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.
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.
“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.
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!!