Blog Post Tom Kiernan Dec 11, 2012

Protecting the Wilderness at Drakes Estero

Photo © Robert Campbell/Chamois Moon.

Americans are captivated by wilderness; it comes in all shapes and sizes, from the forested Olympic National Park to the river of grass in the Everglades. Thanks to U.S. Secretary Ken Salazar, Americans can now experience the majestic beauty of the first marine wilderness area on the West Coast: Drakes Estero, in Point Reyes National Seashore.

The decision to protect Drakes Bay as wilderness was nearly 40 years in the making. In 1976, Congress passed a law that included designating the estuary within Point Reyes National Seashore as the first marine wilderness area on the West Coast. However, this ruling came with one caveat–a commercial oyster company using motorboats and raising non-native oysters could continue operating, but its permit would expire on November 30, 2012. Once the commercial operation ended, nature would take over, and the estuary would return to its natural state. After all, taxpayers purchased this property with the goal to have it be fully protected and accessible as part of this national park.

Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore

A promise made should be a promise kept, right? Unfortunately, when the ownership of the oyster company changed hands in 2005, the new operator chose not to honor the contract, and instead fought to stay.

Secretary Salazar’s decision to protect this five bay estuary demonstrated his deep understanding and commitment to protecting America’s greatest wilderness areas. Over the last several years, NPCA has worked tirelessly with the secretary, the Park Service, Congress, and President Obama to protect not only this area but other pristine wilderness areas across the country, including the Rocky Mountains, Zion, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, as intended by their designation as national parks sites.

As our members and supporters know, NPCA is not one to back down from a fight–especially when something as rare and precious as marine wilderness is at stake. Our work began once we learned of the oyster company’s efforts to seek a lease extension. Over the years, we have conducted extensive legal and policy research on this issue; rallied local and national supporters; educated elected officials; and participated in scientific study processes to protect the long-standing plan to attain a fully-protected wilderness at Drakes Estero. Our work demonstrates that advocacy is consistently needed if we want our national parks to be unimpaired for future generations.

We value wilderness areas in national parks for the clean air and water, scenery, and wildlife they provide. And wilderness is not found everywhere. If anything, wilderness can be likened to an endangered species in the continental United States–and marine wilderness is even less common. What was once acre upon acre of vast open lands, especially in the West, is becoming developed at an alarming pace. When President Obama announced his America’s Great Outdoors initiative, he talked about this very issue: “Over the last century, our population grew from about 90 million to 300 million people, and as it did, we lost more and more of our natural landscape to development. Meanwhile, a host of other factors–from a changing climate to new sources of pollution–have put a growing strain on our wildlife and our waters and our lands.”

We agree, wholeheartedly.

Secretary Salazar’s decision to provide full wilderness designation to Drakes Bay–as planned and paid for by the American public–will enhance opportunities for public access to a remarkable protected marine environment near the major urban hub of San Francisco and the nine Bay Area counties, home to more than 9 million people. Far more than just a beautiful view, Drakes Estero serves as a stopover for thousands of sensitive and migratory birds and a habitat for seals. It also accounts for at least 7 percent of California’s eelgrass habitat, which helps maintain a healthy marine ecosystem. Without the bustle of business and a noticeable commercial footprint in the middle of Drakes Estero, all who visit Point Reyes National Seashore can enjoy enhanced opportunities for recreation, wildlife viewing, and the much-revered quality of solitude. Such an experience simply cannot be replicated.


Our work to protect Drakes Estero is not over. On December 4, the oyster company filed a lawsuit to fight Secretary Salazar’s landmark decision. Meanwhile, Salazar’s opponents have criticized him sharply in the media, pointing out that 30 oyster farmers are now out of a job. We firmly believe that the national parks belong to everyone and should not support commercial enterprises that benefit a chosen few—something Congress recognized 40 years ago when it chose to let the company’s permit expire. We will remain vigilant in our efforts to safeguard the secretary’s decision and protect the future of the West Coast’s first marine wilderness area, and we will keep you apprised of our efforts and how you can help. We also ask you to join us in thanking Secretary Salazar for his monumental decision, which will be long felt by our generation, our children, grandchildren, and all who explore this wonderful, natural gem.

Learn more

Listen to NPCA’s Pacific Region Associate Director Neal Desai in a forum with Kevin Lunny, the owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, on a recent KQED radio program:

Also, see a slideshow with images from Drakes Estero, including the oyster farm:

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