Drakes Estero Wilderness

Close to Home: Welcome West Coast’s Only Marine Wilderness!

December 29, 2014

BY AMY TRAINER

 

 

 

 

We are exceptionally fortunate to have Point Reyes National Seashore, a rare ecological haven, in our backyard. For decades, Point Reyes has served as a natural sanctuary for wildlife and wilderness lovers. At Point Reyes, we relish the opportunity to reconnect to the wild heartbeat of nature that is deeply rooted within us.
Drakes Estero, long considered the ecological heart of spectacular Point Reyes, is the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast. After a long battle over the heart of this national park, on Thursday Drakes Estero will run wild — free of non-native oyster cultivation — for the first time in almost eighty years.

The fight over Drakes Estero wasn’t supposed to happen, though. In 2005, the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. purchased the remaining few years on the original 40-year oyster lease. The company was given written notice that after 2012 its lease would expire and that the 1976 wilderness designation for this remarkable estuary under the Point Reyes Wilderness Act precluded further operations. The oyster company launched a formidable fight anyway to undo this visionary deal made by Congress.

Thankfully, tens of thousands of national park and wilderness advocates from west Marin to Washington, D.C., including biologists Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, the late coastal champion Bill Kortum and Miwok ancestors who have sacred sites there, came together to defend Drakes Estero.

After former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chose to let the 40-year lease expire on its own terms in November 2012, the oyster company sued. All federal court decisions rejected the company’s claims, including the U.S. Supreme Court last June.

The National Park Service and the oyster company entered into a settlement agreement on Sept. 30 that is very generous to the company. In exchange for dropping its legal claims and foregoing the right to cultivate oysters in Drakes Estero, the American taxpayers will pick up the tab for the cleanup effort.

There’s no question the settlement deal was the right thing to do. The heart of the Point Reyes will soon be free of the dozens of dilapidated pressure-treated wood racks, thousands of pieces of plastic oyster debris, mounds of invasive “marine vomit” and the dozens of daily noisy motor boats.

The harbor seals that come to Drakes Estero to give birth and raise their young, the great egrets roosting on the Estero’s shores, the salmonids that use the Estero as a nursery and the hundreds of acres of eelgrass in the Estero will finally be free from disturbance and damage.

Continuous threats to our most treasured public lands are nothing new, but at Point Reyes the stakes were exceedingly high. A national park wilderness area is our nation’s most highly protected federal land status. If the special interests behind the oyster company’s fight, including the Koch brothers’ commercialize-America’s-public-lands agenda, had succeeded to privatize Drakes Estero and overturn its wilderness protections, it would have put at risk all other federal land and ocean protections. The future of both our National Wilderness Preservation System and our National Park System, the former having just celebrating its 50th birthday in September, the latter with its 100th anniversary in 2016, would have been compromised too.

Thankfully, good government prevailed and iconic Point Reyes remains protected as long-intended by Congress. If you haven’t visited Drakes Estero recently, treat yourself to a hike along its awe-inspiring shores or a kayak trip on its sacred waters. You will walk away feeling a profound reverence for this special place, and grateful that it is protected as wilderness for current and future generations.

Amy Trainer is the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.

Read here on the Press Democrat website


 

Interior Secretary Affirms Wilderness Status at Point Reyes National Seashore

October 6, 2014: National Park Service Enters into Generous Settlement Deal with DBOC

The Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company released a signed settlement agreement filed with the federal court that will dismiss the oyster company’s failed litigation with prejudice, allow the Company to continue harvesting oysters through the end of the year, and assign clean-up costs to the American taxpayers.

photo: David Wimpfheimer

The settlement agreement follows four consecutive Federal court decisions that upheld DOI’s November 2012 decision to let Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s lease expire as long-planned, thereby protecting the West Coast’s first marine wilderness at Drakes Estero within Point Reyes National Seashore. The DOI and the Company called the settlement agreement “fair, reasonable and in the public interest.”

“The settlement agreement is a very generous deal for the oyster company that will have had 25 months to operate rent-free since its lease expired. We are glad that Drakes Estero, a magnificent ecological treasure, is finally on its way to be restored to its wild, natural rhythm, free of non-nativeand invasive species,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.

Most recently, the Supreme Court of the United States denied hearing the oyster company’s case. As of September 30, 2014, when the agreement was signed the company has had 22 extra months to plant, harvest, and sell its non-native oysters rent-free, thus profiting far beyond its November 2012 lease expiration.

Highlights of the settlement include:

  • Providing January 1, 2015 as the date by when Drakes Estero marine wilderness will be free from Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s business operations such as their daily use of noisy motorboats and placement of thousands of plastic oyster growing bags on sensitive wildlife habitat.
  • Providing Drakes Bay Oyster Company with nearly three additional months to continue their business activities that damage and pollute the estuary and surrounding Seashore. Recently taken underwater video footage captures the significant plastic pollution and invasive species infestation from the oyster company’s operation that the company has neglected to clean up for years.
  • Drakes Bay Oyster Company, as well as its successors and assigns, relinquished all future rights to conduct commercial shellfish operations in Point Reyes.
  • Transfer of clean up responsibilities and costs from the oyster company to taxpayers. Per the leasing contracts it originally signed, the oyster company was legally required to clean up the estuary before its lease expired in November 2012, but today’s settlement unfortunately transfers that financial responsibility to all Americans who, through the National Park Service budget, will be forced to pick up the tab. Since it was formed in 2005, Drakes Bay Oyster Company reported annually that its clean-up costs would not exceed $10,000, yet it claimed the costs would be more than 50 times that ($600,000) when it filed a lawsuit against DOI.
  • Providing the oyster company’s workers with federal relocation assistance and allowing the workers to remain in the onsite housing for months.

 


 

February 4, 2013: Federal Court Order Denies DBOC’s Request for Preliminary Injunction 

  • Read court order here

 


 

November 29, 2012: End of Commercial Oyster Lease Secures Creation of West Coast’s First Marine Wilderness 

Point Reyes, CA – In a watershed decision for national parks and wilderness areas, Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar announced today that he will uphold the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act and protect the National Seashore’s ecological heart, Drakes Estero. Salazar declined to issue a new permit for a controversial commercial oyster operation in the biologically rich estuary, thereby affording it the nation’s highest resource protection status and creating the West Coast’s first marine wilderness area.

photo: David Wimpfheimer

Local organizations representing thousands of members and supporters were overjoyed. “We are ecstatic that this ecological treasure will be forever protected as marine wilderness,” said Amy Trainer executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. “We are so grateful to Secretary Salazar for choosing to honor federal law and policy and for upholding the integrity of all our national parks and our wilderness preservation system.”

“I want to thank Secretary Salazar for saving this unique Estero, whose biological reserves will benefit future generations of fishermen and recreationists,” said Gordon Bennett, President of Save Our Seashore. “I’m heartened we are not sacrificing the values of our public lands for the benefit of one commercial enterprise.”

The Estero is home to one of the largest mainland breeding populations of harbor seals. Thousands of resident and migratory birds use its shores and waters for forage and rest. The Estero’s eelgrass beds provide food and habitat for innumerable species, including forage fish and endangered salmon.

photo: Sue Vander Wahl

“It is thrilling to have the waters of Drakes Estero permanently protected for the thousands of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife that depend on it,” said Barbara Salzman, president of the Marin Audubon Society. “We look forward to working with the park to restore the estuary’s natural habitat and check the spread of invasive species.”

Secretary Salazar will file the Federal Register notice declaring that the non-conforming uses – the commercial operation and the motorboats – have ceased in Drakes Estero allowing full wilderness status to go into effect. The oyster operation will have ninety days to remove its millions of non-native oysters from the Estero, which is the first step to restore the estuary’s natural ecology.

Americans overwhelmingly supported protection of the estuary as wilderness, with more than 90 percent of the 52,000 public comments on a National Park Service environmental review opposing a new permit and supporting wilderness status. National conservation groups that urged full wilderness protection included Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Wilderness Watch, The Wilderness Society, and National Parks Conservation Association. World-renowned scientists and marine ecologists Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson and Jean-Michel Cousteau also urged wilderness protection. The Park Service’s final environmental impact statement released last week affirmed that the environmentally preferable alternative was wilderness status rather than extended commercial use.

The controversial Drakes Bay Oyster Company was established in 2005 when it bought the remaining seven years on the operating permit from the original owner. Instead of honoring the signed lease agreement, the company has waged a divisive campaign to overturn the 1976 congressional designation. The company has been repeatedly rebuked by regulatory agencies for failing to adhere to motorboat restrictions in harbor seal protection areas, failing to clean up thousands of pieces of its plastic debris released into the Estero and adjacent marine sanctuaries, and ongoing unpermitted development.

photo: Rudi Dundas Schmidt

The controversial company pushed for an unprecedented extension while ramping up non-native oyster planting and production the past seven years. Members of the community including local wilderness advocates will work together to provide new job and training opportunities and ensure a smooth transition for the oyster company employees once the final harvest is complete. “We will continue to support efforts to secure new jobs with living wages and health benefits or retraining assistance for them,” said Trainer. “We all want to see a positive next step for the employees and their families. The community has a lot of healing to do, and this is one piece of it.”

The Secretary’s decision today to honor the congressional wilderness designation and not to grant a new permit avoids setting a poor public policy precedent for other commercial uses in national parks and wilderness areas. The Point Reyes National Seashore is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year thanks to the visionary leadership of President John F. Kennedy, his Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and numerous others including David Brower, Clem Miller, and Peter Behr.

A huge THANK YOU to all of our coalition partners for your help and supporting our work to protect this ecological treasure!!