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Environmental Heavyweights Urge Interior Secretary To Remove Oyster Farm From Point Reyes National Seashore

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Some environmental heavyweights -- E.O. Wilson, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Sylvia A. Earle, Thomas E. Lovejoy, and Tundi Agardy -- have urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to see that an oyster farm is removed from Point Reyes National Seashore when its lease ends this fall.

Their letter, released Thursday by the National Park Service's Washington office, comes as Point Reyes officials are crafting a final environmental impact statement examining the impacts of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. on Drakes Estero.

"You are now in a position to protect the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast for the benefit of the public and generations to come," reads a portion of the letter. "This policy decision does not require Congressional or Presidential approval, providing you with a unique opportunity for a significant conservation victory in today’s challenging political climate. We urge you to please seize this significant opportunity."

The oyster company's 40-year lease runs out in November, and Congress long ago said the estero should be designated as official wilderness once all non-conforming uses are removed from it. The 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres encompassing the estero 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 draft EIS was released for public review back in December, and the final EIS is expected later this summer.

The interest in the fate of an oyster company that produces between 450,000-500,000 pounds of Pacific oyster meat a year for Bay Area outlets has been fanned by both U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an ardent supporter of the oyster company and its small workforce, and environmentalists and conservationists who want to see the estero granted official wilderness designation.

The letter from Professor Wilson, Mr. Cousteau, Dr. Earle, Dr. Lovejoy, and Dr. Agardy is below in its entirety.

Dear Secretary Salazar:

We are writing to you about a policy decision you will be making regarding the protection of the only marine Wilderness area on the West Coast: Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore. We urge you to protect this critically valuable estuary as long intended by the public and Congress.

When Drakes Estero was designated as a Wilderness Area in 1976, Congress allowed the existing oyster farming business to continue until its operating rights expired in 2012. This compromise meant the public would have to wait nearly 40 years for Drakes Estero to receive the conservation protections afforded by wilderness designation. For years, the leasing deal has been honored by the people of the country despite growing awareness of the immense benefits derived from protecting natural areas like the Estero.

You are now in a position to protect the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast for the benefit of the public and generations to come. This policy decision does not require Congressional or Presidential approval, providing you with a unique opportunity for a significant conservation victory in today’s challenging political climate. We urge you to please seize this significant opportunity.

The new owners of the company understood the terms of the lease when they acquired the business from the original owners in 2005, and now seek a new permit to continue private use of this public resource. Granting a new permit would be poor public policy and weaken the integrity of the Wilderness Act. We urge you not to do this.

Drakes Estero can be restored to its natural beauty and biological productivity. A commercial oyster operation fostering non-native species within such a sensitive, rare habitat is in direct conflict with the Seashore’s mandate of natural systems management as well as wilderness laws and national park management policies.

The National Park Service’s environmental review concludes that the “environmentally preferred alternative” is to designate wilderness this year once the operating permit expires. Additionally, tens of thousands of American’s have called on you to fulfill the promise of a protected marine wilderness at Drakes Estero. Thank you for your public service and for your efforts to safeguard America’s great outdoors.

Sincerely,

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle
Former Chief Scientist, NOAA
National Geographic Explorer in Residence
Founder Mission Blue
Former Member, National Park Service Advisory Council and Co-Chair Scientific Committee

Jean-Michel Cousteau
Chairman of the Board and President
Ocean Futures Society
Explorer, Educator, Film Producer

Dr. Tundi Agardy
Executive Director
Sound Seas

Professor Edward O. Wilson
Harvard University
Museum of Comparative Zoology

Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy
Biodiversity Chair
Former President
The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment

Comments

Kurt Repanshek
That said, I would agree that a story looking at how the NPS deals with non-conforming uses in potential wilderness could be revealing. It's possible that the High Sierra Camps were given an exemption to continue operations, as they were operating long before The Wilderness Act was passed and long before the Yosemite wilderness was designated in 1984.

  I noted that the California Wilderness Act of 1984 doesn't make note of the High Sierra Camps one way or another. As for operating long before the Wilderness Act was passed, the same is easily true of Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.

However, I did find several mentions of why the High Sierra Camps were allowed to continue. As I suspected, it not a matter of law, but policy. There is no exemption per se, just that as long as park management decides that they want the HSCs there, they remain there even though their removal would probably establish the land as fully designated wilderness.

Here's a draft report on replacement of the septic system and (I kid you not) the grease trap system at the Sunrise High Sierra Camp. It notes that the High Sierra Camps are allowed to continue under concessionaire contract because of the 1989 Wilderness Management Plan. I've tried finding a copy of this plan and can only find references to it. However, there's pretty solid background that it's a policy decision that they stay. I would think that a leaky septic and grease interceptor problem would make for a golden policy to remove such a camp, but instead they put out bids to replace these systems in a potential wilderness area.

https://ideasec.nbc.gov/ows-cls/NP144302_4181283/Sunrise%20-%20Minimum%2...

Justification

The Sunrise HSC has been in seasonal operation since it was built in 1961, the current policy as stated in the Wilderness Management Plan of 1989 is to operate the High Sierra Camps under contract to the concessionaire and to continue to afford this opportunity to the public visiting Yosemite National Park. As such, the National Park Service has a fiduciary responsibility to provide a safe source of potable water and to protect both the public and the environment from injury or damage by expeditiously managing the human waste and wastewater generated at the camps in accordance with all applicable federal, state, local or other jurisdictional laws, ordinances and policies. The YNP Wilderness Management Plan states, “Should increased adverse impact on adjacent wilderness environments result from operation of existing facilities, those facilities will be removed”. It is therefore proposed to repair the existing system or replace the existing system in order to protect the environment, water quality and human health from the impacts of wastewater while Sunrise HSC continues to operate.

  


Dear Secretary Salazar,
Drake's Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore is a treasure not only for those of us lucky enough to live nearby, but for all who value preservation of wild places.  Congress was right in designating this land "potential wilderness" in 1976, and generous in honoring the pre-existing 40 year oyster company lease.  Soon that lease will expire, and it is now time to honor the original intent of Congress that Drake's Estero be given full wilderness protection.  The need to preserve the very limited wilderness areas which remain has become only more urgent with the passage of years.
Katherine Mitchell, Inverness, CA 


JVL Inverness:
On the above; I have been edited. Second. The oyster company signed a contract agreeing to the termination of their tenure. Now others wish to negotiate a continuation of the contract. Not. A casual entry of a lone fisherman into the Estero in a rowboat cannot be compared with a commercial operation financed by deep pockets. Enough Already.

 First of all, how has anything been edited? I cut and pasted an entire section of your comment without any edit to the content. It's not your entire argument, but I'm not responding to the part where you claim your credentials and argue your opinion on the use of science.

I was wondering when we were going to get to the "contract". The "contract" as you describe says no such thing. It was written before the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act and did include a section that allowed for a special use permit to be issued to extend the term. It was written while John Sansing was the Superintendant, and he was far more amenable to the oyster farm than his successor. The "contract" mentions an "extended use period" in case the term is extended via a special use permit.

This is what "Save Drakes Bay" titles as "Drake's Bay Oyster Company's Reservation of Use (non-renewable operating rights contract) (1972) - Held by Johnson's oyster company from 1972-2005, purchased by Drake's Bay Oyster Company in 2005":

http://savedrakesbay.org/uploads/Drakes_Bay_Oyster_Company_Reservation_o...

11. Upon expiration of the reserved term, a special use permit may be issued for the continued occupancy of the property for the herein described purposes, provided however, that such permit will run concurrently with and will terminate upon the expiration of State water bottom allotments assigned to the Vendor. Any permit for continued use will be issued in accordance with National Park Service regulations in effect at the time the reservation expires.

    The regulations in effect include the rider that Sen Feinstein added to the 2009 Interior Dept appropriations bill. That specifically gives the Secretary of the Interior the authority to extend the term for 10 years.

Also - the reservation of use only applies to the shore operations. The map attached to the "contract" only shows an area "leased" from NPS that's about 3 acres of dry land. The "water bottom allotments" (i.e. the part that's actually in the wilderness plan) are leased from the State of California and were renewed for a term that expires in 2029, but are contingent on maintaining the current shore operations.


On the above; I have been edited. Second. The oyster company signed a contract agreeing to the termination of their tenure. Now others wish to negotiate a continuation of the contract. Not. A casual entry of a lone fisherman into the Estero in a rowboat cannot be compared with a commercial operation financed by deep pockets. Enough Already.


JVL Inverness:
The only point that must be made clearly and sent to Washington is that any time the government or anybody else opens the door to allowing commercial enterprises in wilderness areas, this precedent constitutes a go ahead for other enterprises such as oil and gas exploration, uranium mining etc in other wilderness areas deemed necessary and politically relevant at the moment, but that in the end ursurp and or destroy our wilderness. Period

    I would note several issues with your argument. This isn't an issue about a new use in a wilderness area, but about a pre-existing commercial use. There are many such uses in NPS Wilderness Areas (and a heck of a lot more in Forest Service and BLM Wilderness Areas) that are allowed to remain indefinitely.

Another issue is that the State of California still maintains all fishing and mineral rights to Drakes Estero, and can't cede them to the federal government without legislation that I suspect won't happen anytime soon. I guess fishing is pretty basic. Someone could use a rowboat to enter Drakes Estero and fish. The mineral rights are trickier. I don't really imagine that California is going to issue leases for oil wells in Drakes Estero should there be a discovery, but theoretically California reserves the right. If the oyster farm is still there, I would expect them to raise a stink about it.


Kurt Repanshek:
y_p_w, the wilderness description for Point Reyes was indeed provided for in the public law passed by Congress in 1976 to designate wilderness at the seashore.

http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/documents/publiclaws/PDF/94-544.pdf

I see no mention in that law for allowing the oyster farm to continue beyond its lease.

I am trying to track down a copy of the map, and a description of its boundaries, that Interior was to produce "as soon as practicable" to delineate the wilderness area. That map, and its accompanying text, hopefully will clear things up one way or another.

    I see no mention in the law what the requirements are for removal of any "non-conforming use". There is no mention of the oyster farm in the text of the law. As a counterpoint (not that it applies to Point Reyes) the California Wilderness Act of 1984 also doesn't establish any rules for how "potential wilderness additions" are to be added to full wilderness except that the NPS may do so once the non-conforming uses have ceased.

As for the map, it's on page 8 of the following:

http://savedrakesbay.org/uploads/DOI_Solicitor_opinion_on_Drakes_Estero.pdf

It's not a great map, and the legend says that it's a reduced size reproduction. It was obviously transmitted via a FAX machine. It does however include such landmarks as "YOUTH HOSTEL" and "OYSTER FARM". That's the only time I know of that the oyster farm is noted in the law or its supporting map and description of the wilderness areas The map is also somewhat outdated, as it specifies a piece of private land south of Abbotts Lagoon, and that is clearly now within the NPS boundaries.

The "potential wilderness additions" are marked with a cross-hatched pattern. The only land portion was a small area which I understand used to have an electric transmission line that was eventually rerouted. This section was added to full wilderness when it was published in the Federal Register. The other potential wilderness additions are exclusively water areas, including Drakes Estero, Estero de Limantour, Abbotts Lagoon, and a uniform-width thin strip of Pacific Ocean from Tomales Point to Bolinas Point, save sections between Chimney Rock/Drakes Beach and Limantour Beach to Coast Campground.

You can see this better on the official park maps, although they don't specify what are full and potential wilderness. They use a green color for land and a dark blue for water wilderness.


Excellent Position. I support most strongly. 
As a retired university research scientist, professor and physician who has also published in Nature, academic scientists always have their differences and argue mostly about the fine points of methods, statistics and results, and as with any other cohort, fight pissing battles among themselves. Any scientific work is often subjected to more trivial rather than substantive criticism.
Bringing science as it has been introduced into the "oyster farm" "scientific" "public dialogue" is a red herring.
The only point that must be made clearly and sent to Washington is that any time the government or anybody else opens the door to allowing commercial enterprises in  wilderness areas, this precedent constitutes a go ahead for other enterprises such as oil and gas exploration, uranium mining etc in other wilderness areas deemed necessary and politically relevant at the moment, but that in the end ursurp and or destroy our wilderness. Period

 


I agree entirely with you. The vagueness is frustrating. But I'd venture that there are supporting documents that address the continued operation of the High Sierra Camps.


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