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Interior Department Releases Peer Review Of Oyster Farm Impacts At Point Reyes National Seashore


The National Park Service's draft environmental impact statement on an oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore was not perfect, but it was an "adequate analysis" in light of the "available scientific information," according to an outside consultant.

"Overall, the reviewers found the analyses to be appropriate, and that there is no fundamental flaw with the larger scientific underpinning of the DEIS," noted the evaluation prepared by Atkins North America. "The identified scientific misinterpretations, or lack of citation of appropriate literature are for the most part minor, and can be rectified if the NPS so wishes. This may also include making some additional adjustments to interpretation, and explicit acknowledgement of the lack of information on some key issues."

Interior Department officials, who released the report (attached below) Monday, said it will help the Park Service improve the final EIS on the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operations at Drakes Estero in Point Reyes.

“The peer-review accomplished exactly what we were seeking – that is, specific recommendations on how to improve the final environmental impact statement to make it a better science product,” Dr. Ralph Morgenweck, Interior’s Scientific Integrity Officer, said in a prepared statement.

Dr. Morgenweck commissioned the independent peer review of the draft EIS in light of concerns over the science related to Point Reyes.

“We welcome these constructive recommendations that will help strengthen the final EIS,” added Peggy O’Dell, deputy director for operations of the National Park Service. “We will look to address the Atkins Report comments, as well as information contained in the public comments on the draft EIS as we work toward a more comprehensive and thorough final report."

Seashore staff have been crafting an Environmental Impact Statement to assess the oyster company's operations. The issue is timely, as 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 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.

To review the DEIS, Atkins North America retained five outside experts: Dr. James E. Wilen, who specializes in natural resource economics at the University of California, Davis; Professor Edwin Grosholz, who teaches environmental science at the University of California, Davis; Professor Dianna K. Padilla, who teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, State University of New York at Stony Brook; Dr. Charlie Wisdom, a privately employed water quality specialist with nearly three decades' of experience, and; Dr. Christopher Willes Clark of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Many of the greatest concerns raised by the outside review centered on socio-economic analyses tied to the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operations in Drakes Estero at the national seashore.

"... it is my opinion that the methods used to conduct an economic assessment of policy options do not follow accepted economic impact analysis practice," wrote Dr. Wilen. "The basic issue appears to be that the data required to conduct an economic impact analysis has not been gathered.

"That basic data would include, at minimum, measures of the value of gross sales and of the costs of labor and other materials for DBOC.  As a result of data deficiencies, the analysis is not able to quantitatively scale the direct first round economic impacts of the DBOC operations in a manner that is meaningful for judging overall economic impacts."

The report also found fault with Park Service conclusions that were either speculative or unsupported by peer-reviewed publications or which were "not reasonable based on scientific evidence." 

"It should be noted that data from studies specific to Drakes Estero for birds and other taxa including invertebrates, fishes are cited from three unpublished theses by Harbin-Ireland, Press, and Wechsler," noted Professor Grosholz. "These theses have not produced a single peer-reviewed publication.  Therefore, the conclusions from these studies should be viewed as very preliminary and with caution.

"The report relies too much on these studies," he added, though noting that that perhaps was understandable, "since there are really no other studies available."

At the same time, the reviewers noted, the Park Service overlooked dozens of existing, pertinent studies, such as "nearly a decade of studies" on how oysters can impact "water column productivity."

The failure of the Park Service to rely on such studies was a "remarkable oversight," they wrote.


Typical... "Best Available Science"

Come up with better science!!!

PRNS is not helping its cause when it doesn't conduct thorough, credible research and ignores existing studies (e.g., the value of shellfish to water quality). The peer review makes it look, once again, as though PRNS is trying to stack the deck against the oyster farm, instead of conducting an objective, scientifically-valid analysis, as a competent EIS would do.

Seashore staff have been crafting an Environmental Impact Statement to assess the oyster company's operations. The issue is timely, as 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.

     I keep on hearing this, but I don't see it supported in the law. Here's the law that established what's currently the Phillip Burton Wilderness:

One page. No mention of the oyster farm or "non-conforming uses". I've seen a copy of the wilderness plan map, and it does include most of Drakes Estero (save the tip of Schooner Bay) as a potential wilderness body of water.

Congress is actually rather skimpy when they dicuss what the heck "potential wilderness" is. I got curious and looked up the 1984 California Wilderness Act which established wilderness areas in Yosemite, SEKI, and several national forests. From what I understand, the Forest Service has never dealt with "potential wilderness" even though their wilderness areas contain what would have to be considered "non-conforming uses" such as dams that are controlled/maintained by water districts. The description of Yosemite and SEKI are that they will have designated wilderness and "potential wilderness additions" with attached maps and without any description of how the additions are to be made. Personally I'd love to see the maps which I'll try to get. I've heard varying claims that the obviously non-conforming High Sierra Camps are either in the potential wilderness or were effectively grandfathered in (which isn't specifically in the law).

Really - I'm trying to figure out who came up with the idea of "potential wilderness" when it was never defined by the original Wilderness Act. Someone should have put in a standard definition for what this means, how a "potential wilderness addition" is to be managed, and what this means regarding "non-conforming uses".

Congress came up with the idea that Drakes Estero was "potential wilderness." That's been confirmed both by the Interior Department's Solicitor's Office and the National Research Council (an arm of the National Academies of Science):

From the Solicitor:

On October 18, 1976, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act designated 25,370 acres as wilderness, and 8003 acres as potential wilderness. Public Law 94-544, Oct. 18, 1976. The area designated as potential wildness (2811 acres) for area 2 of three areas included the waters of the Drakes Estero and the adjoining inter-tidal land and upon which Johnson Oyster Farm operates a commercial oyster business.

Unfortunately, while that letter references "House and Senate discussions of the legislation in the Congressional Record," I haven't yet found that language, but I'm not going to doubt the Solicitor's Office.
And here's what the National Research Council said in a report it prepared after reviewing an early version of the Point Reyes National Seashore research: 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."

Here's the definition of "potential wilderness" from, a website maintained by the federal land-management agencies along with the University of Montana:

Potential Wilderness
A wilderness study may identify lands that are surrounded by or adjacent to lands proposed for wilderness designation but that do not themselves qualify for immediate designation due to temporary nonconforming or incompatible conditions. The wilderness recommendation forwarded to the Congress by the President may identify these lands as "potential" wilderness for future designation as wilderness when the nonconforming use has been removed or eliminated. If so authorized by Congress, these potential wilderness areas will become designated wilderness upon the Department of Interior Secretary's determination, published in the Federal Register, that they have finally met the qualifications for designation by the cessation or termination of the nonconforming use.

As for what is a "non-conforming use," it would be one not naturally found in the wilderness, no?

Kurt Repanshek:
As for what is a "non-conforming use," it would be one not naturally found in the wilderness, no?

         Yes - I understand all that. However, there's a whole lot of confusion as to what that really means. What we have are a whole bunch of confusing precedents.

I currently don't know if the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite are in wilderness or potential wilderness. That's why I'd like to get the map from the Superintendent's office. However, I do know that the NPS keeps on renewing the concession permits to operate them. That means outhouses, permanent buildings, kitchens, and other clearly man-made items. Delaware North (a multi-billion dollar company) operates the Bearpaw High Sierra Camp in Sequoia NP well into the wilderness portion of the park. They have a pretty nice looking dining room and even have flush toilets. One is actually required to get a wilderness permit from the park to stay there, unlike the HSCs in Yosemite. It seems to me as if these places (if the same standards were applied as for the oyster far) shouldn't have their permits renewed at the first legal opportunity if these are in potential wilderness, and even more so if they are technically in full wilderness.

I guess a trail is another gray area, since animals have been known to produce their own trails. However, I've been to clear wilderness areas where there are such "non-conforming uses" besides what are clearly maintained man-made trails. I've seen signs, ranger stations, outhouses, bridges, fire lookouts, backcountry cabins, fences, cables (Half Dome being the most famous), chains, and even dams.

Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe has several dams, including this pretty big one:

It serves the El Dorado Irrigation District. Unlike NPS wilderness areas, Desolation doesn't have a spot of "potential wilderness additions". It's also not an area carved out of the wilderness plan like you'll see with several manmade lakes in the Sierra. It's clearly in the wilderness plan.

I do understand that once humans have rearranged rocks by blasting them with high explosives or pounding at them with metal tools, it's a little bit hard to restore them, so things like the carved path up to Half Dome can stay.

The only "non-conforming uses" in Drakes Estero are the oyster racks and clam bags. The farm itself and the boat docks are not in the wilderness plan, although removing the farm would effectively kill the California Department of Fish and Game water bottom leases (expiring in 2029), which have their validity contingent on the current shore operations being in place. The leases with DFG wouldn't allow them to remain valid if they tried operating off the shore of Tomales Bay, although that could get rather expensive with fuel costs.

I wanted to note that I have seen the wilderness map for Point Reyes. The majority of Drakes Estero is marked as potential wilderness except for a small part of Schooner Bay near the docks of the current oyster farm. None of the land area around Drakes Estero is in the wilderness plan except perhaps a tiny sliver of Limantour Spit. The oyster farm itself is clearly not in the wilderness plan. Theoretically the NPS could repurpose those buildings if they wanted to once the Reservation of Use expires.

As for "potential wilderness", I do understand the vague definition, but I don't see any solid guidance for what that means. The High Sierra Camps are reauthorized every few years. Again, I don't know if they're in full or potential wilderness, but the same standard applied to them as to the oyster farm would seem to call for NPS to deny any permit extension on the grounds that they're a non-conforming use that should be eliminated as soon as possible.

Also - what to make of the Little Yosemite Valley outhouse? It's a big 4-room building complete with holding tank and a solar-powered fan system to help break down waste. It's either in full or potential wilderness and it (or its predecessor building) is not mentioned as any kind of grandfathered facility in the California Wilderness Act of 1984. In fact, nothing is mentioned in that act as being grandfathered in. It only says there are X number of acres of designated wilderness, Y number of acres of potential wilderness additions, and refer to map ZZ-000 for the exact locations.  I've seen mention in official NPS publications that the Merced High Sierra Camp and backpackers' campgrounds are in potential wilderness and they are thinking of closing them down.  However, the rationale given isn't that they are "non-conforming uses" per se, but on the basis of the impacts to the environment. Heck - they even haul out waste there by helicopter.

y_p_w, I would wager that, like almost everything else, there are exceptions to the rule;-) Some uses could be grandfathered in, some might have obtained exemptions.

I'd heartily recommend you take a look at for some possible answers to your questions.

It's the agenda mindset, y_p_w, that uses the creative uses of law and intent to marginalize the value of human activity as most are liberally educated away from the experiences that actually supply the dollars that pay their salary.  I understand completely because and have been aware of it since I was 12 years old when I was gaining real world experience getting stuck out in the mud flats (Only happened once) at low water, doing what kids should be doing instead of ingesting propaganda on the internet.  People would move to my backyard building megahouses in areas that were sources of fresh water for the wild birds and then complain about me gathering some oysters or waterfowl hunting for a few weeks of the year.  It's a sad culture we see now and it's getting worse but that's "Progressive,"  I suppose!  People are wising up!

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