Showing little faith in the National Park Service's ability to conduct sound science at Point Reyes National Seashore, Congress has inserted language into an appropriations bill that calls for the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the agency's science into the impacts of an oyster farm operating within the seashore.
The battle over the future of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has been ongoing for a number of years. When the company's owner, Kevin Lunny, bought the operation from the Johnson Oyster Co. in 2005, it came with a 40-year lease that expires in November 2012. And since the oyster farm is located in an area of the seashore, Drakes Estero, that has been targeted for official wilderness designation, his ability to gain a lease extension has been impeded.
At issue is whether the oyster farm is adversely impacting Drakes Estero and its marinelife, particularly harbor seals. The estero long has been viewed for designation as official wilderness -- the 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres that would be "essentially managed as wilderness, to the extent possible, with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status" -- and the oyster operation is seen as being incompatible with such a designation.
The Park Service's handling of the oyster company's future has been both contentious and embarassing for the agency. 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.
When a House-Senate conference committee met last week to resolve differences in the appropriations bill that funds the Interior Department, the conferees added language stating, "(B)ecause of concerns relating to the validity of the science underlying the (draft Environmental Impact Statement), the conferees direct the National Academy of Sciences to assess the data, analysis, and conclusions in the DEIS in order to ensure there is a solid scientific foundation for the Final Environmental Impact Statement expected in mid-2012."
Last month the federal Marine Mammals Commission weighed in with its own report on the studies revolving around the oyster farm. While the commission found that seal behavior at Drakes Estero was "at least correlated" with operations of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., it also said more research is needed to determine a "cause and effect."
Perhaps more importantly, the 70-page report said there's no solid evidence as to how disturbances to the seals affects them biologically.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight Committee under the direction of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., continues to pore through reams of Park Service documents to determine whether the agency "knowingly relied on flawed science" in previously opposing the oyster company's continued operation in the seashore.