Privatizing conservation


The State of California is in the middle of a process that will result in the state’s Fish and Game Commission designating an array of near shore marine reserves along the length of California’s coast. The reserves are intended to preserve and restore marine resources including commercially valuable fisheries.

The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) was charged with developing the reserves when the California legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) in 1999. Several abortive efforts by CDFG and a 2004 amendment to the Act led to the current effort.

The MLPA requires California to reevaluate existing marine protected areas (MPAs) and to design new MPAs that, together with existing reserves, will function as a statewide ocean reserve network.  The latest attempt to implement the legislation is using a regional approach beginning in the south and proceeding north. At this point the planning process has reached California’s North Coast where major controversy has erupted. Indigenous Americans, as well as a former congressmansome scientists, fishermen and grassroots environmentalists have blasted the process as well as the scientific basis for the location and size of proposed reserves.

One aspect of the controversy may be an indication of things to come. After having failed to implement the legislation itself, CDFG has privatized the planning process. Under an MOU between CDFG and the Resource Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF), the private foundation for the most part controls regional MLPA processes including selection and funding individuals and organizations to complete or coordinate all aspects of MLPA development…including public participation. Among its many aspects, the RLLF serves as a funnel for Packard Foundation money (think Hewlett-Packard). The Foundation’s leaders are deeply involved in California water and ocean policy and politics.

Some observers suspect that the MLPA approach is part of a more general effort to privatize Public Trust resource planning in a fashion similar to the increasing use of private contractors by the US military. Those who question the MLPA process also tend to believe that it is part of a secret agenda to open portions of California’s coastal waters to oil, gas and other energy development.  These beliefs gained credence when Governor Schwarzenegger appointed Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, to head the Blue Ribbon Panel that will select which among competing MLP arrays will be forwarded to the California Fish & Game Commission for review and approval. Ms Reheis-Boyd recently called for expanded ocean drilling along the California coast.

California’s environmental establishment appears to be on board with the privatization of conservation planning. In fact, that establishment has embedded more funding that could be used for privatized resource planning in an initiative it is sponsoring which on its face is intended to fund operation of state parks by increasing vehicle registration fees. If the initiative passes, however, the Ocean Protection Council – an independent state commission created by the 2004 California Ocean Protection Act - will get funding along with state parks and other California state “conservancies”. The California Fisheries Coalition and some grassroots environmentalists see this initiative by the Environmental Establishment as at least in part motivated by movement in the California legislature to cut funding for the controversial MLPA process.

On the bright side, it does appear that the concerns of federal tribes and Indigenous ocean hunter- gatherers, which went largely unaddressed on the South Coast, will be addressed on the North Coast. This is largely the result of intensive advocacy by North Coast tribes. Indigenous Americans comprise 5% to 15% of the population in California’s North Coast counties; in Humboldt and Del Norte Counties alone there are 11 federally recognized tribal governments.  Most environmentalists and fishermen are supportive of making provision in the MLPA process for traditional Indigenous use of ocean resources.

Those who are concerned about ocean protection, Indigenous rights and off-shore oil drilling will want to stay tuned as California’s MLPA process lurches toward a conclusion. CDFG has an MLPA list server for that purpose.

Another good on-line source is The Fish Sniffer where Dan Backer tracks MLPA and many other water,  fish and habitat issues.

High Country News Classifieds