(EnviroNews California) — Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, California — Representative Jared Huffman (D) of California’s 2nd Congressional District is considered to be one of the most eco-friendly lawmakers in the House with a 98 percent environmental voting record, according to the League of Conservation Voters. He’s a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, a leader in the fight to protect Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and has taken action to protect imperiled creatures like the iconic northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). But there’s one hotly contested issue where he, and many of his most environmentally-minded constituents, clash discordantly: the general management plan for California’s tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) — a species endemic to the golden state.
In a nutshell, the tule elk were hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s, having dropped to below 20 animals. Thanks to one committed ranch and the efforts of other conservationists the species was saved, and today numbers sit around 6,000 animals. Still, that’s only about one percent of their historic numbers, which totaled over half a million before the arrival of pioneers. The tule elk’s greatest remaining stronghold is in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) — a national park unit which harbors 500-600 specimens. But PRNS is a national park unit unlike any other; the wildlife shares the land with two-dozen “historic” cattle ranches — some of which have been there since the mid 1800s.
When the park was formed in the early 60s under President John F. Kennedy, the ranching families were paid for their properties by the federal government but were allowed to lease it back in order to continue their beef and dairy operations. Whether that was supposed to be temporary or in perpetuity remains a topic of contentious debate. The National Park Service (NPS) was sued by a trio of environmental groups in 2016: the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and Recourse Renewable Institute. A subsequent court ruling resulted in NPS being forced to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) and to update its 1998 Tule Elk Management Plan.
As part of the process, NPS released multiple draft plans, which varied widely in their approach to dealing with the situation. Alternative B, the one NPS has adopted, gives the ranchers a new 20-year lease and proposes to manage the elk at a carrying capacity (by culling them), while Alternative F, favored by over 90 percent of nearly 8,000 members of the public who commented, would remove cattle operations in the Seashore altogether. And that’s what the clash is all about: should the ranchers stay, or should they go?
So, how did Jared Huffman land himself smack-dab in the middle of the issue — an issue that normally falls under the purview of the Interior Department under the Executive Branch? The answer to that question: he got active, when he actually proposed legislation on the issue, co-sponsored by former Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT) — a man loathed by the environmental movement. Many of Huffman’s voters have been disgruntled with him ever since.
To better understand Huffman’s position on this issue, local EnviroNews California sat down with the Congressman on March 26, 2020 at Bon Tempe Dam in Marin County in a feature on-camera interview that spanned many topics. In that interview, the issue of tule elk management was discussed extensively. Specifically, in one part of the interview, Huffman suggested that nearly all local elected officials espouse his same viewpoints on tule elk management. He stated:
Marin County is chalked full of progressive, green, elected officials. It’s pretty much all we have at every level… 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…
Huffman reiterated that position only a few minutes later:
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.
While the veracity of those statements is unproven, and while EnviroNews certainly hasn’t interviewed every mayor and council member throughout Sonoma and Marin Counties to either verify or disprove them, what is known is that one former Petaluma City Council member doesn’t agree with Huffman’s position at all. His name is Matt Maguire, he sat on Petaluma’s City Council for eight years and was also Vice Mayor for a year. He turned out at a protest organized by In Defense of Animals, TreeSpirit Project and Save the Tule Elk in front of the “elk fence” at PRNS on April 10, 2021. The protest went down at the entrance to the Tule Elk Preserve where 152 elk died last year. Maguire was given a keynote speaker slot and took the opportunity to call out his Congressman by name, asserting, “and for a guy who is otherwise a really pretty good green congressman, he is wrong on this issue and he needs to change his position.”
In a follow-up email to EnviroNews California after the event, Maguire said he took exception to things Huffman said during his interview with EnviroNews California — specifically to the idea that all local elected officials are on the same page with Huffman on what should be done with Point Reyes. Maguire wrote this to EnviroNews:
My eight years on the Petaluma City Council give me a good perspective on the government side of things. And I frankly don’t believe Huffman when he says every elected person in the area supports his position. I know that no city councilperson or county supervisor is going to piss off their congressman if they want to have a productive relationship with them, and Huffman knows that too.
The transcript to Maguire’s speech at the elk fence reads as follows:
Jack Gescheidt (emceeing): …former City Council member from Petaluma. So, if he comes to this Park, it’s in his neighborhood, his backyard. And I think he’s going to grace us with a few of his wise words about the delicious yummy politics here, which make all this possible: Matt Maguire (crowd cheering).
Matt Maguire: Thank you Jack. Thank you everybody for coming today. It’s a beautiful day to be outside. We’re here primarily to protest the needless death of the elk. The Park Service was notified over and over again by our loose coalition of the hazards that pertain here during a drought, and obviously, they have not responded appropriately.
But the background to this is that really, this would not be an issue, and that fence wouldn’t be here if the ranchers were not here. Now, it’s been probably something like 50 years ago that the ranchers that were here when the Park was formed were paid market value for their property. They were also given lifetime tenancies for them and their spouse to live out their days ranching here on Point Reyes. Now, at the end of those terms though, they had organized and exercised their political power and got the powers that be and the Park Service to give them rolling two-year lease extensions over and over again.
It’s been interesting to learn how interbred the families are. There’s a gentleman named Kenny Slayen who’s suing the County of Marin in regards to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) shenanigans that you may know about etc. But when you look at the family trees of these guys, it is a very well-integrated group of families. It’s really kind of scary. But what it means is that these guys are really, really seriously entrenched. I mean, why wouldn’t they be?
Look, they’ve got subsidized rent. They have the Park Service acting on their behalf to fix fences etc. They’ve got a good deal, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. Now of course, when they claim these historic ranches… yeah, they’re in a historic district. That district was adopted not that long ago – a couple decades ago, and really, it’s not really historic. This is just another political barrier to getting the ranches removed from our national park.
But the bottom line here is that I’m not a vegan, I’m not a vegetarian; you know, I try to reduce my meat consumption, but the point of the fact is that there are for-profit, private enterprise CAFOs – you know what a CAFO is?: [concentrated] animal feeding operation – going on right here in our national park. Now, that is just fucking wrong! That is wrong, and it is time for the ranchers to go. And we think that the rancher star is fading, because if you look at it, the people who responded to the Park’s environmental impact statement, 90-plus percent of the comments were people who said: get ‘em out, we don’t want them here, they’re damaging the land, they’re killing the elk, it is not good for a national park to be exploited this way.
Alright, same thing with the [California] Coastal Commission: there’s going to be a Coastal Commission hearing on the 22nd of this month. The Park Service has asked the Coastal Commission to rule that their management plan that they want to adopt – which is basically the same management plan they had before they were sued and forced to do a review – which shows that the intent to actually take in scientific information and make their determination of what’s best based on that – is a farce. They did three years of study, came back with the same recommendation, we’re going to let the ranchers stay, oh no, this time, we’re going to let them have 20-year leases, and we’re going to let them expand their uses.
So now, the Park Service is asking the Coastal Commission to rule that this is consistent with the California Coastal Act. Well, there have been over 35,000 comments from the public to the Coastal Commission on this issue, and the vast, vast, vast majority of them say: no, it is not consistent with the Coastal Act, it is damaging the soil biome, it is harming the migratory bird flyway, it is polluting the waters.
You know, the Park Service claims: oh yeah, we instituted best management practices for the ranches and dairies that drain into Tomales Bay. Well, guess what: even when they adopted the best management practices, they’re still polluting the water, it is still exceeding the safe water quality standards.
Now, if you go to the Water Quality Control Board and say “hey, aren’t you guys going to enforce this thing?” Oh no, no, that’s the Park Service’s job. You go to the Park Service, they go: oh no, no, we have these ranch operating agreements with the ranchers; they’re supposed to have a waste management plan. Oh well, let’s see it then. Well, the ranchers designed their own plan and they monitor and enforce their own plan, and guess what: nobody’s ever seen them. (lady shouts from crowd: “It’s called ‘bullshit.’”) It’s called bullshit! It is called bullshit.
So, where are we at? At this point, we are trying to get the Coastal Commission to rule on [April] 22nd and say: no, this is not consistent with the Coastal Act. Now, their staff has recommended that the commissioners say: it is consistent if you adopt these conditions.
The conditions they have proposed are a good step in the right direction, but they do not have enforcement measures coupled to them. So, this is going to be more bureaucratic runaround if we don’t get the Commission to rule properly. So, we’re going to watch and see what happens on the 22nd.
Regardless of what happens with the Coastal Commission, it is incumbent upon all of us good citizens to go and pound on Congressman Jared Huffman’s door and say: whether I’m a vegan or not doesn’t matter Jared. If you tell the public what’s going on here, they do not like it, they do not want it. And for a guy who is otherwise a really pretty good green congressman, he is wrong on this issue and he needs to change his position.
Now, we have some good news and that is that Deb Haaland, a Native American, is now head of Interior. Yes! Rumor has it that she has been made aware of the situation out here.
Now, it is not the new Park Superintendent Craig Kenkel — who we’ve had a nice conference call with, and we’re going to be having another Zoom meeting with, seems like a perfectly nice guy – he’s not the decision maker. I’m told that it’s the regional park director who does that. But if somebody at the head of Interior who’s the Park Service’s boss has some direction, guess what, they’re going to take that into account.
But a lot of this is political right? Jared Huffman’s been able to skate on this issue because not enough people know what’s going on here. Now, that’s for us to change. That’s for us to write letters to the editor, and if anybody here is from Sonoma County, raise your hand. Write to the Press Democrat, call the Press Democrat. The Argus Courier, the weekly in Petaluma, did a really good article this past week; they said the hook was that because these ranchers sold their products to Clover Stornetta, which is based in Petaluma.
But this is an issue because this is our national seashore, this is in our backyard, and it’s time for it to change. Now, the public is with us, the science is with us, and the social justice is with us. This is the time for us to begin to prevail and get these ranchers out of here. God bless them, they’ve had a good run. They got an extra 25 or 30 years out of it, but it’s time for them to go. So, thank you. Thank you for coming. Contact Jared Huffman’s office. Keep writing letters, just wherever you can, tell your friends, and we’re going to prevail. It’s going to take time, but we will prevail. Thank you.