Last week Point Reyes National Seashore released over 52,000 public comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the future of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, casting a striking portrait of national sentiment—one that, without examination, could be misleading.
Ninety-two percent of the comments support the Seashore’s proposal to shutter the 75-year-old oyster farm in November. But 86 percent of all responses are form letters generated by mass mailings from four environmental groups—and many people submitted the same letters multiple times.
The National Park Service has previously stated that the public comments do not constitute a vote; that what counts is the content, rather than the number, of responses. “Our agency’s focus in this process is analyzing the comments received for content that informs the Environmental Impact Statement,” Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn wrote in an email. “Comments that repeat the same basic message will typically be responded to collectively in the [final] EIS.”
Nevertheless, 20 minutes after the Seashore released the comments, the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC) issued a statement declaring: “The public has spoken: 92% of the 52,473 comments received on plans for Drakes Estero urge the Interior Secretary to honor the government’s promise to protect the heart of Pt. Reyes as wilderness.”
The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), slated for completion this summer, will influence Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s decision on whether to issue a new permit for the oyster farm.
A preliminary analysis of the data, which was posted alongside the comments on the Seashore website, cites 48,396 responses supporting the preferred alternative—called the “no-action” alternative—but makes no reference to the duplicative nature of most of the comments.
Gunn said the final EIS will include a detailed analysis and discussion of the comments, “including some discussion about form letters, among other topics.”
The Seashore also stated that bulk comments, or comments submitted on behalf of others, would not be counted—such as some 7,700 comments collected and hand-delivered by oyster farm owner Kevin Lunny.
Proponents of the conversion of Drakes Estero from “potential” wilderness to full wilderness status include four national environmental groups—the National Parks Conservation Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)—along with the EAC.
These groups maintain that the oyster farm prevents natural resources from flourishing and is at odds with the Seashore’s long-term goals. Farm advocates dispute both charges, arguing that Lunny’s operation is both environmentally sound and a critical source of local jobs and food.
Public comments on the draft EIS, which outlines four scenarios ranging from closing the farm in 2012 to the issuance of a non-renewable ten-year lease, were received between September and December of last year. Beginning in early November, thousands of comments with identical wording began flooding in.
“Drakes Estero is a national ecological treasure and should become a protected wilderness area,” Jesse Williams, an “NRDC Unaffiliated Individual” from Cincinnati wrote on November 9, the same day the environmental group distributed a mass email containing the same language. Two days later, Williams, listing the same nonprofit affiliation, sent the message again. By the end of the public comment period his were two of 9,756 identical letters composing 19 percent of the total comments.
Other phrases, such as “I urge you to protect Drakes Estero wilderness next year, as long intended,” and “national parks and wilderness areas are treasured by the majority of Americans and are for the public interest, not for private commercial exploitation,” appear repeatedly as well.
Of the 7,238 comments that are not form letters, a number are duplicates. Several individuals signed and submitted form documents supporting the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture’s proposed “collaborative management alternative,” which calls for a renewable lease extension and joint management of the farm by multiple state and national organizations.
Laura Watt, an assistant professor at Sonoma State University who has worked on several EIS’s, says the profusion of click-and-submit comments raises a larger issue. “In a way it makes sense not to allow submission of bulk comments”—such as the letters Lunny hand-delivered—“since we don’t have certainty that the people being represented actually exist,” Watt said. “But to me, putting up a web form and having people just click and send is nearly the same thing—it’s asking people for input that isn’t really their own thought.”
Sarah Rolph contributed to this article.