Some push-back has surfaced against U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein's efforts to see oyster farming continue in an area of Point Reyes National Seashore that has been destined for official wilderness designation.
A group calling itself the Save Drakes Bay Coalition is urging U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, D-Washington, to strip a rider Sen. Feinstein placed on an Interior appropriations bill (attached below) that would allow the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to continue operations in the national seashore's Drakes Estero. Commercial oyster farming was well under way in Drakes Estero in 1976 when Congress designated the estuary as potential wilderness. Interior Department officials, noting that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operation would run counter to official wilderness designation, directed the National Park Service to push for that designation in 2012 when the oyster farm's lease expires.
But that didn't sit well with Sen. Feinstein, D-California, who earlier this year wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to urge him to see that oyster company's lease be extended by a decade. Apparently concerned that the secretary wouldn't honor her request, Sen. Feinstein resorted to the rider to extend the company's lease. In explaining her move, the Democrat said 30 jobs would be preserved by allowing the oyster farm to stay in business.
But that carries little sway with the coalition, which represents the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Marin Conservation League and the Marin Audubon Society.
"We oppose the legislative rider that strips Wilderness Act and National Park laws in order to provide exclusive operating rights for a commercial oyster company within the Point Reyes National Seashore. The revisions made to the rider fail to protect the park," the coalition said in a prepared statement. "Additionally, the rider continues to serve as an example to hundreds of other private right owners in the park system who may seek extensions and exemptions from their own expiring rights. We urge the House Appropriations Committee to strike the rider in the upcoming negotiations with the Senate."
In an op-ed piece that appeared last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, Martin Griffin, co-founder of Audubon Canyon Ranch and the Environmental Forum of Marin, and author of Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, wrote that the senator needs to remove her rider because it "wrongly benefits Kevin Lunny's private Drakes Bay Oyster Company."
She's extending his lease for 10 years in Drakes Estero, the public wilderness heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The removal will force the end of Lunny's lease in 2012 as intended by Congress in 1976, returning the public trust tidelands to wilderness status. Private inholdings of this sort are a grave threat to the integrity of our beloved national parks. Her rider sets a dangerous precedent opening the seashore to private opportunists. Lunny's lease extension may be as risky as allowing citizens to carry guns in the national parks.
Magnificent Drakes Estero shelters the largest rookery of breeding and pupping harbor seals on the North Coast. It is a refuge for thousands of migratory ocean birds, its mud shoals home to hundreds of species of invertebrates, nourished by cold tidal water from the ocean beyond. This remote paradise is spoiled by the traffic trying to reach Lunny's misplaced oyster bar.
I strongly support family farms within the seashore but oppose shellfish farms in the wildlife-rich tidelands of Drakes Estero. While oysters may be a moneymaker, there are other waters - Tomales Bay - where oysters may be grown and sold just as profitably. Lunny's is the only private tidelands-based industry in the park.
In a letter (attached below) to Rep. Dicks, the executive director of the California Coastal Commission pointed out that the oyster company had not received all the required permits for its operation.
"This operation has a history of State regulatory compliance problems under both the prior owner/operator as well as the current lessee-permittee. I have enclosed a November 29, 2007, Commission staff report prepared in connection with an enforcement action taken pursuant to the California Coastal Act that sets forth the background and then current legal status of various uses DBOC (Drakes Bay Oyster Co.) had undertaken without benefit of required State permits," wrote Peter Douglas. "I also enclose a copy of a recent letter sent to DBOC notifying the Company that it is not in compliance with some of the provisions of the Commission's Cease and Desist Order approved pursuant to its staff recommendation on December 12, 2007. Such failure to comply has now necessitated additional enforcement action by the Commission.
"In addition to our concerns about ongoing non-compliance with the Commission's previous law enforcement order, we note that the DBOC currently does not have a required coastal development permit for the facility, in its entirety, notwithstanding the fact we have been diligent and accommodating in an effort to bring this operation into compliance with State law," continued Mr. Douglas. "It seems to us that before the Congress bestows a valuable benefit on the DBOC by extending its right to continue its commercial operation for ten years beyond the current required expiration date of 2012, it would be prudent to ensure that the beneficiary of such special treatment be required to comply with all State regulatory requirements."
According to the National Park Service, Drakes Estero is a unique coastal setting at the national seashore:
Drakes Estero was created as a drowned river valley, submerged by an ancient river on a small block of granitic-based crust of the Pacific Plate. The most recent sea level rise following the Late Pleistocene glacial formed the contemporary estuary 6,000 years ago. The sediments near the mouth of the estuary consist of sand deposited by strong longshore currents in Drakes Bay.
The protected and largely undeveloped lands of the Drakes Estero watershed provide high quality water. Freshwater inputs are largely from the small watersheds surrounding the estuary which encompass an area of 7,847 acres. The estuary proper encompasses around 2,000 acres.
The eastern portion of the estero (Estero de Limantour) is congressionally designated Wilderness Area and the rest of the estuary is designated potential wilderness and reverts to full wilderness in 2012. Special designation to Estero de Limantour was given by the California Department of Fish and Game as a state ecological reserve. The US Shorebird Conservation Plan recognizes Drakes/Limantour Esteros as one of the most significant areas to migratory shorebirds and waterfowl of the southern California coastal sub-region.
Seagrass beds and tidal mud flats are the most widespread habitat types in the estuary, followed by salt marsh and rocky intertidal areas. The large mudflats and extensive eelgrass beds in Drakes Estero are home to numerous invertebrates and serve as foraging and breeding grounds for many birds, fish, and pinnipeds. Drakes Estero is one of the most ecologically pristine estuaries in California and the only coastal waters in the California that are in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Biotically, the estuary is exceptional:
• Extensive eelgrass beds support rare and specially protected species
• Reduced presence of non-native species: recent surveys show that many invasive species are only found where mariculture and oyster racks occur, but not in Limantour Estero.
• One of the largest harbor seal populations in California with numbers surpassing 1800
• Identified as significant area for the US Shorebird Conservation Plan: 86 Species of birds recorded in 2004, including Osprey and Black Brant.
• USFWS recognizes 18 species of concern, including Red-legged frog, Western Snowy Plover, Brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, and Marbled Murrelet.
• Recent fish survey identified over 30 species of fish, including rare and endangered species such as coho salmon, steelhead trout and three-spined stickleback.
• Rare plants occur along the shoreline of the estuary.