Parks for the people -- not profit


The fog that often hangs over Drakes Estero, an estuary in California's Point Reyes National Seashore, tends to obscure the natural features that make this small body of water one of the treasures of our national park system.

This estuary, which has been designated a wetland of international importance, hosts one of the largest breeding colonies of harbor seals in California. It is also recognized as a site of regional importance for its great diversity and abundance of shorebirds. It is one of the crown jewels in this park -- the only national seashore on the West Coast of the United States.

Unfortunately, the thick fog of controversy that hangs over this small bay appears to have obscured the larger issues of how and for whom these public lands should be managed.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently attached a rider to an Interior Department appropriations bill that awards a lucrative, no-bid permit to a privately owned business, hobbling the Park Service's ability to be good stewards of public lands under lease and disregarding the right of the public to be heard.

Attaching special interest legislation to a critical funding bill may be business as usual in Washington, but in this instance, it threatens the principle of public participation and ownership that has governed our national parks.

In 1976, following a multi-year process that included numerous public hearings, congressional hearings and an environmental impact statement, the estuary was designated "potential wilderness."  It was "potential" because there was an existing oyster farm that -- when it was sold to the park in 1972 -- was granted a permit that would allow it to continue operations until 2012. At that point, the non-conforming oyster farm could be removed and the estuary returned to wilderness.

In 2005, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. purchased the remaining seven years of this permit from the prior owner. The company pays the National Park Service a mere $3,500 annually for the right to run a commercial operation that reportedly grosses over $1 million dollars a year. The owner, and his lawyers and lobbyist, claim that the park can and should extend the permit past 2012. The Park Service maintains that it is prevented by the existing 1976 legislation from renewing the permit beyond 2012.

Rather than test its legal theory in court or assert its claim through a public process involving congressional hearings, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has instead relied on a lobbyist to secure a sweetheart deal, a rider that would shelve the 1976 legislation with no opportunity for public involvement. In authoring this rider, Sen. Feinstein has circumvented the 1976 mandate of Congress and the public who participated in the 1976 process. Her unilateral effort is both an invitation to and a roadmap for other commercial ventures to "work the system" in order to get their own special deals in our national parks.

Sen. Feinstein maintains that the rider will not create a precedent and has incorporated language to this effect. But it strains the bounds of both hope and experience to believe that no precedent will be set when a directive by a powerful senator confers exclusive rights to a private interest to conduct an extractive business in our national parks.

The rider also states that any potential future modifications to the permit must be by mutual agreement of the National Park Service and the permit-holder.  This gives a commercial permit-holder the power to simply veto any and all efforts to correct problems that may arise or that pose a threat to the health of the estuary and its wildlife. This is a dangerous precedent that marks a radical departure from current adaptive management practices of resource protection in our national parks.

Sen. Feinstein's rider is essentially an earmark worth well over $10 million dollars that is being given by the public to a single individual who owns a for-profit company in a national seashore. It usurps the public's right to have a say in this matter and it ignores the public's past input on how this national park should be managed. For these reasons, the board of directors of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association voted unanimously to oppose this rider, which denies the true owners of this park, the American people, their right to be heard.

Dennis Rodoni is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Olema, California, and has served on many nonprofit boards including the Advisory Commission for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Point Reyes National Seashore. He is currently chairman of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Drakes Bay Wilderness At Stake
B. A. Simpson
B. A. Simpson
Aug 27, 2009 10:04 PM
Thank you Dennis for bringing the internal workings to light. Negotiations of this nature are what demoralizes the integrity of our entire public system. I say, "why have the National Environmental Policy Act if all it takes is a senior senator's simple strike of the pen to circumvent the process". The commercial oyster operation was fully aware of the lease expiration upon purchasing of the lease in 2005 - and now is playing the victim. With lobbiest that have a lot more in mind than helping one "little" oyster company, this bizarre end-run is frightfully close to getting around decades of intentions and planning that were paved clearly by the public and the National Park Service. Bit, by bit, these types of actions are what will erode the [evidently]fragile fiber of legislation that exist to protect these precious lands. Unless we, at large say no.
Like Hetch Hetchy
Peter Jacobsen
Peter Jacobsen
Sep 02, 2009 05:19 PM
Just as with Hetch Hetchy (Yosemite's buried treasure), Senator Feinstein uses her influence to benefit the few, at the loss of the many. In both cases, the national parks suffer.
Drake's Bay wilderness
Jules Evens
Jules Evens
Sep 03, 2009 10:27 PM
Some public voices have invested much credibility in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on oyster mariculture in the designated wildernes of Drake’s Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore. The assumption seems to be that the NAS report represents “balanced science” (Sen. Feinstein) and that there will be no adverse impacts from the oyster operations on Drake’s Estero ecology and wildlife (Rep. Woolsey). Although this was not the conclusion of that report, it has been presented as such by politicians.

For all its short-comings and gaps, the NAS report on Drake’s Estero concludes that: “Importantly, from a management perspective, lack of evidence of major adverse effects is not the same as proof of no adverse effects nor does it guarantee that such effects will not manifest in the future.” (p. 60)

And: “Potential negative effects of activities of the culturists on the harbor seal population represent the most serious concern, which cannot be fully evaluated because these effects have not been directly investigated.” (p 81)

To put the NAS report in context, It is instructive to read an article “Leaving no tracks” the appeared in the Washington Post, July 27, 2007 regarding an NAS “study” of the effects of water releases in the Klammath River.[…]/

That dispatch documents a tragic case when the National Academy of Sciences was apparently manipulated to lend credibility to a political goal:.
“The thing to do, Cheney told Smith, was to get science on the side of the farmers. And the way to do that was to ask the National Academy of Sciences to scrutinize the work of the federal biologists who wanted to protect the fish . . . A month later, Cheney got what he wanted when the science academy delivered a preliminary report finding ‘no substantial scientific foundation’ to justify withholding water from the farmers.”

Sadly, that NAS opinion supported the diversion of Klammath River water that ultimately caused the largest salmon die-off in West Coast history (2002), the repercussions of which are with us in today’s fisheries.

It seems that those who are lobbying to continue oyster cultivation in the designated wilderness area beyond the phase-out date are cherry-picking the content of the NAS report just as they are accusing the Park Service biologists of doing. So it goes.

It is instructive to remember that the NAS gets it's funding from the Appropriations Committee of which Feinstein is Chair. When science, politics, and commerce collide, exercise skepticism.

Jules Evens,
Author of "The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula" (UC Press, 2008)
Drake's Bay wilderness
Michael Painter
Michael Painter
Sep 05, 2009 06:15 PM
Although Mr. Evens raises very valid concerns about the use of the NAS, in the big picture the issue of science seems to me to be a red herring. At its core, this is a land use issue, not an environmental impact issue.

The oyster company's operations are on land that was designated potential wilderness in 1976 by the Pt. Reyes Wilderness Act -- “potential” because of the non-conforming use by the oyster company, which still had 36 years to go on its valid lease, expiring in 2012. The Park Service was obligated to honor that lease. But because of the mandate of the wilderness legislation to remove non-conforming uses, it was under no obligation to renew the lease. In fact, government attorneys told the Park Service that it could not renew the lease.

We have a process for designating wilderness, requiring Congressional action. There are hearings and markups on bills. It’s a public process. That process was followed in 1976. Sen. Feinstein’s rider, however, circumvents the process by attaching this special interest legislation to an appropriations bill that is considered “must pass.” So it’s unlikely that there will be any discussion of the Pt. Reyes oyster farm provision.

Drake’s Estero is the only estuarine wilderness on the West Coast. That uniqueness was recognized at the time the estero was designated wilderness. There are, however, other locations to raise oysters.

For the record, I grew up in Marin County and have enjoyed the oysters from Drake’s Estero for many years. Despite running CalUWild, which is a member of the coalition of groups supporting the Park Service decision, I am not rabidly anti-oyster-farm. But I do believe very strongly in the public process and that there should not be an end-run around it.

Mike Painter
Californians for Western Wilderness
San Francisco
re: Parks for the people -- not profit
Paola Bouley
Paola Bouley
Sep 05, 2009 05:09 PM
Dennis, thank you for this important article.