Updated Aug. 24, 2009

On July 10, President Obama announced his nomination of Jonathan Jarvis as the next director of the National Park Service. Jarvis has worked for the agency for 30 years and directed its Pacific West region since 2002. Many of his colleagues contend that he not only has scientific training, but is tenaciously committed to the "right values" -- that is, protecting wilderness and averting change in natural ecosystems. They hope Jarvis will lead the parks into their centennial celebration in 2016. He's garnered support from environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, as well as from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Jarvis knows how to preach to the wilderness choir, but national parks are about more than wild landscapes. A third of the nation's 400-some parks, monuments, seashores and heritage areas contain culturally significant "working landscapes." Park staff interacts with Navajo shepherds in Canyon de Chelly, Mormon orchard-keepers in Capitol Reef, bison ranchers in Great Sand Dunes and commercial fisherman around the Channel Islands. If his appointment goes through, Jarvis will be charged with the complex task of resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise between the parks' diverse stakeholders.

That's a tall order, perhaps nowhere taller than at California's Point Reyes National Seashore, a windswept expanse of rugged shoreline, moor-like uplands and coastal mountains where ranches, dairy and shellfish farms predate the park's formal designation in 1962. But Jarvis' poor handling of a recent controversy there raises questions about his ability to deal with cultural issues and working landscapes.

To the casual observer, Point Reyes seems like a benign blend of wildness and agrarian features. A few historic barns and corrals remind visitors that this has been a working landscape since the first settlers arrived in Marin County. Enormous mounds of cracked and intact oyster and clam shells testify to centuries of active "gardening" of native shellfish by the Miwok Indians. A commercial oyster farm has been in operation here since 1932. Kevin and Nancy Lunny purchased it in 2005 and now run it as the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Their  sustainable aquaculture practices have been recognized in the Park Service publication Stewardship Begins with People, as well as by Eco-Farm, Marin Organic, Bioneers and Slow Food.

But beneath this peaceful, pastoral shell, the reality, like an oyster, is squishy.

Point Reyes superintendents have long attempted to balance the protection of biodiversity and wilderness values, the promotion of sustainable agriculture, and historic preservation. When the park was created, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company received a 40-year lease with an option for renewal in 2012. But the 1974 Point Reyes Wilderness Act proposed a higher level of protection for the land surrounding Drakes Bay. It didn't specifically mention removing the shellfish farm; at the time, California congressmen and park officials all considered it to be a prior "non-conforming use" worth keeping. In the 1976 hearings, Sen. John Tunney, D-Calif., pointedly affirmed that "established private rights of landowners and leaseholders will continue to be respected and protected. The existing agricultural and aquacultural uses can continue." In essence, this gave the park managers conflicting marching orders -- to "remove barriers to wilderness designation" while at the same time permitting small-scale farming, ranching and aquaculture. In fact, such food production has been sanctioned in every approved management plan for Point Reyes, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed that it be allowed to continue through at least 2015.