SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The National Park Service lets private ranchers raise livestock on 18,000 acres of Point Reyes National Seashore without ever having studied its environmental impact, three environmental groups claim in court.
The Resource Renewal Institute, Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project claim the National Park Service and Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon violate federal law by renewing ranching leases under an outdated management plan from 1980.
The 71,000-acre park in Marin County, north of San Francisco, hosts more than 100 wildlife species. More than 33,000 acres are designated as wilderness or potential wilderness, "including the only marine wilderness on the West Coast south of Alaska," according to the Feb. 10 federal complaint. The park draws more than 2 million visitors a year.
"The National Park Service is obligated to manage the Point Reyes National Seashore through a current and valid General Management Plan, consistent with the overriding legal mandates that the National Seashore's wildlife and natural resources receive 'maximum protection' and be left 'unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,'" the 37-page lawsuit states.
The environmental groups say that ranching in the park hurts water quality, exacerbates erosion and contributes to climate change.
The park began developing a Ranch Comprehensive Management Plan in April 2014, holding public workshops and meetings and receiving more than 3,000 public comments on the plan.
The Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association submitted a letter about the management plan in June 2014, asking the park to issue leases with at least 20-year terms, repeal limits on livestock, support designating ranches as protected world heritage sites, let ranchers offer tours to visitors and allow family members to inherit lease permits.
Ranching has been an important part of the land for more than 150 years and one that Congress intended to protect from commercial land speculation when it made Point Reyes a National Park in 1962, the ranchers say.
A draft ranching management plan was supposed to be unveiled early this year. The park's outreach manager, Melanie Gunn, who is in charge of that process, was not available Friday to comment on the status of the plan.
The environmentalists say ranching also interferes with efforts to restore California's protected Tule elk population, which were reintroduced to Point Reyes National Seashore in 1978.
Ranchers want the park to build new 10-foot-high fences in the Limantour Beach area, as it did in Tomales Point, to keep elk from wandering into grazing land.
The 18,000 acres on which the park allows private ranching eats up nearly half of its non-wilderness areas, according to the lawsuit.
Point Reyes has issued 31 ranching leases to 21 families, according to ranch permit records from April 2015.
The lawsuit comes about one year after an 80-year-old oyster farm, Drake's Bay Oyster Co., was shut down at Point Reyes after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of two rulings upholding the federal government's decision not to renew its lease.
In a November 2012 memo regarding the expiration of the oyster farm's lease, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar affirmed his support for "the continued presence of dairy and beef ranching operations in Point Reyes' pastoral zone" and stated that "the values of multigenerational ranching and farming" should be considered in Point Reyes' planning efforts.
That memo also authorized Point Reyes to issue 20-year lease permits to ranchers, according to the lawsuit.
The environmental groups say the defendants' refusal to update the park's management plan violates the Administrative Procedure Act, and that renewing the ranching leases violates the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Park Service Act and Point Reyes Act.
They seek a declaration and an order directing the park to adopt an updated management plan and to ensure full compliance with federal laws and regulations before the park issues any new ranching leases.
They are represented by Jeffery Chanin with Keker & Van Nest of San Francisco.
National Park Service spokesman John Golda declined to comment on the lawsuit.