Marin Voice: Finding an oyster accord
By John Hart
Guest op-ed column
Posted: 05/31/2013 05:36:00 AM PDT
Click photo to enlarge
AS THE AUTHOR of a recent book on Point Reyes, I find myself in a no-man’s-land between the fronts in the oyster wars. Here is what I think I know.
Point No. 1: Point Reyes is not a “wilderness park.” Unlike classic units of the National Park System, it was not created from federal land in far-off mountains. And the seashore is simply unique in incorporating — with the blessing of Congress — large areas of functioning farmland. The historic use of Drakes Estero to produce oysters is not different in kind from the historic use of adjacent pastures to produce milk and meat.
Point No. 2: Yet wilderness is a valid concept for parts of Point Reyes. The word “wilderness” evokes pristine horizons, but is also a strictly defined legal concept, a zone, within which there are no roads, no resource extraction, and no mechanized access. Even lands that were formerly settled can be placed in this zone, and come to look and feel very wild. About half of Point Reyes, mostly in the south, was zoned wilderness in 1976.
Point No. 3: There was a time when everyone, environmentalists very much included, wanted the oyster farm to continue indefinitely. They also wanted wilderness for Drakes Estero. They got around the seeming clash by endorsing oysters-in-wilderness as a “nonconforming use.” IJ letter writer Jim Linford has recently revived this position. It was the Park Service that balked, so a brand new label was invented for the estero and a few other areas: “potential wilderness.” The estero would be highly protected but without the wilderness label, so long as the oyster farm was there.
Point No. 4: Congress favored oysters, yet quietly wrote language implying that the farm should leave. These words are not in the law but in one of the committee reports accompanying it. They state, as a general principle, that “potential wilderness” should be converted to full wilderness as soon as possible.
Point No. 5: Congress later revised this instruction. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s rider of 2009 allowed the Secretary of the Interior to renew the oyster farm lease, on existing terms, for another ten years. Since the existing lease included a renewal clause, this might arguably have permitted a longer extension. As we all know, Salazar chose not to extend.
Point No. 6: The Park Service has tried to prove that the oyster farm was doing environmental damage, and it has failed. This is my opinion based on an intensive reading of the Environmental Impact Statement and other documents. Studies should continue. Right now the evidence is just not there.
Point No. 7: I doubt that the oyster farm is actually vital to the outstanding cleanliness of the estero. True, filter-feeding oysters are known to clean coastal waters, and some think they do so here. The Park Service argues that the natural flushing of daily tides here dwarfs any filtering effect, and I am (tentatively) convinced.
Point No. 8: I doubt also that a removal of the oyster farm would bring more pressure on the adjacent farmland. Some believe that, without oysters, pollution from cows would become evident in the estero, leading to a campaign to shut down agriculture nearby. But if tidal exchange is overwhelming, any such effect should be very minor.
If I had been Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar?
I would have granted the 10-year extension. I would have asked the scientists to continue their environmental studies, without pressure.
I would have made such critics as Corey Goodman a full part of this process. And I would have asked Congress to make it clear that, if given a clean bill of health, oyster farming could continue.
To my ear, it is not a discord in the special music of Point Reyes.
John Hart of San Rafael is an environmental writer and author of “An Island in Time: 50 Years of Point Reyes National Seashore.