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Protecting the Point Reyes National Seashore

Drakes 1Fractured and weathered granite crops out along the coast of Drakes Bay near the Historic Point Reyes Lifeboat Station. Photo credit: USGS

On November 30, 2012, the Point Reyes National Seashore in California will face one of two possibilities:

1) The unique estuary of Drakes Estero will finally be protected as Wilderness, after waiting 36 years; or,

2) A promise made to the American people to protect a critical marine habitat will be broken, following the inequitable renewal of private oyster farm lease.

In 1976 Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which designated over 25,000 acres of land as wilderness, and an additional 8,000 acres as potential wilderness. This potential wilderness area contained a commercial oyster farm. In order to respect the previously-made agreement, Congress recognized the existing 40-year lease for commercial oyster operations in Drakes Estero, and allowed those operations to continue until the lease expired in 2012. Conservation protections afforded by an official wilderness designation cannot be fully implemented until the farm’s lease expires and commercial activity ceases.

In 2005 the lease was bought by the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, who knew of the expiration date when the lease was purchased. Drakes Bay is now petitioning the government for a 20-year lease extension, a blatant violation of the original agreement.

There is little doubt that it was always Congress’ intention that, by naming the area as “potential wilderness,” they would someday name it as an official Wilderness Area, presumably as soon as the lease expired, the main impediment to wilderness designation. Report language expressed the intent "that those lands and waters designated as potential wilderness will be essentially managed as wilderness...with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status."

Drakes 2Tule elk silhouetted against sunlight reflecting off of Drakes Bay. Photo credit: NPS

 Irresponsible management practices by the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the Point Reyes National Seashore greatly threaten the unique habitat of the only marine wilderness on the West Coast. The California Coastal Commission recently cited Drakes Bay for ongoing violations of the California Coastal Act and its Park Service use permit, including regular violations of harbor seal protections, failure to pay a $61,250 fine violating those protections, failure to clean up thousands of pieces of its plastic mariculture debris littering the National Seashore, and repeatedly engaging in unpermitted development.

Point Reyes National Seashore is visited by 2.5 million people each year, a rare oasis of nature and tranquility in the densely developed San Francisco Bay Area. The National Seashore is host to nearly 18 percent of the state’s flowering plant species, over 45 percent of the species of birds in North America, and 22 threatened and endangered species. Visitors can enjoy over 80 miles of coastline, 147 miles of trails, over 200 designated historic structures, and over 80 known archeological sites.

Drakes 3View from the summit of Mount Vision looking southwest toward Drakes Estero, headlands of Point Reyes in the distance. Photo credit: USGS

The National Park Service’s Environmental Impact Statement, affirmed by the National Academy of Science, concluded that letting the lease expire as planned is the best choice with respect to law, policy, and science. Of the almost 52,000 public comments submitted during the EIS draft period, 92 percent supported the end of commercial use of the estuary and full wilderness protection of the priceless area.

All that remains to be done to protect Drakes Estero is for Secretary Salazar to follow the recommendation of the National Park Service and the will of the American people, who ask him not to renew the lease and to designate Drakes Estero wilderness in perpetuity. Secretary Salazar recently took a similar action that we (and tens of thousands of Americans) are hoping for: in September, the Secretary designated the potential wilderness in Ross Lake in Washington State as an official Wilderness Area. We thank the Secretary for his action in protecting those lands, and hope that he take similar action in Drakes Estero. Join us in asking him to protect the Point Reyes National Seashore. 

-- By Claire Price


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