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.

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