.The befouling of Point Reyes National Seashore

It’s an October morning at Point Reyes National Seashore and I’m scooting under barbed wire fences, wary of sliding into cow pies. 

My guide on this safari is Jocelyn Knight, wildlife photographer. We’re stalking a toxic waste dump hidden from public view behind a hill at “Historic E Ranch, established circa 1859” land lorded by the National Park Service.

Park regulations require Seashore pastures to remain open to the public, but the dump is inside the E Ranch “core” of barns and dwellings, and the public is disallowed.

To avoid encounters with park rangers or others who might want to thwart our mission to photograph the dump, we crawl on hands and knees through a thorny thicket, around a pond polluted with old tires, empty barrels, oxygen-depleting algae.

Duckwalking up the hill toward the dump, dried out dirt clods seem to explode underfoot. We deploy hand signals, as there’s a large dog we’d rather not greet. It’s all a bit nerve wracking. 

A year ago, August, Knight made this trek by herself, photographing a trench packed with broken car and truck bodies, oily engines, fuel containers. She emailed the evidence to Park Superintendent Craig Kenkel. He replied, “When leaseholders violate lease conditions, our approach, if possible, is to hold the leaseholder responsible for correcting the violation. Thus far, Mr. Nunes is doing so.” Kenkel cautioned Knight not to revisit the site without an invitation from the Nunes family, which leases and operates E Ranch.

But we intend to find out if the waste was removed. Rising to full height, Knight shoots the dump, snap, snap. Much of the waste is gone, but there are still dead machines, piles of tires, plastic barrels. Kenkel and the Department of Interior did not respond to inquiries about the toxic waste dump. Members of the Nunes family did not respond to requests for comment.

There’s another type of environmental disaster at E Ranch. According to a Marin County Environmental Health Services (EHS) investigation in June, “There was a very puddled (appeared to be sewage) area in the cow pasture adjacent to the [E Ranch] home. … It is clear that [the] present leach field is not accepting sewage from the tank properly.” According to EHS investigators, a septic tank was installed without the required permit; its sewage level exceeded the operational limit; they could not locate a leach field. The ranch land drains into the Pacific.

Jocelyn Knight - E Ranch 2022
TIRES PILED A year after it was brought to park officials’ attention, a trash heap remains at E Ranch in violation of a lease agreement. Photo by Jocelyn Knight

The Nuneses have farmed in Point Reyes for more than a century. In 1971, they sold E Ranch to the Park Service, leasing it back for cattle grazing; the family also runs a dairy at A Ranch adjacent to the Lighthouse. A third of the park is given over to cattle and dairy ranching by the lineal descendants of European farmers who settled Point Reyes in the mid 19th century. 

Park histories portray these “multi-generational ranching families” as “stewards of the land,” and the ranches are listed on the Register of Historic Places. Since the 1970s, Parks has spent millions of dollars improving commercial ranching infrastructures at the “historic” ranches, even as cattle trample Indigenous archeological sites, and bovine and human wastes contaminate pastures, streams, estuaries, bays, wetlands and the ocean.

In February, motivated by a hiker’s discovery of raw sewage pooling in a pasture, Marin EHS began inspecting ranch septic systems, for the first time in modern memory. More than half of the 17 septic systems examined had serious leakages; seven were so far out of compliance with regulations that they require completely new installations. Simultaneously, the California Water Quality Control Board investigated environmental conditions at Seashore dairies, finding many instances of animal wastes leaking into coastal waters.

In a systemic failure of oversight, the local, state and federal agencies charged with protecting the environment of Point Reyes have allowed agricultural wastes to assault it. And this is not an isolated case. A 2022 study by Environmental Integrity Project determined that more than half the waters of the United States are polluted by agricultural sources due to the failures of environmental agencies to enforce the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But these agencies are being pressured to remove beef cattle and dairy ranching from Point Reyes by members of the public and national environmental organizations who are collectively sounding an alarm in the press and filing lawsuits to protect the park.

Manure meadow 

In January, environmentalist organizations sued the National Park Service in federal court, alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. Resource Renewal Institute, Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity are demanding that Parks protect the degraded ecology of Point Reyes by discontinuing cattle and dairy ranching.

The environmentalists argue that ranching “violates the Point Reyes Act, which established the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 for the purposes of ‘public recreation, benefit and inspiration;’ the Organic Act, which requires the agency to leave natural resources ‘unimpaired’ for the benefit of future generations; and the Clean Water Act by allowing ranches to circumvent water quality standards.”

Opposing the environmentalists, the Park Service asks the court to expand the scope of allowable ranching activities, and to greenlight 20-year ranching leases to a score of family-owned businesses, renewable in perpetuity. The Department of Interior, led by Secretary Debra Haaland, intends to strengthen the grip of industrial ranching at the Seashore by constructing 20 road projects, 16 bridge-culverts, 59 miles of fencing, 25 ponds to hold liquified manure, pumps, pipelines, barns and worker housing. 

These actions will block wildlife corridors and render already polluted lands and waters even more inhospitable for increasingly scarce predators, mammals, fish, rodents, native plants, frogs, butterflies and migrating birds, according to government studies and expert critics of the ranching plan. Environmentalists are asking authorities to unburden the land, allowing it to naturally restore itself from centuries of agricultural pollution. The parties are in confidential settlement talks as we go to press.

Decades of scientific studies, including an Environmental Impact Statement published by the National Park Service in 2020, demonstrate that ranching in the Seashore is harming rare and endemic plants and animals and aquatic life, some to the point of extinction. Fecal bacteria, phosphorus, nitrates, ammonia and pathogens flush into Tomales Bay and the Pacific. 

\According to U.S. Department of Agriculture formulas, bovines deposit more than 130 million pounds of manure onto Point Reyes lands and into waterways every year. Adding to this ecological harm, unmaintained septic systems have long been leaking sewage into the watershed.

Last year, more than 100 environmental groups and thousands of individuals petitioned the California Coastal Commission to intervene. But, in September, it voted 6-5 to approve extending the leases, in return for Parks’ promise to reduce the negative impacts of animal waste if it can find the funds to do so. Opposed, commissioner Dayna Bochco remarked, “There isn’t a person who has the ability to think straight who thinks this [plan] is a good idea.” Marin County Supervisor Katie Rice voted to approve the plan, while Sara Aminzadeh (Marin) and Caryl Hart (Sonoma) voted no.

NOAA’s draft

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is charged with protecting commerce in the marine environment. In March 2021, NOAA’s Fisheries Service issued an inter-agency Biological Opinion or BIOP assessing Parks’ plan to extend ranch leases and agricultural infrastructure at Point Reyes. Much, but not all of the language and content of the BIOP was based on a Biological Assessment made by Parks.

Under the Endangered Species Act, Parks was allowed to grant its rancher-lessees the status of “co-applicants” when it asked NOAA to render its Biological Opinion, because ranchers’ proposed actions could be environmentally destructive. Environmental groups who proposed to restore the damaged environment were not granted this special advisory status.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, this news organization obtained internal communications on NOAA’s drafting of the BIOP, much of it redacted. According to its “consultation history,” NOAA officials met with ranchers in January, 2020 and again in August. In November, pursuant to this “co-applicant” status, NOAA sent selected draft sections of the BIOP to the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association for review and suggested edits. 

Members of the public and environmental organizations were not allowed to see, much less comment upon, these drafts, marked “confidential” and “not for public distribution.” NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein said, “It is normal during consultations to share this so the parties understand what they are responsible for implementing.”

For months, NOAA  officials “went back & forth on revisions” with Parks and the ranchers, generating more than 22 drafts. The NOAA staffer in charge of the BIOP wrote, “This project is SNAFU,” commonly defined as “a chaotic mess.”

In late December, the ranchers’ association officially requested revisions. “The draft BIOP omits … important context [that] minimize[s] the impact of cattle grazing on the fish and critical habitat.” The association asked for changes in scientific terminology, and asserted that since, in its opinion, building fences, roads and ponds “would benefit fish and habitat” construction activities should not be mentioned as harming fish.

On Jan. 29, 2021, NOAA “requested a 21-day extension … due to necessary revisions in response to rancher applicants.” Milstein said the agency “does not have anything describing the changes between drafts of the BIOP.” But a redacted Feb. 18, 2021 email between the officials in charge of the BIOP begins, “Revised after receiving info from the park today ….” Most of the next two pages are blacked out.

Asked to comment on the practice of allowing ranchers to review drafts and propose changes to the BIOP, whilst equally concerned parties, such as conservationists, were disallowed, Western Watersheds Project’s California director, Laura Cunningham, remarked, “This is shocking and totally disregards the public process and science.”

A fish tale

In its final Biological Opinion, NOAA focused on specific threats to salmon, while acknowledging the truism that cattle grazing “degrades water quality by increasing levels of contaminants such [as] fecal indicator bacteria.” NOAA noted that nutrient-laden manure supercharges the growth of noxious weeds and algae that can harm and kill many forms of aquatic life, including salmonids. 

The BIOP recognizes that active ingredient pesticides used at Point Reyes “are likely to also adversely affect the food base for salmonids” and can “lead to altered development of embryos.” Herbicides, soil erosion and fecal wastes negatively impact the habitability of streams used by protected fish, NOAA found.

NOAA did not mention that, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formulas, the park’s 5,000 cows annually belch more than a million pounds of methane, a greenhouse gas that heats oceans and harms protected species. It did acknowledge that building roads, expanding ranching facilities and “dewatering” streams would “impair water quality,” “adversely affect critical habitats” and exterminate about 3% of the park’s “endangered” and “threatened” salmon species. But because these commercial ventures would not make extinct the resident species of salmon, NOAA approved the plan.

Justifying this counter-intuitive decision, NOAA cited Parks’ promise to require its ranchers to “mitigate” ecological harm by finding millions of dollars to invest in “best management practices.” Historically, cattle and dairy ranching in Point Reyes have relied upon government subsidies to survive; neither Parks nor NOAA explained how ranchers will finance construction projects and the considerable expense of damage mitigation.

It turns out that Parks was already out of compliance with a similar agreement it made with NOAA in 2004. Fifteen years later, NOAA admonished Parks for failing to deliver required “annual summaries or 3-year detailed reports … summarizing in-stream suspended sediment fecal coliform, channel bed conditions, water temperatures, and riparian vegetation conditions.” NOAA’s Milstein said that Parks is now in compliance with those historical reporting requirements.

Echoing NOAA’s underlying concerns, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board wrote to Parks in 2019 that its plan to extend ranching “could potentially increase discharges of sediment, pathogens, nutrients, and pesticides [and] sewage generation.” And in 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency complained Parks’ plan was not adequately assessing the future impacts of climate change, nor the “potential for discharge of pollutants into sensitive water bodies.” Parks did not change course.

Got milk?

California State Sen. Peter Behr was a founder of Point Reyes National Seashore. Behr told historian John Hart, “I don’t think we are going to see any significant change [in the park] unless the dairy industry goes broke. … They have the most powerful lobby of any industry in the country.” In Farming on the Edge, published in 1991, Hart reported that agencies charged with monitoring water quality in the park were missing in action, and that, “After rainstorms [shellfish] harvesting [in Tomales Bay] is stopped for fear of contamination from faulty septic tanks and … cow manure.”

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman receive significant campaign donations from dairying and agribusiness. They wield influence over the budgets of Parks, NOAA and other environmental agencies. Both politicians strongly support expanding ranching at the Seashore. Other proponents include organizations run for and by ranching industries, the pro-business editorial board of Marin Independent Journal, Marin Conservation League and rancher-governed Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

Opposition to ranching at the Seashore includes more than 100 environmental groups, the Indigenous-led Coast Miwok Tribal Council and Alliance for Felix Cove, a retired National Park Service attorney, ecological biologists, rangeland experts, wildlife and water quality specialists, software engineers, nature and wildlife photographers, animal rights and vegan activists, conservationists, bird watchers and hikers. Since 2020, local, regional and national press has frequently reported the pro-wildlife message of hundreds of people who regularly engage in peaceful protests at the Seashore asking for an end to environmentally destructive ranching.

Elephant Seals - Jocelyn Knight
POLLUTED Elephant seals raise pups in a lagoon adjacent to B Ranch where, earlier this year, E. coli levels were measured at 11.5 times greater than the maximum exposure allowed. Photo by Jocelyn Knight

Got guns?

Western United Dairies is a trade organization that lobbies for extending ranch leases at the Seashore. On April 8, 2021, its Marin representative emailed executives at the Water Board complaining about press coverage of demonstrations at Point Reyes. Melissa Lema wrote, “For you and your staff contacts, dairies in the national seashore have been dealing with rampant, often unmitigated and sometimes violent protesters for months, with yet another demonstration planned this Saturday in the park.” Western United Dairies did not respond to a request for an example of the purported violence.

Portraying peaceful protestors as violent is a common public relations tactic, but there is a deeper level of potentially violent reactivity emerging in this developing situation, and it is not coming from conservationists and protestors. According to USASpending.gov, since 2019, Point Reyes park administrators have spent $54,000 buying guns and ammunition. In 2019, they purchased Sig Sauer and Luger pistols with silencers and some 30,000 bullets. 

In 2022, administrators spent $12,612 on a “Less Lethal Launcher” capable of firing “less lethal” bullets and tear gas, and $8,333 on “frangible” bullets, which fragment upon impact. The recent expenditures on weapons and bullets are more than 10 times amounts spent on weaponry in comparable years. Point Reyes staff did not respond to a query about why they are stocking up on lethal and less-lethal anti-personnel weapons.

Wastewater waivers

Laurie Taul is the Water Board official who oversees Point Reyes. According to records received via a public records request, on Jan. 12, 2021, Taul informed her boss, “On Monday, Albert Straus [owner of Straus Dairies which sources raw milk from Point Reyes] emailed me and [he] is concerned that Coastal Commission staff are asking for a water quality plan from the Park for the ranches and dairies. It sounds like he feels this is redundant because we [already] require the dairies and grazers to prepare plans and report annually.”

Those reports are self-reports, and the Water Board had not inspected a Point Reyes dairy since 2007, said its Bay Area manager, Xavier Fernandez.

A 2003 report by Taul observes that dairy runoff “may include manure waste, wastewater, milk barn wash, silage leachate, irrigation tailwater, dead animals, waste milk, medical waste, spoiled feed, bedding.” Dairy waste poses “a significant threat to both surface and groundwater quality, irrespective of herd size. Animal waste discharges … contribute pathogens, ammonia, salts, and sediment to nearby streams.”

For its part, the Water Board asks dairy ranchers to “visually inspect the closest water … to monitor any change in water quality resulting from facility operations.” Ranchers are required to self-certify “under penalty of law” that they have not seen any water quality problems. 

However, an examination of annual reports from all five of the Point Reyes dairies operating throughout 2021 did not find a single instance of a ranch operator affirming, “Based on your visual inspections and observations during the past year, did you discover any threats to water quality or pollutant discharges to surface or groundwater?” When it started to use its own eyes, the Water Board discovered “high risk” threats to water quality at three dairies, and less serious issues at two dairies. 

In an April 2021 memo, Taul acknowledged that fecal bacterial levels in Point Reyes waters were exceeding allowable standards. She relied on recent tests commissioned by Western Watersheds Project, because Parks had discontinued testing in 2013. Taul wrote that the Water Board has long depended upon Parks to inspect the ranches, but now, “We plan to inspect [the] ranches and dairies at our earliest opportunity.” That opportunity did not arrive until 10 months later, when a hiker stepped in a puddle of raw sewage in a pasture at B Ranch and complained to the Water Board, environmental groups and reporters.

Jocelyn Knight - B Ranch sign
MODERN DAIRY Straus Organic Family Creamery sources milk from B Ranch. Photo by Jocelyn Knight

Nightmare at B Ranch

B Ranch is leased and operated by Jarrod Mendoza as Double M Dairy. According to Water Board inspectors, “the [B Ranch] loafing barn is in poor condition and is currently unusable.” 

Consequently, hundreds of dairy cows were housed in a field “adjacent to three wastewater ponds full of liquefying manure.” Pond and stormwater diversion systems were dysfunctional. 

Mendoza did not have “a complete and updated Waste Management Plan,” nor required records documenting inspections. There was erosion on grazing pastures due to “too much animal traffic.” “There were no measures to prevent soil and manure from washing off [a livestock] crossing into the creek below.” According to the Board, “best management practices” were largely lacking. Ground water quality was testing below standards.

To help meet a state regulation that requires dairies to regularly test the quality of ground waters, the Water Board has outsourced that task to an industry group that, since 2019, has offered Point Reyes ranchers a non-laboratory-based testing service which cannot detect fecal bacteria. Water Board records reveal that the Sonoma Farm Bureau’s 2018 and 2021 field tests of a site near B Ranch found that levels of nitrogen, ammonia and other “measures all exceeded benchmarks. … indicating that the facility’s stormwater discharges are likely adversely impacting water quality.” But no action was taken until the raw sewage complaint was filed.

Concurrent with the Board’s first inspection of a Point Reyes dairy in 15 years, Marin EHS and Parks were motivated to inspect, for the first time, a septic system serving five houses and 19 bedrooms at B Ranch. The “system was non-functional. … Two pipes originating from the four residential dwelling units in the ranch core were observed to be discharging raw sewage into the cow pasture.” Under one residence, “staff identified a broken pipe … discharging sewage into the space beneath the house.” A septic tank appeared to be discharging sewage into a pasture. Inspectors could not locate a tank serving the farmworker’s restroom.

In sum, human bodily waste was sluicing into fields of bovine effluvia, blending into a fecal soup percolating downhill into a wetland bordering Drakes Bay, where a culvert spews stinky, brown sludge into a lagoon where elephant seals raise their newborns. This year, water quality tests in the lagoon measured E. coli levels at 11.5 times greater than the maximum exposure allowed. Mendoza did not respond to requests for comment.

Ranch leases require that ranchers pay for and maintain the septic systems. However, as the B Ranch disaster unfolded, Parks chose to pay for installing six porta-restrooms, new pipelines, a 5,000-gallon septic tank, and drafting “a conceptual design that can be used for compliance approval and planning purposes.” On Feb. 23, Parks noted, “We are currently purchasing supplies and material to connect the two septic lines that daylight into the pasture area.”

The sludge thickens

The Water Board went on to inspect the Seashore’s four other operating dairies, including the McClelland Dairy at L Ranch, which drains into the Tomales Bay and Abbotts Lagoon. Operated by Robert and Jolynn McClelland, the dairy sells to the Organic Valley brand. Inspectors noted that the dairy did not have a current Waste Management Plan for two manure ponds separated by a stream.

“The ponds are undersized. … the facility includes one unused and condemned barn … there were no Best Management Practices in place to prevent pollution discharge …. the calf corral likely discharges sediment and possibly manure into the adjacent pastureland. … the second waste pond [could] discharge into the downhill pastureland and drain toward the nearest stream.”

Marin EHS determined that the L Ranch septic system serving six houses was non-functional. The operators were told to pump and cap it and rebuild from scratch. In emails obtained from the county agency, Inspector Gwen Baert wrote, “It appears the Park Service doesn’t want to be heavy-handed, but I think we should be.” The McClellands did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Parks.

Marin EHS went on to examine 42 septic systems on 17 Park ranches leased to ranchers. Baert explained to colleagues, “Marin County did not have an agreement with the National Park Service to do routine sanitary surveys, it is quite possible that the inspections that were conducted this year represented the first time that many of the ranches and dairies had a sanitary review of the septic systems.”

Water protectors to the rescue

A National Park Service study of Point Reyes in 2013 by Anitra Pawley and Mui Lay found “numerous ranches, dairies and pasture lands that contribute to water quality degradation through bacteria and nutrient loading from animal waste and runoff [and] failing septic system leach fields result in nutrient and pathogen loading. … Kehoe and Abbotts Lagoon periodically exhibit high bacterial counts affecting human uses including swimming and shellfish harvesting. … There is clear evidence of significant declines in some nearshore fish species.” Parks declined to comment on any of the facts and events presented in this story.

In 2021, tests sponsored by Western Watershed Project found unacceptable levels of pathogens at Point Reyes beaches. Last winter, Turtle Island Restoration Networks sponsored a more comprehensive testing regime.

As rosy dawn light splashed the parking lot at Abbotts Lagoon in January, about 30 people accepted labeled vials from geoenvironmental scientist Douglas Lovell. Once a week for two months, volunteers—ordinary folks trained in the rigorous protocols of water sampling techniques by Lovell—took water samples at 14 sites covering four watersheds in the park.

Slogging through brambles and muck and tangles of barbed wire outside the ranch cores, they captured 125 specimens to be analyzed in the Bay Area labs of McCampbell Analytical.

In late October, Lovell released his full report, with these highlights.

  • The level of fecal bacterial indicators in the waters draining from J and L ranch are so elevated, “it is likely that visitors to Kehoe Lagoon and Kehoe Beach have contracted gastrointestinal illness from exposure to cattle manure pathogens.”
  • “The National Park Service claim that conventional cattle manure management practices will adequately protect surface water quality is false … protection …. will require reduction of the active dairy herds.”
  • “A Ranch and B Ranch drainages are significantly impaired … bacteria concentrations were more than 10 times the [allowed measure].”
  • The overall cattle manure load in the sampled watersheds is sufficient to cause dangerous agal and cynobacterial bloom.
  • “The National Park Service has not warned park visitors of these risks despite full knowledge of the risks.” 

These findings are not unexpected; Parks, the Water Board, NOAA, the EPA, Marin EHS and the Coastal Commission have known about the deleterious impacts of beef and dairy ranching for decades. The agencies have long acted as if they are charged with protecting ranching from the existential needs of wildlife, native plants, aquatic life and not the reverse.

Jocelyn Knight - B Ranch pipe
HOSED A pipe used to spread manure across B Ranch. Photo by Jocelyn Knight

A sad story

An environmental history of Tomales Bay published by Parks in 2009 explained:

“Dairy farmers had typically sought properties with creeks that would provide water for their stock, but these same creeks carried animal wastes into the bay. When manure washed into the estuary, the high levels of ammonia in the waste poisoned fish and posed threats to human health. In rainy weather, sewage ponds overflowed, and waste material washed into the nearby waterways. The 10,254 dairy cows and beef cattle in the watershed produced 1,066,574 pounds of manure per day in 2000. Cattle also increased erosion as they trampled streambanks, causing [48,000 tons of] silt to wash into the bay [every year].”

At the millennium, Parks hydrologist Brannon J. Ketcham, reported:

“[Water testing] has revealed degraded water quality conditions below most of the dairy operations within the Seashore … identifying fecal coliform and toxic ammonia as primary indicators. … High pollutant levels … are attributed to direct access to water [by cows] or persistent sources (septic systems). … The waters of [the Seashore are] extremely diverse, valuable, and sensitive [and] dependent upon the water quality. … best management practices have not been established … streams within the pastoral zone … support endangered or threatened species.”

Ketcham complained that a lack of funding for testing had stymied a pressing need to “meet the detailed monitoring requirements … necessary on most watershed[s] within the pastoral zone. … A complete inventory of the water quality … has never been performed.” 

Ketcham noted, “Dairy runoff … does affect water quality on Drakes Bay and offshore waters of northern Point Reyes. [Parks] is currently working with these ranches to improve dairy facilities and management to correct these problems.”

Parks, the Water Board and Marin Resource Conservation District have spent more than $10 million in the last decade on “best management practices” at the Seashore, primarily installing miles of barbed wire fencing to, in theory, keep cattle from defecating into ponds, streams, estuaries. In practice, many fences are broken due to lack of maintenance, and cattle freely wallow in waters throughout the park. Fencing makes public lands inaccessible to hikers, boaters, swimmers, fishers. It disrupts wildlife migration and cuts off their access to water. 

Fence-confined bovines unload millions of pounds of concentrated fecal matter into pastures adjacent to ponds and streams. When the rains come, fences cannot stop bacteria from infiltrating the waters.

Science of fencing

Parks has responded to queries about water pollution by citing a 2021 study on the Kehoe Creek and Abbotts Lagoon watersheds by Ketcham and Park ecologist Dylan Voeller, who oversees environmental monitoring at the dairies, and Benjamin Becker, a Parks employee. 

They opine that pollution levels may be waning due to “best management practices,” i.e., fencing, and spraying liquid manure on fields to lower the levels of overflowing manure ponds.

Inverness-based financial software architect Ken Bouley disagrees. In an analysis submitted to a California Coastal Commission hearing in September, Bouley detailed his belief that the Voeller-Ketcham study is flawed by a “paucity of data and omitted explanatory variables.” 

Meaning he assessed the authors did not examine enough data points to substantiate their opinions, and that they neglected to adequately consider statistical models that could contradict their conjecture that fencing lowers the rate at which fecal pathogens sluice into streams, and that, therefore, the best way to reduce cow-induced pollution is to build more fences. Bouley observed “that even after numerous, costly projects, water quality still exceeded regulatory thresholds between half and three-quarters of the time.” 

He found an error in the study’s data sourcing that called into question its concluding opinions. Bouley brought up the matter with Voeller, who agreed that there was an error, although he stood by his opinions. Neither Ketcham nor Voeller responded to requests for comment.

Parks also refers to a 2019 study co-authored by Voeller and David Lewis, who directs the University of California Cooperative Extension, Marin and is a board officer of Marin Conservation League. Their paper opines that the installation of fencing had likely caused a “downward trend” in fecal bacterial counts over 19 years. 

The study discounts stream samples taken after rainstorms that exhibited increasing trends in levels of fecal bacteria. And the removal of 780 acres from cattle grazing during the study period was a one-time effect which may have lowered pollution levels temporarily but may not represent a trend. Voeller and Lewis admit, “It is often difficult to demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that grazing management practices result in quantifiable water quality improvements.”

It is not difficult to demonstrate that the UC Cooperative Extension is quantifiably funded by agribusiness. The Extension self-describes as “part of the agricultural community, we help farmers implement more efficient growing methods and solve pest management problems.” Public records show that the Extension has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from chemical corporations that produce artificial pesticides and livestock feed additives. Major donors include Dow AgroSciences and Bayer Corporation (which owns Monsanto Company and its controversial Roundup pesticide). Lewis did not respond to requests for comment.

Sacred lands

Point Reyes embraces scores of ancient Indigenous sites destroyed by ranching and the indifference of the National Park Service. A 1998 Sonoma State University archeological study by Barbra Polansky observed a shell midden located on the trail that leads to Kehoe Beach:

“There is a recently constructed National Park Service bathroom facility on the South side of the trail, adjacent to traces of the midden.”

The Department of Interior dug a latrine on top of a sacred burial ground. It has similarly desecrated other sacred sites at the Seashore and throughout North America. But increasingly faced with governmental environmental malfeasance, people all over the world are starting to listen to the lessons of Indigenous science and the Land Back movement—the topic of an upcoming story on how and why the battle for Point Reyes is a contest for the future of life.

This investigation is supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Support journalism at www.peterbyrne.info.

Peter Byrnehttp://www.peterbyrne.info
Northern California-based journalist Peter Byrne combines investigative reporting with science writing. He has received national, regional, and local recognition for investigative work, writing style, and in-depth profiles of politicians, grifters, grafters, and… artists. Read his past work at www.peterbyrne.info.


  1. Thank you so much for this article along the photos. Appreciate you naming Huffman and Feinstein as reipients of lobbying funding. Lets bring the Nunez family into court soon.

  2. This kind of reporting is the standard of true investigative journalism. I thank Peter Byrne and the Bohemian for their bravery in getting out the truth. I certainly have stopped buying anything from Strauss and Organic Valley Brand. Maybe it’s time to cease bovine milk production and switch to healthy food. Just ask a Miwok or anyone with more sense than these disgusting poison ranches.

  3. This issue has been under reported on since the creation of the park. Thank you for your work on this. Based on facts, not $. I will send my comments to people in charge, who probably continue with their original plan until the groundswell of public opinion overwhelms them. So let us let loose the wave, to save the park from those who don’t protect it, but the continue with the status quo.

  4. I laughed and cried – finally, the truth! Kudos to Peter and the Bohemian for releasing this blockbuster of investigative reporting. Will be sharing as widely as possible. How to get Huffman and Feinstein to back off their support and force a referendum on the ranches is the next step. Perhaps a change in national park’s supervisor is in order. Glad to see the heavyweight organizations are involved. Deep thanks to all involved.

  5. Very impressive environmental investigative reporting. During the 1950s and 60s I spent my childhood summers endlessly roaming Point Reyes . Darn those cows then, damn those cows now. Those cows were the inspiration for my participation in the removal of grazing cattle from certain public lands in eastern Oregon. With good science and good lawyers it can be done.

  6. Bravo! for this article; excellent journalism that names the politicians, the ranchers, the brands that are profiting from poisoning Pt Reyes- and the state agencies that are supposed to be protecting this beautiful land.

  7. Regarding the purchases of weapons and ammunition, what is the need for frangible rounds? The bullet from a frangible round breaks apart when it strikes a human body or a solid object, creating a shrapnel like effect. Typically, someone like an undercover air marshall will be issued frangible rounds which are not capable of punching through the skin of the aircraft. A jacketed round can exit the body of the target and continue on to cause further harm and damage. Creating a hole in the skin of an aircraft at 30,000 feet would have serious consequences. There are two apparent reasons, neither of them good, why the NPS would use frangible rounds. One, to target a specific person or group of individuals and worry about collateral harm to other people in close .
    proximity. Two, since the round breaks apart it would be impossible to determine the specific gun that fired the round and hence, the identity of the officer. Since the Janet Reno days, federal agencies have proffered the flimiest of reasons to up arm themselves.

    A great work of investigative journalism.

  8. Holy cow?!? Excellent reporting Peter Byrne and Bohemian! Thank you and keep up the good work. We can only hope this situation improves sooner than later because of your efforts to bring it out in the open!

  9. Even if environmentalists successfully force animal agriculture to relocate out of Pt Reyes (highly unlikely given their local political power), it would mostly push the problem elsewhere and be one more success of NIMBYism. These beef and dairy operations are thought to be the gold standard of their industry, often labeled as organic and regenerative…. feel good meat and dairy. Inherent in this industry is abhorrent environmental destruction; deforestation, water toxification and waste, extensive air pollution, and more GHGEs than all planes, trains, cars and boats combined.

    Your story is an expertly documented example of the industry’s long shadow, but one that would be the norm if the thousands of such operations were similarly documented (albeit a rare one because it’s located near a wealthy community). Unless we all vastly reduce the amount of animal protein we consume, any wins by environmentalists in Pt Reyes just kick the can somewhere else.

    We need to treat protein similar to how we have advanced energy, by heavily investing into new alternatives that make old ways obsolete. We now make energy without fossil fuels, we can make meat without the animal.

    • Ari, I have several reactions that I hope you consider. First, milk is over-produced, and the industry is suffering. So it’s not true that these animals would necessary go elsewhere. Second, this is a National Park, with several endangered species. So, moving the livestock to existing operations would actually be positive in its own right. Besides, public access to its own park is severely impacted by these operations, so that is a positive as well. Furthermore, ranching or any non-tourist commercial operations in a national park is quite rare, so there are not thousands of other examples of this, exactly. Lastly (or again) this is a national park, so you are also, I believe, discounting the precedent set by allowing commercial impairment of what is supposed to be the most protected land in the country.

      I agree in principle with much else of what you said, and I do think we need to drastically reduce our intake of animal protein. I became vegan as I got involved in this very struggle.

  10. Quote: “In January, environmentalist organizations sued the National Park Service in federal court, alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. Resource Renewal Institute, Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity are demanding that Parks protect the degraded ecology of Point Reyes by discontinuing cattle and dairy ranching. The environmentalists argue that ranching “violates the Point Reyes Act, which established the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 for the purposes of ‘public recreation, benefit and inspiration;’ the Organic Act, which requires the agency to leave natural resources ‘unimpaired’ for the benefit of future generations; and the Clean Water Act by allowing ranches to circumvent water quality standards … The parties are in confidential settlement talks as we go to press.”

    I usually would not trust most conservation groups to be a party to “confidential settlement talks” with the Nat. Park Service or any other governmental agency. However, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity and the Resource Renewal Institute along with Wilderness Watch are the best advocates we have to fight for our wild lands and wildlife.

  11. I would like to know who these dairy farmers are selling their milk to so I can stop buying their products..

  12. I would love for articles like this to offer a list of action steps at the end to give us a direction for our frustration, instead of leave us stagnating in it. I feel incredibly alarmed after reading this piece, so how can I channel that into something productive? I’d love to hear from fellow readers who you have written to or called with regards to voicing your concern, and what exactly you’ve said.

  13. This really needs to be picked up by the NYT. It is a national disgrace and a slap in the face by our cynical politicians (even Mike McGuire), by Deb Harland and the greedy Graton Rancheria, by the Coastal Commission, by the National Park Service and its moronic lackeys,
    by PRBO which wrote a disgraceful report on the ‘benefits’ of cattle grazing. The people who love and want to protect our natural legacy were overwhelmingly against extending those bogus leases and yet they were extended. People want justice for the land and the native animals and birds. Disgusting. Thank you to the enviro groups that should NOT have to be fighting this goddamn fight on our National Seashore.

  14. How do we help the environment with out repeating mistakes made in past efforts?
    At first glance, or even a fairly deep dive into the issues of agriculture it’s all too easy to draw the conclusion remove the cattle fix the problem. As a certified permaculture design consultant with four decades of experience living on the Sonoma coast, I have seen several evolutions of environmental perspective . Its important to remember to not get too righteous, to Eco fascist. I have been known to say fascism is still fascism, even if it’s ego fascism. Remember, when being a liberal meant being open minded? In the last decade or so, I’ve been shocked dismayed by the level of righteous indignation. A my way or the highway attitude from liberals. Unapologetic, social justice warriors. Let’s reflect. Remember the line take only pictures leave only foot prints ? Now ecologists are finally starting to understand, indigenous wisdom. For example, we live in a fire, ecology and fire suppression has created an unhealthy ecosystem, ripe for canopy fires. Leave it alone environmentalism has been a disaster. Not enough grazing can cause as much ecosystem collapse as too much. I understand it’s overwhelming just to do proper land management while addressing a localized issue. Not to mention larger systemic, problems. Farmers used to be diversified. On a sustainable farm or dairy that grows a plethora, a cornucopia of farm goods we would be re-sequestering the nutrients instead of having excess manures. Industrialized ag is the problem. Subsidies are a huge part of the problem. Mono crops being shipped absurdly far right out of the bio region. It’s all too easy to blame the farmer Instead of looking at how our lifestyle choices perpetuate an unhealthy cycle of use and abuse of our natural world. There’s newer science coming out around the impact of animals on the environment, grazing animals can repair riparian Corredor’s. Animal manure’s can actually decrees Greenhouse gases through the digestion of plant matter. And the beef is healthier than soy. I won’t try to prove all the science in this little blurb. It’s important to understand that a lot of environmental science is actually outdated. For more information Permaculture design consultations and landscape services call Woodland Gardens at 707-210-4590.

    • All you say is earnest and from experience. But this is a national park, supposed to be the most protected lands on earth. Why shouldn’t it just be wilderness? There is no good answer to that.


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