Having closely followed the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm tragedy, I saw firsthand the misuse of the National Environmental Policy Act process by park service officials at the Point Reyes National Seashore. They used NEPA as a weapon against the oyster farm when no environmental impact statement was required, since no change of use was proposed. Conversely, these same officials have failed to use NEPA when it is required by a change of use—as when a ranch is removed.
Dr. Laura Watt explained this in her testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee at its April 23 hearing on “The Weaponization of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Implications of Environmental Lawfare.”
Having watched the video of the hearing, I was quite surprised at how it was covered by the Light (“House committee hears Point Reyes woes,” May 3, 2018). The story does not mention the name of the hearing, instead describing its goal as “questioning the efficacy of NEPA,” as if there were no reason for that questioning. Most of the story doesn’t discuss the hearing at all, focusing instead on an alleged “growing rift among ranchers in Point Reyes National Seashore,” and on the views of Rep. Jared Huffman.
Why were Rep. Huffman’s views considered more important than those of Dr. Watt? The story includes 12 paragraphs about Rep. Huffman, and four quotes from him. There is only one quote from Dr. Watt, taken from her testimony.
The story reported that Rep. Huffman “sparred” with Dr. Watt, but “browbeat” would be more accurate. Dr. Watt was not given a chance to respond to Rep. Huffman’s comments, which were clearly meant to blunt the power of her testimony. After implying that Dr. Watt was incorrect, Rep. Huffman then insulted his Republican colleagues on the committee by mischaracterizing the purpose of the hearing as a bid to get rid of NEPA. There is no evidence for this charge. Why did the Light repeat it without comment or critical evaluation?
And why did the Light pile on with its own partisan scare-mongering, reporting that the Resilient Agriculture Group has hired “a Republican lobbyist”? Why did the Light report that this lobbyist, John Doolittle, “came under investigation in the early 2000s for his business relations with lobbyist Jack Abramoff,” without also informing its readers that no charges were ever brought against Doolittle?
Why did the reporter present, uncritically, Rep. Huffman’s assertion that the National Park Service is “not the capricious, heavy-handed and anti-agricultural agency that is sometimes portrayed by its critics,” again without comment or critique? Park service officials at Point Reyes certainly have been capricious and heavy-handed in their misuse of environmental policy. NEPA-related malfeasance was used to weave a fabric of lies and falsified scientific information that robbed the people of California of 55 percent of their shellfish-growing leases, as reported in Newsweek by Michael Ames. Seashore officials recently misused NEPA again, hiding toxicity data to get a categorical exemption to remove wooden oyster racks from Drakes Estero, as John Hulls has reported in the Russian River Times.
And these same officials are misusing NEPA right now by pretending that their five-year plan for the current general management plan amendment process is perfectly legal, when it was actually designed to work around Interior’s Secretarial Order No. 3355, which requires environmental reviews to be completed within one year.
Why is Rep. Huffman making excuses for the park service? Why is he unwilling to work with his colleagues to hold the agency accountable for their misuse of NEPA? And why is he working against the ranchers who are trying to get their voices heard in Congress, calling them “splinter groups and offshoots that go out and engage in secret lobbying agendas”?
The Light ends its story on the NEPA hearing with a similar quote from Burr Heneman, who says it “can be dangerous to take the RAG path.” What exactly is the danger here? That the park service might finally be forced to play by the rules?
Sarah Rolph is a freelance writer and research analyst based in Carlisle, Mass. A native Californian whose favorite place is Point Reyes, she is writing a book about Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.