During the fall of 1969, U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, Jr., button-holed John Ehrlichman, then counsel to President Richard Nixon, and implored him to get the president to support creation of Point Reyes National Seashore.
"The only man who can save the Point Reyes National Seashore is the President," the California Republican wrote to Mr. Ehrlichman on September 16 of that year. "He is running out of time because the House Interior Committee is going to adjourn October 1, and the Bureau of the Budget Director, Robert Mayo, has made it clear that there are no funds available from BOB despite what has been properly characterized thus far as 'weak White House support.'
"The money is available in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. All the President need do is order that it be earmarked for the national seashore projects, specifically Point Reyes," Rep. McCloskey continued.
Forty-two years later, the former congressman again has taken pen in hand for the seashore -- which President Nixon did indeed eventually support more forcefully -- this time to support the continued operation of an oyster farm in Drakes Estero, an area of Point Reyes designated for official wilderness classification.
The letter-writing comes as the National Park Service works to complete a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the impacts of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. on the estero and its harbor seal populations.
The Park Service's handling of the oyster company's future has been both contentious and embarassing for the agency in recent years. While a Park Service report on the oyster operation concluded that it was impacting harbor seals, the report at times has withered under scrutiny.
In 2009 the National Research Council said the NPS report was skewed, "selectively" manipulated in several areas, and inconclusive overall.
A year later, the Interior's Solicitor's Office conducted an investigation into whether the staff at Point Reyes had intentionally mishandled research data it collected to determine the oyster farm's impacts, if any, on harbor seals during pupping season. That probe cleared the staff of any criminal behavior or criminal misconduct in the matter, a finding that itself has drawn criticism.
Part of the investigation centered around charges that Park Service staff "suppressed" more than 250,000 photographs the Point Reyes staff captured with a secret camera from 2007 to 2010 to determine whether farm operations were disturbing harbor seals during the pupping season. Those photos, proponents of the oyster farm say, failed to show any disturbance of harbor seals by farm employees. Interviews conducted by the Solicitor's Office, however, indicated that on at least five occasions the farm's workers caused disturbances of seals during pupping season.
Pressure by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein prompted Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to direct the Park Service to again study the oyster company's impacts on the estero and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. With a draft of that document expected soon, Sen. Feinstein, former Rep. McCloskey, and others are lobbying the Interior secretary to have an independent analysis of the DEIS conducted and to allow the oyster company to continue operations beyond the expiration of the company's permit in November 2012.
Not only do letters sent to the Interior secretary question the ability of the Park Service to be unbiased in assessing the oyster company's impacts, but they maintain that when legislation for the national seashore was drawn up it was done so with the intent that ranches in the area, as well as the oyster farm, be allowed to operate even within official wilderness.
"The seashore is somewhat unique in the National Park System in that from the beginning, it was intended to have a considerable part of its area, consisting of the historic scenic ranches being leased back to their owners, and to retain an oyster farm and California's only oyster cannery in the Drakes Estero. The estero sits in the middle of those 20,000 acres of ranches designated as a pastoral zone; the oyster plant and cannery on the shores of Drakes Estero are in that pastoral zone," states a letter sent to Secretary Salazar by Mr. McCloskey, former U.S. Rep. John Burton, and former California Assemblyman William T. Bagley.
The letter also cites then-Park Service Director Conrad Wirth's position in 1961 that "... existing commerical oyster beds and the oyster cannery at Drakes Estero...should continue under national seashore status because of their public values. The culture of oysters is an interesting and unique industry which presents exceptional educational opportunities for introducing the public, especially students, to the field of marine biology."
Yet those positions clash with a Solicitor's Office opinion, rendered in February 2004, that stated not only was the Park Service within its rights to order the oyster farm out of the seashore, but that Congress did intend for the estero to be designated as official wilderness after the existing lease expired in November 2012.
The opinion specifically noted that "Tom Johnson, as a condition of his sale (of his land) to the Park Service, reserved the right to operate an oyster farm for 40 years until 2012."
Removal of JOC from the Point Reyes National Seashore property and its oyster farming from the Estero, would allow the Service to begin the conversion of the area to wilderness status, which directive Congress charged the Park Service to accomplish.
Furthermore, in an appendix to its report on the Point Reyes studies, the National Research Council noted that, "The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Office read the 1976 legislation designating Drakes Estero as Potential Wilderness and strengthening the enabling act for Point Reyes National Seashore [P.L. 94-544 (Oct. 18, 1976) and P.L. 94-567 (Oct. 20, 1976), 16 U.S.C. § 1132 note] as eliminating the discretion of the NPS to authorize continued operations through a new authorizing instrument beyond the expiration of the RUO in 2012."
The Solicitor's Office opinion also runs contrary to some of the the positions outlined in the latest letter by former Reps. McCloskey and Burton and former California Assemblyman Bagley.
According to their letter, when the seashore was created the state of California retained fishing rights to the submerged lands in the estero. They also noted that John Kyl, then assistant Interior Secretary, had pointed to the state reservation of rights as making the estero "inconsistent" with pure wilderness. Furthermore, they cited 1974 testimony by the sponsors of legislation to create wilderness areas within the seashore that made clear their intention for the oyster farm to continue operating "as a prior, non-conforming use within the potential wilderness area."
The Solicitor's Office, however, held that Mr. Kyl's position was "not only inaccurate but overridden by the Congressional action..." The resulting legislation that designated wilderness in the seashore also made no mention of allowing the oyster company to continue operating after its lease expired or the wilderness designation for the estero was approved by Congress.
Sen. Feinstein, meanwhile, wrote Secretary Salazar this past Sept. 2 with a request that the Park Service's DEIS be independently reviewed before being released for public review.
"Several reports have shown that Point Reyes scientists have not been objective in their analysis of harbor seal impacts in Drakes Estero," wrote the Democrat from California. She also noted the investigations by the National Research Council and Interior's Solicitor's Office that questioned the Park Service's scientific integrity on the matter.
"Taken together, these reports send a clear message to the Park Service and Department of Interior that steps must be taken to address this lack of scientific integrity," added the senator. "The Draft Environmental Impact Statement must incorporate the findings of a review of the Park Service's scientific work when it is in question especially given their history of misrepresenting science.
"I fear that unless the Department of Interior stands behind the independent analysis of this scientific paper, then it will be another example of a lack of credibility at Point Reyes National Seashore."