The recent National Research Council report on the National Park Service’s draft environmental plan of Drakes Estero’s future has provided Interior Secretary Salazar with even further support to protect this valuable estuary in Point Reyes National Seashore.
The report, the latest in exhaustive and expensive environmental review process, evaluated the data and scientific conclusions of the draft environmental plan that analyzed protecting the Estero - the West Coast’s only marine wilderness area - or allowing an oyster company to extend its permit beyond its long-planned sunset. It also found the National Park Service generally used the best available data, formed reasonable scientific conclusions, and provided suggestions for the Park Service to consider in their final environmental plan, such as more clear communication of the uncertainties that exist in all scientific information.
In formulating its final plan, the agency has to consider its legal and policy goals, as well as feedback from a Department of the Interior-commissioned independent peer review, a U.S. Marine Mammal Commission review, a public comment period where tens of thousands of Americans across the country weighed in, and the NRC review. The report is further confirmation that we need to preserve Drakes Estero by turning it into a full-fledged wilderness for the benefit of visitors and wildlife.
Easy to miss in the debate is that this issue will be decided on what action is most consistent with national park law and policy. Many issues, including the company’s long history of state and federal permit violations, will factor into the equation. The most recent development came in July 2012, when the State of California Coastal Commission issued an enforcement letter to the oyster company, outlining how the company has, amongst other things, admitted to violating harbor seal protections since 2008 and has failed to deal with its substantial marine debris pollution problem that litters the national seashore beaches with plastic tubes.
While the NRC and other review panels did not deal with the National Park Service’s policy goals or the company’s violations, their work reinforces the Park Service’s conclusion in their draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) that the “environmentally preferred alternative” is to sunset the oyster company’s permit as long planned. Specific examples from the report on impacts to plant and animal species include:
* Impacts to sensitive eelgrass: “…the committee finds that the data support the DEIS findings; alternatives B and C [oyster permit extension] would sustain the current level of adverse impact…”
* Impacts to birds: “The committee finds that the DEIS conclusion that alternative A [wilderness protection] would have a beneficial impact, because habitat would improve for foraging and migratory birds, is valid and scientifically sound.”
* Impacts to harbor seals, which have received significant public attention: “Overall, the best available scientific information was used in the DEIS” and “Viewed alongside peer review results of short-term disturbance effects in other areas (reviewed in the NRC, 2009 report), the information presented in the DEIS supports the conclusion that alternatives B, C, and D [variations of an oyster permit extension] would likely result in moderate adverse impacts on harbor seals due to potential displacement from preferred haul-out sites…In contrast, alternative A [wilderness protection], after the initial short-term impacts during equipment review removal, would be expected to lead to fine scale changes in harbor seal distribution that reflect natural site preference and responses to natural, as opposed to anthropogenic, environmental variation.”
Indeed, this thorough review process provides Interior Secretary Salazar with a clear and actionable path to honoring our national heritage by protecting this estuary this year. Drakes Estero is one of our country’s greatest places and is long overdue for the protection it deserves. Characteristics such as its unique and rich plant and animal life and the intended solitude that so many visitors expect should be protected this year by the National Park Service as they have done at other spectacular places around the country.
Drakes Estero provides the public with a significant opportunity to conserve a valuable estuary for the benefit and enjoyment of current and future generations. Interior Secretary Salazar should join the tens of thousands of Americans and notable scientists such as E.O. Wilson and Sylvia Earle, and honor this deal to transition land use to a higher and better purpose.
Neal Desai is the Pacific Region Associate Director for the National Parks Conservation Association.