Elders endorse oyster farm lease renewal

08/18/2011

With the release of a much anticipated environmental impact statement only two months away, three former U.S. legislators who played key roles in shaping Point Reyes National Seashore have submitted a letter to Secretary of the Interior Department Ken Salazar, urging him to renew Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s operating permit, which is set to expire in the fall of 2012.

The letter, authored by Pete McCloskey, John Burton and Bill Bagley, cites numerous archival documents and testimonies—including statements by former National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth, the Sierra Club and former Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife Nathaniel Reed—that the authors contend collectively prove the legal precedent for the continuation of oystering in Drakes Estero. 

“For some ten weeks we have been talking to leaders on both sides of the controversy and examining the documents, particularly with regard to the environmental issues and the legislative history of the Seashore,” the letter states. “We have weighed [the opposing] views, but believe that they are far less compelling than the commitments made back in 1976 and earlier.”

McCloskey, the former United States congressman who helped secure the necessary federal funding to purchase all existing ranches in the seashore in the late 1960s, described the letter’s impetus as rather straightforward. “Basically, you have three old farts who are really troubled by the fact that what they spent so much time doing is now being misused by some young firebrands,” he said. “The more rocks we keep overturning the more snakes keep coming out. If you ask me, this whole thing stinks.”

Interior officials said they are currently reviewing the letter, which comes at a critical time in the four-year debate over the future of the aquaculture operation. In its forthcoming environmental impact statement, the park service will recommend to Salazar a course of action on the permit renewal.

Currently the oyster company has a state lease through 2029 that allows it to fish the waterbottoms of the estero, but that lease is contingent upon the renewal of the federal permit, which applies to its land and shore facilities. 

Should that permit not be renewed, McCloskey, a trained property attorney, said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pursue further legal courses in defense of the company. McCloskey said that his letter is likely “the beginning and end of [Burton’s, Bagley’s and my] involvement.”

Burton, a retired United States senator and lead author of the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, has alleged in recent weeks that environmental groups and park service officials who believe that the estero must be converted to wilderness in 2012 have errantly misinterpreted the act, which he says supported from the beginning the oyster company’s continuation past 2012.

Bagley is the former California state assemblyman who, in 1965, wrote the bill that transferred ownership of waters surrounding Point Reyes to the National Park Service. Pursuant to the transfer, the California Department of Fish and Game retained rights to fish the waterbottoms. Officials with Fish and Game now contend that such rights do not include oyster cultivation. Bagley disagrees. 

In the letter, the authors indict park service officials of having used fraudulent scientific data to propagate public opposition to the oyster company. “We are also compelled to note that the deliberate misrepresentations of science by the Park Service, and particularly its failure for three years to disclose its logs and photographs [of harbor seal habitat in Drakes Estero]… has created a wide distrust of one of the few remaining revered institutions of our Government,” they write. 

Though representatives from the Sierra Club, Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin and Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association all would not respond to requests for comment, Trainer told KWMR’s George Clyde on Wednesday that her organization vehemently opposes the legal interpretations put forth in the letter.

“They’re not interpreting the law as it’s written,” Trainer said. “Their letter is very selective, unfortunately, in including only specific pieces that are not relevant.” 

Beyond asserting legal precedent, the letter proposes that there is no harm to harbor seals from the oyster company’s current activities. “It is conceivable that in ten years they might show something that there are fewer seals because the oyster company is there,” McCloskey said. “I don’t think you can say with certainty at the moment, and that is one reason to extend the lease right there—to allow for more research.”

The letter also recommends the convening of Congressional committee hearings to ascertain the park service’s past and present motivations regarding the oyster company’s operation. “It’s confused enough that the public ought to know what the park service’s prerogative is now,” McCloskey said.