{Empty title} | The Nation

The Sierra Club is dismayed and disturbed by the tenor and tone of the current debate about whether or not to postpone the arrival of full wilderness status for Drakes Estero by extending the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm lease. We regret our role in contributing to this tenor and tone, and urge all parties to return to discussing the important differences that exist among people of good will who have different priorities and values for what should happen to this place we all love.

There are two issues here. One is scientific--what is the ecological impact of continuing the oyster operations, particularly on the seal population of the estuary? Here there is a dispute between two organizations for which the Sierra Club has enormous respect and admiration: the National Park Service and the National Academy of Sciences. We are not scientific referees, and we erred in allowing ourselves to step into that role.

The second is a policy issue, on which we have solid expertise, but which the current dialogue has obscured rather than illuminated. When a protected area--a national park, wilderness or national seashore--is created, it is not unusual that existing commercial activities incompatible with the proposed protected status are present. As those who have been watching the Ken Burns national parks series know, at one time even Yosemite National Park was home to a hog farm, a saw mill and agricultural operations.

There have historically been three pathways to solve these issues. First, in some cases, the boundaries of the proposed protected area are modified to take them out of the protected designation. Cherry-stem roads within new wilderness areas are a common example. Second, if the incompatible use is of such significance that it is judged desirable to continue it permanently, a different status may be chosen. For example, the conflict over hunting in the East Mojave led Senator Diane Feinstein to designate that area a preserve, rather than a park, in her California Desert Protection Act. Third, in some cases the conflicting use is permitted to continue for limited time period, with either a life estate or lease being granted to the private use so that it can continue for a time while maintaining the public's confidence that the area will eventually receive full protection.

In our experience, all three of these pathways are valid and can play a role in resolving conflicts about the creation of protected areas. It is important that parties to the creation of a protected area recognize that all such events are compromises, and that compromises need to be honored over time. When wilderness was designated within Point Reyes, the agreement to permit the oyster farm at Drakes Estero to continue operating until 2012 was a compromise.

So it is not surprising to find that there are those--not limited to the owners--who think that an oyster farm is preferable to wilderness for this particular site. There have always been such voices. But if Congress now extends the oyster farm lease beyond the 2012--in the absence of any powerful change of circumstances warranting such an extension--then the fabric of trust that enables wilderness and park advocates to rely upon limited extension of incompatible commercial uses is torn. For if an oyster farm qualifies for such special treatment, then all limited time extension of commercial operations in wilderness and protected areas are at risk. And this tool, which we believe has been of great value, will no longer be one in which we can repose our trust.

Efforts to resolve California’s water disputes have on more than one occasion fallen victim to lack of trust in the durability of promises that a particular physical facility would be operated at less than full capacity to protect the environment. Thus far, efforts to create national parks, wildernesses and other federally protected areas have not been similarly plagued, because Congress has not come back at a later date and tried to extend the lifetime of uses which were incompatible with the protective status created for the area.

We believe that extending the Drakes Estero oyster lease would, in fact, be a significant violation of the agreement that was reached when the potential wilderness was established. We therefore strongly oppose it.