If you want to know why environmentalism has so little political traction these days, you need to go no further than Point Reyes, Calif. The beautiful Point Reyes National Seashore just north of San Francisco may be the most interesting national parkland in the country. It combines designated wilderness with operating ranches and dairy farms, and it is now embroiled in an utterly manufactured controversy.
At the center of the dispute is Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which operates on Drakes Estero, a spectacular and ecologically significant estuary located in an area that has been federally designated as wilderness. Drakes is successor to Johnson Oyster Co., which the National Park Service (thanks to American taxpayers) bought out in 1972. At that time, the government granted the company a lease to continue operations for 40 years. In 2004, the Johnsons sold their oyster operation to the Lunny family, with full disclosure that on Nov. 30, 2012, the lease would expire.
Under the provisions of both the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, neither the National Park Service nor the secretary of the Interior should have any discretion over what happens to Drakes Estero after the lease runs out. At that point, the law dictates, it is to be managed as wilderness, a designation affording the highest level of protection from intrusive human activity. But that hasn’t stopped an array of politicians and politically connected Bay Area residents from pushing for an extension of the lease.
What might seem like a local dispute has far-reaching consequences for the ability of the National Park Service to stop resource grabs and allow policy and science, rather than well-placed political donors, to inform decision-making.
The issue has divided interest groups that usually are of like mind. On one side are liberal Democrats (aided by Sen. Dianne Feinstein) who promote local and organic foods. They think businesses like the oyster company should be encouraged. On the other side are liberal Democrats who advocate on behalf of wilderness and public access to parks. But only one side has the law on its side, and it’s hard to imagine why a liberal Democratic senator with a strong environmental record is seeking special privileges to help a favored constituent subvert the Wilderness Act.
In politics, as in so many things, it is not the facts or the law but the story that matters. When Feinstein tells the story of Drakes Estero, she portrays it as a case of the National Park Service overreaching to shut down a family-run oyster farm. But her story doesn’t mention that the Lunny family purchased the company in 2004 knowing what the future held, or that they signed a special use permit in 2008 that specifically stated that commercial shellfish operations would be allowed only through November 2012.
Both sides have tried to cite science to bolster their cases. Initially, supporters of the oyster farm came in with carefully selected evidence that oyster farming helps the environment. When a National Park Service study concluded otherwise, it was attacked, and the National Academy of Science was asked to review whether the study was biased against the Lunnys. It found no evidence of scientific misconduct, but beyond that it was equivocal about what degree of impact the oyster company had on the environment. Later, a Marine Mammal Commission study confirmed that the oyster company operations do disturb harbor seals, a significant finding because Drakes Estero is one of the largest mainland breeding populations of harbor seals in California.
The scientific back and forth was to be expected, but Feinstein used it to attack the National Park Service. She introduced legislation, eventually signed into law, that subverted the Wilderness Act by granting the secretary of the Interior — currently Ken Salazar — power to extend the lease for the oyster farm. Salazar ordered an environmental impact statement, which generated 52,000 public comments, the overwhelming majority of which favored letting the oyster farm lease expire and making Drakes Estero wilderness. The report concluded that not extending the lease was most consistent with law, policy and science, and that the land should become wilderness.
Now it is up to Salazar. He has the environmental impact statement, the public comments and long-standing park policy guidelines to inform his decision about a lease that ends this week. He also has the stubborn demand for a new lease from a powerful Democratic senator. But it shouldn’t be a tough call. The Wilderness Act is clear about the reasons for designating certain areas as wilderness and about exactly what that means.
For years, I taught classes using the park as a laboratory because of its unique and successful experiment in combining ranching, dairy farming and wilderness. I once wrote an essay called “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?,” which criticized the environmental movement for missing the ways that people understand nature through work. So I am hardly an automatic advocate of wilderness.
But I also think that protecting designated wilderness is crucial, and that people need to play by the rules. Everyone involved in this saga knew what the agreement entailed and that the oyster farming was to end. That agreement shouldn’t be subverted by special interests with friends in high places.
Richard White is a professor of history at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.”