Saving a California Treasure
If you’re anything like me, it wouldn’t take much to convince you that commercial oyster operations should be removed from the heart of a National Park as soon as possible—especially from an estuary that supports the largest breeding population of sensitive harbor seals in California and tens of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl.And if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to visit Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore, you would know in your heart—and not just your mind—that this magical center of a magical National Park should not be exploited and harmed so that one well-connected company can reap the profits.
Drakes Estero has long been recognized as the ecological heart of Point Reyes National Seashore and it provides vital habitat to an astounding array of fish and wildlife. Estero is home to 20 percent of the mainland breeding population of harbor seals in California. It is used by tens of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl, including more than 100 different species and several listed under the Endangered Species Act. At least 35 different species of fish are found in the Estero’s rich eelgrass beds.
There are many places in California where oyster operations are appropriate, but Drakes Estero is not one of them. But you don’t have to take just my word for it, world renowned marine scientists agree:
“Drakes Estero can be restored to its natural beauty and biological productivity. A commercial oyster operation fostering non-native species within such a sensitive, rare habitat is in direct conflict with the Seashore’s mandate of natural systems management as well as wilderness laws and national park management policies.”
—Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson, Jean-Michel Cousteau [read full letter here]
Fortunately, the existing 40-year old oyster lease is set to expire this November, and as soon as it does Drakes Estero will receive full wilderness protection. Congress made this promise to all Americans when it passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act in 1976, and a host of federal laws and Park Service management policies require the Park Service to ensure that Drakes Estero receives full wilderness protection this year.
The current oyster company owners knew all about this when they purchased the last seven years of the oyster lease at a discount in 2005. But instead of living up to this deal, the current owners and industry allies have been pursuing a relentless campaign to extend the lease for at least ten more years even as the owners have ignored the conditions put in place by the California Coastal Commission to protect harbor seals and other marine resources in Drakes Estero, including repeated incursions into sensitive off‐limit seal habitat.
As a result of this campaign, the Park Service has been forced to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to defend their obligation to comply with the large body of existing law, and do what is right for the Estero and the tens of thousands of species that rely on it. We are now at a critical crossroad. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will decide this month whether to fulfill the 35-year-old promise of full wilderness protection for Drakes Estero this year, or whether to succumb to political pressure and extend the oyster lease.
Full wilderness protection will guarantee the highest level of protection to this remarkable estuary and the many species that rely on it. Full wilderness protection will increase the Estero’s resiliency to climate change, which is already causing changes to marine habitats and species ranges at rates that far exceed those being experienced by land species. And full wilderness protection will provide an incredibly rare outdoor experience just a short drive away for the more than 7.15 million people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area—the ability to experience the wonders of the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.
The Seashore’s owners—the American people—overwhelming support full wilderness protection for Drakes Estero in 2012. More than 92% of 52,000 public comments, more than fifty conservation organizations across the country, and world-renowned marine scientists such as Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson, and Jean-Michel Cousteau have all urged Interior Secretary Salazar to conserve this area without delay.