Marine Wilderness at a Crossroads In Point Reyes National Seashore
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 www.savedrakesbay.org to learn more and submit public comments to the National Park Service.