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Marine Wilderness at a Crossroads In Point Reyes National Seashore


Should an oyster farm be moved out of Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore so the estero can become part of officially designated wilderness? Photo of Drakes Estero by Susan Van Der Wal via NPS.

Editor's note: A longstanding dispute concerning proposed wilderness at Point Reyes National Seashore continues to simmer with no clear end in sight. At the center of the dispute is an oyster farm operating in Drakes Estero within the national seashore. While Congress has called for the estero to be included in officially designated wilderness, the operation of the oyster company stands in the way. There are differing viewpoints on whether the company should move out of the estero. What follows is the perspective from Neal Desai, the National Parks Conservation Association's Pacific Region associate director.

A big decision at Point Reyes could strike at the core values of our national parks.

To protect the West Coast’s only marine wilderness or to commercialize it – that is the choice that Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar must make as he considers the fate of Drakes Estero, an estuary within Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California. At stake is the destiny of a wildlife sanctuary and the longstanding interpretation of national park laws and policies, which state that wilderness is set aside to restore natural conditions, not to support private commercial use of natural resources.

In 1976, after years of public debate, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which preserved ecologically significant lands as wilderness and preserved farming lands in a pastoral zone. Called one of “the most significant ecological units within the national seashore” by the National Park Service, Congress designated Drakes Estero as a wilderness area with the mandate that natural conditions would be restored once the operating rights for an existing oyster company expired. The original owner of the oyster company knew this, and when he sold it to Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) only 5 years ago, it was clear that the operating rights were scheduled to cease in 2012, so that the harbor seals, fish, and other elements of the natural setting would become a priority.

But in 2009, following intense lobbying, the new company was able to persuade Congress to include--in a bill moving towards passage--language requiring Secretary Salazar to consider extending the company’s commercial lease.

Drakes Estero is the ecological heart of Point Reyes National Seashore and its watershed is home to several protected and endangered plants and animals, including eelgrass, harbor seals and birds including Black Brant and Great Egrets. Yet industry wants the waters for its motorized oyster boats, wants the sandbars reserved for its oyster bags (at the expense of harbor seals), and wants to make a fundamental change in wilderness policy so that private commercial use is acceptable.

In October 2009, after being notified of placing more than 700 bags of clams in unauthorized areas and therefore violating his permit, the owner of the oyster company told the National Park Service that he had removed his illegally placed bags and placed them within the authorized area. But photographic and site-visit evidence from December 2009 showed that he instead moved the clam bags on a sandbar well within a harbor seal protection area. A representative of the Coastal Commission said that "this was essentially the worst possible place to put these clams" and assessed a fine of $61,250.

NPS is mandated by law to provide “maximum protection” for the natural resources in the wilderness zone, which Drakes Estero is within. Their unique policies protect these special places from private exploitation and instead preserve them in the public trust – a core value of our National Park System. It is time to restore wilderness and wildlife protection to Drakes Estero.

Here is how you can help: Visit to learn more and submit public comments to the National Park Service.


Point Reyes National Seashore offers great relief from the traffic and confusion of an over-crowded San Francisco Bay Area. The urgency to remove the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm will be dependent on the extent to which its operations constitute an ecological and aesthetic impact of significance. Given that most of the Point Reyes ecosystem is not in a natural state, but is semi-agricultural/ranch land, I suspect that it will be some time before the NPS is able to close down or relocate the Oyster Farm, unless direct evidence can be produced that demonstrates that this establishment is causing detrimental impacts to the landscape and ecosystem.

If I may correct one issue: Point Reyes is not the only marine wilderness on the West Coast, at least the Rocks and Islands Wilderness, south of Cape Mendocino exists since 2006.

You conveniently ignore all the obfuscation, distortion of fact, cover-ups of exculpatory data (e.g., the spy cameras) and outright lying on the part of PRNS's previous supervisor, its chief scientist and Jon Jarvis, now the chief of the National Parks, in regard to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, as well as the fact that the oyster farm has been on that site since before WWII, long before PRNS was a twinkle in anyone's eye. If the numerous ranches within the park, some of which border Drakes Estero, aren't a threat, why is the oyster farm, whose effects on the local ecosystem are demonstrably beneficial? The Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976 made specific provision for continuing the oyster farm's lease, another fact conveniently omitted from your unbalanced, biased article. How about a little fairness?

Fact: the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act makes absolutely no provision for continued oyster operation.

Fact: Best available science shows a clear negative impact from oyster operations on harbor seals

Fact: Drakes Bay Oyster Company was fined $61,500 in December 2009 for illegally operating within long-known harbor seal protection areas after being warned of this violation.

Fact: The oyster operation has a considerable negative impact on this one-of-a-kind estuary, including eelgrass destruction, multiple types of disturbances to harbor seals, and violating any sense of solitude with their motorized boats and jack hammers.

Fact: A majority of Americans don't want their national parks or national park wilderness areas commercialized.

"The Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976 made specific provision for continuing the oyster farm's lease, another fact conveniently omitted from your unbalanced, biased article."


Actually, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act makes no mention of extending the oyster farm's lease. You may read the complete text of the bill at:

The law renaming the Wilderness after Phillip Burton likewise makes no mention of the oyster farm:

The only mention of any connection to the oyster farm is indirect, in the language of the original bill referring to "potential wilderness additions comprising eight thousand and three acres ..." Those acres are the land and water of the oyster farm's operations. Labeling them as "potential wilderness" means that Congress intended the area to become wilderness automatically when the non-conforming use (the oyster farm) could be removed. Johnson's Oyster Company, at it was called back then, had a valid existing right, good for 40 years after its special use permit was issued in 1972. Thus the land could not become wilderness until 2012. But that was Congress's intention when it passed the original Point Reyes Wilderness Act.

That is the crux of the matter, regardless of the way the Park Service might have handled any of the other issues.

Actually - the evidence I've heard is that eelgrass proliferation is aided by the reduction of turbidity via the oysters' filter feeding. The areas near the oyster racks have excellent eelgrass growth. Occasionally a boat propellor might clip some eelgrass, but I doubt it's too severe.

Best available science seems to show that the greatest impact on harbor seal populations come from hikers and kayakers, as well as aircraft flying overhead. I realize that it can never be zero for impacts from the oyster farm, but what I've heard is that they truly make their best effort to mitigate their effects. That doesn't mean mistakes haven't been made from time to time.

I'd also note that I don't believe that any of the land of the oyster farm operations is in the potential wilderness. I've seen a copy of the wilderness plan map, and any land area that is marked as "potential wilderness" is away from the oyster farm. I think there was a certain area that had already transitioned from potential to fully designated wilderness, which is referenced in the Act.

I've also read the Point Reyes Wilderness Act several times. It sets no timetable for the removal of the oyster farm. It's really short, and doesn't set a timetable for any of the "potential wilderness additions" to be converted to full wilderness. My understanding from interviews with John Burton (whose brother sponsored the Act) is that the intent wasn't necessarily that the oyster farm had to go, but that if it did go the area might be converted to full wilderness.

The unsaid thing here is that in order for Drakes Estero to become fully designated wilderness, the State of California would have to give up their water bottom rights, and I doubt they will. They have the authority to issue shellfish permits (and in fact did extend the farm's permit to 2029). They also reserve mineral rights, although I doubt there's going to be any oil exploration in Drakes Estero.

Thanks for reading and commenting. Drakes Estero is within a federally designated wilderness area. The ranches at Pt. Reyes, including Mr. Lunny's (owner of the oyster company), is not within the designated wilderness area. Wilderness management calls for the preservation of natural resources (which includes natural systems, ecosystems, habitat, behavior, native species, etc) -- millions of non-native oysters simply do not support natural resources management and instead alter it -- this is not a benefit for wilderness management. I am putting forth my viewpoint on what is the best purpose for Drakes Estero. Many, including me, believe it is for maximum protection of natural resources and wildlife, not for private commercial profit. Others disagree and such is the debate that usually accompanies land-use decisions. Oysters can be and are grown elsewhere (they are grown at Tomales Bay only a few miles away), but this is our only chance on the West Coast to create a marine wilderness, allowing restoration of the natural processes and resources.

Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, the land part of the oyster company's operations is not in a designated wilderness area - the marine (waters) section where the oyster harvesting takes place is within the designated wilderness area. Regarding reserved rights by the state and their shellfish permits, see this document from the State Counsel to the NPS: -- the NPS doesn't have to wait for the State to take action before it can designate the estuary as full wilderness and the shellfish permits are contingent on oyster operations being approved by NPS (at this point, they are approved until Nov 2012 and if the NPS decides to restore wilderness in 2012 through removing the oyster operation, then the shellfish permits cease).

I did a little looking around the Net and found that the National Research Council of the National Academies released a study in 2009 titled "Shellfish Mariculture in Drakes Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore, California" It's available online at:

Appendix A, beginning on p. 105, deals with the wilderness issue. The Interior Department Solicitor's Office confirms what Neal says in his response: that California already gave up its rights in 1965. Here's a quote from the Solicitor's letter included in the appendix:

"In conjunction with the Seashore authorization Act of 1962, the State of California, by 1965 legislation ..., conveyed to the United States all of the right, title and interest of the State in lands one-quarter mile seaward of the mean high tide. More precisely the State granted “all the tide and submerged lands or other lands beneath navigable waters situated within the boundaries of the Point Reyes National Seashore …” to the United States. Excepted from this grant and reserved to the State were the “right to fish upon, and all oil, gas and other hydrocarbons in the lands … together with the right to explore or prospect …” within the tidal and submerged lands." (

(Also: The fishing rights mentioned seem to be public fishing rights, not commercial.)

FOOTNOTE 1: It is noted that the State continues to issue to Johnson Oyster Company commercial allotments in Drakes Estero which seem to be in conflict with the 1965 State legislative grant and 1976 Congressional mandate to convert the bays of the Estero into wilderness status. On the other hand, the continued public fishing in the Estero is consistent with the State legislative grant and the conversion to wilderness status.
Further, since the United States owns the tide and submerged lands in Drakes Estero, it clearly follows that permission of NPS is appropriate for commercial activities taking place on those granted lands. (Emphasis in original.)

On the same page, the Solicitor's letter states: "Addressing the potential wilderness lands and water, the House Report 94-1680, accompanying the eventually enacted Bill (HR 8002) states that it was its intent that there be 'efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status.'" The major obstacle is the oyster farm.

Finally, the Park Service's Wilderness Management Policies state: “The National Park Service will apply the principles of civic engagement and cooperative conservation as it determines the most appropriate means of removing the temporary, nonconforming conditions that preclude wilderness designation from potential wilderness.” (Sec. 6.3.1) This implies strongly that the Park Service has a duty to remove nonconforming uses from potential wilderness when it has the opportunity.

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