At Drake's Bay, real heroes have long term vision


Politicians rarely think beyond the next election and corporate leaders beyond the quarterly report – but National Park rangers make America stronger when they think about generations to come.

A case in point is playing out today on the coast of California at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, a modern twist on an old story.

In 1925, in Glacier National Park for example, there stood an old sawmill at the stunningly beautiful Many Glacier Valley. The mill dated to the early days, when mining and lumbering was still allowed in the park. The mill was owned by the railroad, which resisted removing it.

That year, the park supervisor ignited dynamite under the mill’s foundation and blew it sky high. That sawmill was not the only inappropriate use “grandfathered” into national parks. Folks used to build bonfires atop Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, then shove the burning conflagrations over the rim in a kind of gravity-fed fireworks show. Rangers put an end to that in 1968.

Probably even more popular were the grizzly bear feedings at Yellowstone National Park. Bleachers were erected around the dumps, and folks would gather by the hundred to watch grizzlies eat refuse. Finally, the National Park Service ended that practice. Bears and people have both been better off for it.

As long as we have national parks, park managers will probably have to face difficult choices. Today, that’s the case at Pt. Reyes, northwest of San Francisco. The entire California coast is spectacular, but Pt. Reyes stands out as both beautiful and ecologically rich.

Back in the 1960s, Congress declared this slice of the Left Coast to be a National Seashore, and in 1976, they voted to protect more than 33,000 acres at Point Reyes National Seashore as wilderness, including an estuary called Drakes Estero, the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

As always, there was a complication. This time, there was an oyster production and cannery complex in the bay. The company sold its property to the government a few years before and retained permission to continue for 40 years. An oyster business didn’t jibe with the idea of a wilderness preserve, so the government gave the owner ample time – 36 years in fact -- to phase out the operation.

Long story short, the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company changed hands six years ago, and the new owner is digging in its heels, rejecting a fair-market value buyout offer and relocation assistance from a land conservancy, and drumming up political heat against the National Park Service.

Now, it’s up to that agency, and ultimately Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, to determine if this kind of industrial development (or really, any kind of industrial development) belongs in a national treasure like Pt. Reyes. The decision will have implications far beyond this little bay.

I like oysters with hot sauce, and I am sure the folks who work at Drake’s Bay Oyster Company are fine people. But that doesn’t change the mission of the National Park Service to leave America’s most sacred places “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Sometimes that means taking heat for a tough decision. Mr. Salazar can take solace from history, knowing that future generations will thank him for standing firm.

Image: Drakes Estero is part of Pt. Reyes National Seashore and a national treasure for both its ecology and beauty. © Robert Campbell.

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, writer and conservationist from Montana. He once drove the entire Pacific Coast Highway without getting carsick. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

Frank White
Frank White
Nov 02, 2011 11:31 AM
Thank you for refocusing the Drakes Bay debate on the core issues: 1) a deal is a deal. That simple. 2) what is in the public interest and for the long-term health of our parks and wilderness systems.

The oyster factory is highly inconsistent with park policies and the only reason we are having this debate is because the company retained industry and powerful politician support who wish to break the deal. I am concerned about how this will negatively impact the rest of the park and wilderness system, at a minimum, making it easier for private or commercial use to be prioritized over the public interest.

The owner knew about the 2012 deadline, and it's not fair to all of us who own this estuary - the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

It would be a sham if Secretary Salazar throws this legacy away...but as Mr. Long stated, history proves that "future generations will thank him for standing firm" on the deal and promise to Americans for a marine wilderness.
Janine Blaeloch
Janine Blaeloch
Nov 02, 2011 02:54 PM
Couldn't agree more--and thank you for taking this position. According to documents included in the Park Service's scoping materials, Drake's Bay Oyster Company has failed on several counts to comply with the terms and conditions of its special use permit. So not only is the company's extended private use of public land and waters inappropriate in the larger sense, they are not operating in good faith either.Ideally, the grazing that was grandfathered in would cease, too--but that appears to be permanently sanctioned in the enabling legislation for this site. Not so the commercial oyster operation; the intention was always "to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status." I hope many who agree will participate in the Park Service's NEPA process for this decision and help embolden the agency to do the right thing despite bullying by Feinstein.
Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
Nov 02, 2011 04:09 PM
This commentary uses oversimplification to misrepresent a very complex situation. First, Congress did not declare Drakes Estero wilderness. They designated it potential wilderness due to the fact that the State of California maintains fishing rights in the Estero, preventing full wilderness designation. The "industrial" oyster farm is a few buildings on NPS property that has never been part of an area designated wilderness. In fact, elected officials who created the legislation, and who participated in protecting the state's fishing rights have said that it was never congress's or the legislature's intent to end oyster farming in Drake's Estero. Meanwhile, NPS officials have misrepresented and misused data, and covered up the fact that the thousands of secret photos they took showed that it was recreationists and not the oyster farm that disturbed seals in the Estero. Further, they have ignored their own wilderness regulations that actually do allow for the continuation of oyster farming. Last, but certainly not least in the unethical behavior of the NPS, staff have prevented the oyster farm from completing required repairs, and then spread the word that it was the oyster farm at fault.

I guess I might have more sympathy for the wilderness argument if I didn't know that the NPS cherry stemmed a road down to the Estero, and built an educational center and a large parking lot there. I
Betty Anne Carlin
Betty Anne Carlin
Nov 02, 2011 05:33 PM
Thank you for underscoring the term of the Reservation of Use as well as pointing out in a calm and reasonable fashion that these lands and waters belong to the future as well as current people of the United States and not to private commercial interests.

Remarkably enough, Drake's Estero is the only marine wilderness area between Alaska and Mexico. We surely should agree that it get special protection as the treasure it is for people, for marine biologists and marine life.
Peter Brastow
Peter Brastow
Nov 07, 2011 12:32 PM
In 1976, when Congress designated Drakes Estero as potential wilderness - it being in Point Reyes' Wilderness Zone - it did so due to the presence of the non-conforming use of the oyster operation. With that exception, the rich environment of Drakes Estero was and is still considered to be unique, critical and worthy of an additional level (being in a National Park) of federal protection. At the time, House and Senate Committees underscored the legislation with instructions to discontinue the oyster company so that Drakes Estero could fulfill its whole promise of being designated full wilderness. Fifty years of federal wilderness law and National Park Service policies - not to mention peer-reviewed science exhaustively cited in the Draft EIS - point squarely at the discontinuation of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which has a long history of unmitigated environmental violations as cited by the California Coastal Commission. In contrast, the National Park Service has been fully exonerated of the false allegations of scientific misconduct, which were rejected by both the Inspector General and the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior. The Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Panel in charge of a 2009 review of the Park Services’ science concluded that “those claiming scientific fraud or misconduct by NPS in the Drakes Estero case are simply wrong.” The true nature of this issue is that a private, commercial operation exists in a national park wilderness area that has always been public land, and its lease is up in 2012. A deal is a deal.