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Know the West

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 (hcn.org). 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.