognized historic district in those ranches. There was a pastoral zone created by Congress that was intended to continue to tell some of the story about the 150 years of ranching that have been part of the landscape out there. So, some people have never like that and never wanted that to be part of the mission of this park, but it has been.
Urry: Well, let me ask then: you mentioned the historical component, and I’ve heard a lot about that, and that’s why NPS and other folks have been fighting for Plan B is the “historical value.” When I boil that down, is that simply so people can look at them? They say, we need to preserve these for the historic value so park-goers can look at them. And then, when you look at the public comment period here, about 91 percent of respondents, about 8,000 people said: we’re basically over here with [Alternative F], we want these cattle operations out of here. So, is it just to look at them?
Huffman: So, Emerson, that’s not how it’s been interpreted for the last 50 years as this park has been with us. So, all I can tell you is, you know, you referenced these statistics of 90 percent of the people want this and that and the other. I think you’ve got to be a little bit careful with that.
Urry: Tell me more.
Huffman: Remember that I’ve spent most of my adult life on the advocacy side doing the lawsuits, doing the activism, doing the documentary filmmaking and other things to try to drive good environmental outcomes. So, I understand what’s going on there. And it is not, I would say, a fair or comprehensive representation of public sentiment – certainly not in my district. And let me give you one data point on that.
Huffman: This is one of those issues where as hard as I work to provide environmental leadership, and you would have a very hard time finding anyone in the Congress finding anyone who does more for the wildlife and the environment…
Urry: You have a very high scorecard.
Huffman: Yeah, it’s pretty high. I think it’s 99.7 lifetime. And I think the one little blemish in there was a vote I cast where I felt the environmental scoring card got it wrong, and I would still argue with you they did. So, I’m going to give myself a perfect lifetime score.
Urry: Alright. Okay. I’ve got some follow-ups here for that, but that’s good…
Huffman: But here’s the point…
Urry: Go ahead.
Huffman: So, I do find myself at odds on whether you should immediately throw out all the ranchers from Point Reyes, with some groups that I normally work with. Center for Biological Diversity, working on Arctic issues and other ESA issues; it’s a little awkward. But I am not the only very good environmentalist who takes a more nuanced view of what we should do with this general management plan at the Point Reyes National Seashore. Marin County is chalked full of progressive, green, elected officials. It’s pretty much all we have at every level.
Urry: A very progressive area.
Huffman: Sonoma County’s the same way. I am not aware of a single elected official who wants to throw out all the ranchers from the Point Reyes National Seashore, and I think if you went around to the various councils and elected officials, you’d find overwhelmingly they view it the way I do. Again, not to give free passes from environmental laws or to lower our standards, but to keep long-standing commitments. Probably some of these ranches are going to phase out in the future; there will be fewer of them in the future than there are in the past. We will have opportunities to expand into more wilderness into other environmental opportunities. But, some of this passion, I would argue, has been misplaced and some things have been mischaracterized.
Urry: Well, let’s clarify one issue there that honestly, we’re not clear on and there’s been a lot of different ideas about this. When this deal was constructed, was it to be a forever thing for these ranches? Was it to be in perpetuity? I’ve interviewed them; they say they feel like it is to be in perpetuity, and other people say no. What’s the deal?
Huffman: So, it is an issue where you will find people passionately stating absolute positions on both sides. And the truth is, you’re not going to find absolute clarity on that question. I’ve poured through the congressional record and the legislative history. There is certainly evidence that some continuation of this multi-generational ranching was very much envisioned; there’s some evidence also that some wanted it to eventually go away. But it was unresolved.
Urry: Okay. Here’s what I want to ask: this is a little bit of a tough question, but I think it’s good to clear the air and clarify things for all of your constituents. You actually introduced legislation on this.
Urry: We know it’s not real common to see Congress get involved in imperiled species. We’ve seen it a few times: gray wolves, Yellowstone grizzlies, sage grouse, prairie chicken, some of these higher profile species. You ran legislation, that was H.R. 6687, and it does some of the same things that Alternative B does: gives the ranchers more time in the park. But, what I need to ask you about is your co-sponsor on this legislation: Rob Bishop.
Huffman: Oh (laughs). Yeah.
Urry: You just mentioned the Center for Biological Diversity. And just last night, I read an absolutely scathing article that they wrote about you, and it said that you had teamed up with an “anti-public lands zealot.”
Huffman: Yeah, he is. He is that. Yeah.
Urry: Yeah, and I can tell you, I mean, he was legendary for being probably the most anti-environment, anti-wildlife, anti-public lands guy in the House.
Huffman: Oh, he’s awful. Yeah, yeah.
Urry: And so, explain the marriage to me there. Why did you team up with him? He’s over there trying to strip Grand Staircase and the Bears Ears to give it away to uranium mines, just explain the partnership.
Huffman: It was not a partnership, first of all (laughs).
Urry: Okay. Alright.
Huffman: Look, Rob Bishop is all those things you just mentioned. He was my nemesis on any given day in the Natural Resources Committee. If you spend enough time you will find us going at each other. And in fact, he would often single me out. He really does not like me. He hates me. And he spent huge amounts of time…
Urry: But they were patting you on the back in that committee meeting.
Huffman: Yeah, and that was a little bit of theatre too. So, I understand how it’s been characterized; the truth is: Rob Bishop chaired the committee at that time. If I was going to pass a bill out of that committee, Rob Bishop was going to be the one that decided whether it left the committee. And so, yeah, they sensed an opportunity to, I guess, poke a little bit of fun at my expense; I think there was some of that in the dialog that ensued at that committee hearing.
Urry: Ok (laughs).
Huffman: But as awful as Rob Bishop is on the Endangered Species Act, on public land, on national monuments, on all the other things where we always fought – and I’m so glad he’s not in Congress anymore, believe me – I needed his support, and he was willing to support the bill that I put together. He would have put a much worse bill together if it hadn’t have been for me. His vision of a solution out here in Point Reyes is to just get rid of the environmental laws, to just get rid of the public land entirely.
Huffman: So, don’t confuse this as something that is like a Rob Bishop product (laughs).
Urry: Well, I had to ask. It’s just too weird. I see Jared Huffman and Rob Bishop on the same piece of legislation, and it’s like, what’s going on there?
Huffman: Yeah. I mean honestly, that’s not a substantive thing. That’s just a thing that some people are going to draw inferences from. But it’s because he chaired the committee, and he was in the majority, and that’s the only way you pass legislation.
Urry: And so, continuing for just a little bit along these lines, we filmed a protest – we covered a protest outside your office – a few hundred people – like I said, it’s pretty rare to see that on an imperiled wildlife species, very passionate, but to me, having covered countless of these kinds of [environmental] protests there was one very phenomenal thing that I kept seeing over and over again in that protest. And I can show you the clips of it, and it’s people saying: I voted for this guy, he’s an environmental guy, but he’s wrong on this. And there was a lot of sentiment there. And if I go and read those YouTube threads, it’s like a lot of the same stuff: I thought this guy was an environmentalist… Could there reach a point with this where the political blowback – and maybe there is a very strong public sentiment that says: we want unadulterated wilderness out here. Is there a possibility of you actually reversing your position and changing course on this?
Huffman: Of me converting the entire pastoral zone into wilderness? Hang on, we’ve got a little background noise from some cyclists…
Urry: Perfect timing (laughs).
Huffman: This watershed gets a lot of good use. Look, I work on wilderness protection all the time…
Urry: I mean, it took over like half of your town hall, Point Reyes. I watched it last night just for the first time.
Huffman: Mostly because of repetition though Emerson, I mean, let’s be honest about it. And if you were in that room, or if you took an honest look at the video that was panning around the room, most people were annoyed that the organized protest continued to try to hijack that town hall on this one issue. And as impressive and as good as these professional efforts have been to organize – and I admire it again, because I’ve spent a lot of my life on that side of things…
Urry: So, you’re saying all those protestors are professionals?
Huffman: Well, the organization of it is very professional; I’m not saying everybody at the protest is. But a huge amount are from outside the district; a huge amount of the public comment that you ‘ve referred to is from outside the district, and if you’re wondering whether somehow I am politically miscalculating, I never want to be a flip about the people that I answer to. But I just got reelected with I think over 80 percent of the Marin County vote, something like 77 percent district-wide; I do really good work. And one of the reasons that I have that level of support is because people understand that I’m real thoughtful on these environmental issues. It is hard to find any issue where someone you regard as a friend and an ally doesn’t at some point have a disagreement with you…
Huffman: …and we’re having that on this.
Urry: Well, and some of those people actually said they would vote for you again.
Huffman: Well, fair enough.
Urry: I mean, it was phenomenal to me because normally when I see people out there and they’re ready to crucify a lawmaker, they’re not saying: I’m really mad at him, but I might vote for him again.
Huffman: Well, I hope they at least understand that I have thoughtfully looked at this issue, that reasonable and good environmentalists can differ on this; it’s not just me. So, there’s been a bit of an effort to make it all about me, to lump me in with Rob Bishop and Diane Feinstein, do all this crazy caricature, it doesn’t really fit. Because again, remember what I told you: every elected official in the entire North Bay, pretty much — progressive, green to the core – are with me on this.
Urry: One last question on the tule elk, and we can put to bed one more of these things that we kept hearing again, over and over again, in the protest. And I think it’s just people that they feel you are out-of-step with the environmentalist that they elected, and they would say: he’s got to be in cahoots with them. And so, I’ll ask you here and now: are you lifelong friends with any of these guys out there, do they lobby you, are they contributing to your political campaign? “They” meaning the ranchers.
Huffman: Yeah, look, these are folks… No. I mean, they’re probably I’ve gotten some contributions from them. I am sure that it is a fraction of the campaign fundraising I do from environmentalists – I mean like a sliver. I get way more. In fact, some of the same people that are cursing me have donated to my campaign multiple times (laughs). So, you know, that’s a distraction, and it’s a very disingenuous attempt to find some caricature that can get people animated and caffeinated on this issue. Just as many of them will curse me because they disagree with me on this, but keep working with me on ESA protection and public land protection and wilderness and Arctic preservation and all the other things, I’ll keep working with them too. I think they are really mischaracterizing some things in Point Reyes. And I’ve tried to be real candid about it, but I’m not going to change their mind. Some people are coming at this from a deep place of principal because they abhor animal agriculture – and I appreciate that. There are a lot of animal rights groups and activists that are part of this movement to get the ranchers out of Point Reyes, and I think they come from a deep place of principal, I respect that…
Urry: And it is an issue with the climate correct?
Huffman: Of course. Yeah. Animal agriculture has a pretty significant climate footprint. Whether you want to start that transformation with the two-dozen little mom and pop organic ranches in Point Reyes, I would say, that’s an odd place to start. If you’re not driving down consumption of meat and dairy products, and you get rid of those folks, you’re just going to get that same meat and dairy from Central Valley CAFOs that are a heck of a lot worse for the environment and you’re going to tack on a bunch of food-miles. And so, I just think that there’s way more context and nuance to this than some of the campaigns have suggested, but I know where they’re coming from, and we’re going to have to duke it out on this. I will just tell them this: when we get past this, and I hope we get the permits renewed for these ranches, we will have an opportunity to implement this general management plan in a way that makes sure we set very high standards. And in the future as some of these ranches blink out, because they will, we’ll have chances to expand wilderness areas and maybe even we’ll be expanding elk herds further, although you’re going to be, at some point soon Emerson, we’re going to be talking about elk in people’s rosebushes in Bolinas and Olema and other places and we’re going to be back to this…
Urry: Get above that one percent [of the] historic number?
Huffman: Yeah, we do need to get above that. But I think we can, and it’s one reason why I’ve been arguing instead of always just culling as the management answer as our elk herds grow, let’s relocate some of these animals and start new herds. We have opportunities on the Sonoma County coast and in other parts of my district. I’ve got Native American tribes that really want to do this. It’s really challenging to get folks to do it because when you reintroduce these herds, you inherit all of these same potential conflicts and issues and the politics are challenging.
Urry: It would probably appease quite a few of the “elktivists” if they knew that they were going to be relocated instead of just culled.
Huffman: I’m working really hard on that, and we have some allies and partners, but the politics in the place where I think we could relocate and start new herds are going to be just like what we’re facing out here.
Urry: It’s a fascinating wildlife issue.