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Close to Home: Time to halt Point Reyes degradation

  • 10/24/2013: B1: The Drakes Bay Oyster Co. near Inverness.

    PC: The Drakes Bay Oyster Farm near Inverness, on Thursday, November 29, 2012. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he will shut down the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, designating the site as a wilderness area. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

In its quest to privatize the West Coast's only marine wilderness area — Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore — the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has submitted various unsupported claims to the federal courts. Thankfully, two courts have rejected the company's lawsuit.

But now the company has filed yet another appeal, hoping that the full U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel will help the company continue operating even though its lease on taxpayer-owned land expired almost a year ago.

The company claims that two federal courts were wrong when they concluded that the National Park Service, not the state of California, had primary jurisdiction to permit commercial aquaculture on national park property. Directly undermining the company's claims are the positions of three state agencies (the state Lands Commission, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Coastal Commission) that have written that the Park Service gets to decide what to permit on this federal property.

It's not just the law, it's common sense. It's also what the company agreed to because when it bought out the original operation in 2004, the oyster company signed a lease that explicitly stated the state aquaculture lease was "contingent on a concurrent federal Reservation of Use and Occupancy for fee land in the Point Reyes National Seashore."

Delivering the nail in the coffin was the state Attorney General's Office, which wrote in 2013 that the company's state lease was contingent on the Interior Department granting a new permit and because that permission to operate was declined, the company's state lease is "no longer valid and cannot be relied upon by the company as authority to operate" in the estero.

If you are wondering what the company's campaign is about, simply look at the list of ultra-conservative supporters backing its campaign. It includes Koch-brothers funded organizations such as the Pacific Legal Foundation and Americans For Prosperity and politicians such as Sen. David Vitter, R- La., who introduced legislation this year that would expedite permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, permit drilling off the coast of California and also provide Drakes Bay Oyster Co. with an unprecedented new permit by stripping national park wilderness protections.

This charade was recently rejected by the Sonoma County Democratic Central Committee, which passed a resolution supporting the protection of Drakes Estero. The Democratic Committee's action followed other California and national Democratic leadership such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden in recognizing that the public fairly purchased and planned for this estuary to be protected after November 2012.

Meanwhile, damage to the sensitive marine environment continues, threatening permanent impairment of this area. Recently, a strongly worded court brief filed by state office of the attorney general said that the "company's shellfish operations were in violation of the California Coastal Act" and that "their activities disturb and displace native flora and fauna, preventing the natural ecosystem from existing or functioning, and thereby disrupting the biological productivity of these areas and by continuing to introduce debris and pollutants into the waterways."

Unfortunately, the public interest has been set aside for too many years. The 9th Circuit Court should swiftly reject the company's baseless appeal and give back our land and marine wilderness.

Lynn Hamilton, a resident of Occidental and former mayor of Sebastopol, is a founding member of the Town Hall Coalition.


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