10-04-2012 Professor Laura Watt, Legislative and Administrative History Does Not Support NPS & Others Who Contend Oyster Farm to Close in 2012

10-04-2012: West Marin Citizen, Citizen’s Forum by Dr. Laura Watt: ” The nature of wilderness – past intentions for oyster farm’s future”

In my own research, reading through everything I’ve been able to find about the designation of wilderness at Point Reyes – the planning documents, comment letters from environmental organizations and members of the public, and testimony from Congressional hearings, as well as the formal bills and reports, and subsequent management plans – I have not come across any statements anticipating closure of the oyster farm in 2012.

 

In contrast, quite a number of statements suggest the opposite: that the oyster farm was intended to continue under potential wilderness designation, with no clear end point or expiration date. For instance, in the 1974 Final EIS for Proposed Wilderness (page 56), the NPS wrote, “This is the only oyster farm in the seashore. Control of the lease from the California Department of Fish and Game, with presumed renewal indefinitely, is within the rights reserved by the State on these submerged lands … and there is no foreseeable termination of this condition.”

By Laura Watt

Professor Laura Watt, Legislative and Administrative History Does Not Support NPS and Others Who Contend Oyster Farm to Close in 2012

In her letter to the editor last week, Amy Meyer described her role on the Citizens Advisory Commission (CAC) back in 1975, making recommendations for the designation of lands within Point Reyes National Seashore as wilderness. She asserted that, by including Drakes Estero in the “potential wilderness” category, it was always the intention of Congress and the public that the oyster farm cease operation in 2012, once its reservation of use expired. She described this as a “promise,” the breaking of which could threaten the entire national wilderness preservation system.

 

What she did not include is any documentation of this promise. As an academic historian, I am always interested in finding more documents – so if any exist  that confirm these assertions, I would love to see them!

 

In my own research, reading through everything I’ve been able to find about the designation of wilderness at Point Reyes – the planning documents, comment letters from environmental organizations and members of the public, and testimony from Congressional hearings, as well as the formal bills and reports, and subsequent management plans – I have not come across any statements anticipating closure of the oyster farm in 2012.

 

In contrast, quite a number of statements suggest the opposite: that the oyster farm was intended to continue under potential wilderness designation, with no clear end point or expiration date. For instance, in the 1974 Final EIS for Proposed Wilderness (page 56), the NPS wrote, “This is the only oyster farm in the seashore. Control of the lease from the California Department of Fish and Game, with presumed renewal indefinitely, is within the rights reserved by the State on these submerged lands … and there is no foreseeable termination of this condition.”

 

In response, the Sierra Club wrote a letter of comment, including (page A-51): “The draft Environmental Impact Statement implies that none of the Drakes Estero can be classified as wilderness because of Johnson Oyster Farm. This is misleading. The company’s buildings and the access road must be excluded but the estero need not be. The water area can be put under the Wilderness Act even while the oyster culture is continued — it will be a prior existing, nonconforming use.” No suggestion of eventual termination was included.

 

Ms. Meyer’s own CAC subcommittee suggested the following at their meeting on August 5, 1975: “Specific provision should be made in the legislation to allow the following uses to continue unrestrained by wilderness designation: a. Operation of that portion of the Murphy ranch that falls within the proposed wilderness … b. Operation of Johnson’s Oyster Farm including the use of motorboats and the repair and construction of oyster racks and other activities in conformance with the terms of the existing 1,000 acre lease from the State of California.” (They also recommended, “the preamble of the wilderness legislation should clearly  state the atypical nature of wilderness at Point Reyes.”)

 

These recommendations were expressly endorsed in Congressional testimony by legislative co-sponsors Senator Cranston, Senator Tunney and Representative John Burton. In addition, letters from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, the Marin Environmental Forum, the Inverness Association, and from Jerry Friedman as Chair of the Marin County Planning Commission all specifically endorse the recommendations of the CAC. Nowhere in the 1976 hearings does anyone make a specific objection to the oyster farm, nor give any indication that they expected wilderness designation would be hindered by its continued presence, nor discuss an end to its operation in the future.

 

Since passage of the wilderness bill, the 1980 General Management Plan for PRNS included management objectives, under Natural Resources Management, “to manage seashore activities in the pastoral and estuarine areas in a manner compatible with resource carrying capacity,” and specifies “To monitor and improve mariculture operations, in particular the oyster farm operation in Drakes Estero, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game”; and under Cultural Resources Management, “to monitor and support productive land uses and activities which are consistent with historic patterns,” and specifies “to ensure that agricultural and maricultural activities are consistent with the historical evolution of land and water use in Point Reyes.” In the Assessment of the Alternatives, the summary table of development proposals lists Johnson’s Oyster Farm as both the existing and proposed uses at that location; in other words, the EIS did not consider the possibility of the oyster farm shutting down.

 

These historic documents, plus the renewal clause in DBOC’s lease, suggest that closure of the oyster farm was not widely anticipated as a result of potential wilderness designation. My research findings on this issue are similar to those of John Hart, whose book, An Island in Time: 50 Years of Point Reyes National Seashore, has just been published. Again, if anyone has additional documents to share, I would very much like to read them.

 

Laura Watt is an associate professor of environmental studies and planning at Sonoma State University, specializing in environmental policy.

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