Close to Home: Welcome to West Coast’s only marine wilderness

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We are exceptionally fortunate to have Point Reyes National Seashore, a rare ecological haven, in our backyard. For decades, Point Reyes has served as a natural sanctuary for wildlife and wilderness lovers. At Point Reyes, we relish the opportunity to reconnect to the wild heartbeat of nature that is deeply rooted within us.

Drakes Estero, long considered the ecological heart of spectacular Point Reyes, is the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast. After a long battle over the heart of this national park, on Thursday Drakes Estero will run wild — free of non-native oyster cultivation — for the first time in almost eighty years.

The fight over Drakes Estero wasn’t supposed to happen, though. In 2005, the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. purchased the remaining few years on the original 40-year oyster lease. The company was given written notice that after 2012 its lease would expire and that the 1976 wilderness designation for this remarkable estuary under the Point Reyes Wilderness Act precluded further operations. The oyster company launched a formidable fight anyway to undo this visionary deal made by Congress.

Thankfully, tens of thousands of national park and wilderness advocates from west Marin to Washington, D.C., including biologists Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, the late coastal champion Bill Kortum and Miwok ancestors who have sacred sites there, came together to defend Drakes Estero.

After former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chose to let the 40-year lease expire on its own terms in November 2012, the oyster company sued. All federal court decisions rejected the company’s claims, including the U.S. Supreme Court last June.

The National Park Service and the oyster company entered into a settlement agreement on Sept. 30 that is very generous to the company. In exchange for dropping its legal claims and foregoing the right to cultivate oysters in Drakes Estero, the American taxpayers will pick up the tab for the cleanup effort.

There’s no question the settlement deal was the right thing to do. The heart of the Point Reyes will soon be free of the dozens of dilapidated pressure-treated wood racks, thousands of pieces of plastic oyster debris, mounds of invasive “marine vomit” and the dozens of daily noisy motor boats.

The harbor seals that come to Drakes Estero to give birth and raise their young, the great egrets roosting on the Estero’s shores, the salmonids that use the Estero as a nursery and the hundreds of acres of eelgrass in the Estero will finally be free from disturbance and damage.

Continuous threats to our most treasured public lands are nothing new, but at Point Reyes the stakes were exceedingly high. A national park wilderness area is our nation’s most highly protected federal land status. If the special interests behind the oyster company’s fight, including the Koch brothers’ commercialize-America’s-public-lands agenda, had succeeded to privatize Drakes Estero and overturn its wilderness protections, it would have put at risk all other federal land and ocean protections. The future of both our National Wilderness Preservation System and our National Park System, the former having just celebrating its 50th birthday in September, the latter with its 100th anniversary in 2016, would have been compromised too.

Thankfully, good government prevailed and iconic Point Reyes remains protected as long-intended by Congress. If you haven’t visited Drakes Estero recently, treat yourself to a hike along its awe-inspiring shores or a kayak trip on its sacred waters. You will walk away feeling a profound reverence for this special place, and grateful that it is protected as wilderness for current and future generations.

Amy Trainer is the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.

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