Salazar decision on Drakes Estero can set dangerous precedent for US Wilderness

This week a decision by US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar may affect Wilderness designation for Drakes Estero off the central California coastline north of San Francisco with potential impacts on other National Wilderness Areas. A coastal estuary of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, the estuary is home to harbor seals, herons, ospreys, egrets, eelgrass, and other flora and fauna. Under a law enacted by Congress in 1976, known as the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, Drakes Estero is scheduled to become a federally protected marine wilderness at the end of this year. Wilderness is defined as an area of land and water large enough to sustain biological diversity, and is the highest level of federal protection. If approved, this would be the first ever marine wilderness in the United States.

The designation has caused a rift among residents of rural West Marin County and environmentalists seeking implementation of the Act. The current occupant, Drakes Bay Oyster Company seeks to extend their lease due to expire this week and propose to expand operations cultivating oysters. The current occupant took over a short term lease from previous owners with knowledge of the impending Wilderness status, but wish to continue their business in the Park, and have strong political support by Senator Diane Feinstein.

Supporters of the Wilderness cite impacts from vessels and activities on seals and seabirds in the Estuary, introduction of non native shellfish and other damage to the ecosystem by the Oyster Company. Feinstein introduced a rider bill earlier this year that revoked the National Park’s authority to decide the fate of the park. The decision would allow Salazar, who as secretary of the Interior also oversees the Park Service, to make the final determination about the application to extend their lease. The oyster farm, With Feinstein’s support wants to delay establishment of the wilderness for at least ten years, possibly longer. The oyster farm’s appeal is the last obstacle towards designating Wilderness status.

According to research conducted by UC Berkeley's law school, the US government has never extended the lease of what is considered a non-conforming commercial operation, like an oyster farm, on national parkland designated by Congress to become wilderness. Allowing a business with high impact inside a Wilderness area sets a dangerous precedence for this and other Wilderness areas. US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his department are currently considering this request extending the oyster farm's lease.

We urge Secretary Salazar to ignore political pressures and uphold the Wilderness Act as originally intended and protect the Drake’s Estero and its wildlife.