Tag Archives: wilderness

A call for listening and objective journalism


Hours before America’s invasion of Iraq, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, on “Larry King Live”, was being goaded into denouncing either or both Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush. His Holiness suggested that rather than demonizing others, we might distinguish between their speech and behavior, and their humanity. Rejecting the human being, explained His Holiness, prevents learning; keeping an open mind protects curiosity and progress.

I offer this anecdote as a practice that your publication might employ in reporting the divisiveness that has arisen regarding an oyster farm operating within a marine wilderness area.

I was, until recently, neutral on this issue, an argument that would be resolved in courts of law. My concern has instead been the heated emotions and diminished comity that has surfaced through frequent vitriolic personal attacks.

This atmosphere of disagreeableness rather than disagreement has, in my view, been fomented by the lack of objective journalism on the part of both local newspapers. The public lynching in print of our neighbors and of organizations whose work make possible our extraordinary landscape has in turn given license to outrageous expressions of hate.

As with any relationship there cannot be progress until all parties stop talking and listen, without considering how to respond, but simply listen, really listen. Might I suggest that in future, when your newspaper feels a need to opine or to publish yet another article on the oyster farm versus marine wilderness issue, that you post side-by-side a divergent opinion or article authored by someone with a differing perspective?

Marc Matheson

Editor’s note: We enthusiastically support divergent opinions. We publish letters and opinion pieces as they are submitted. Everyone is welcome to write letters to the editor. Everyone is free to respond to those letters. We don’t instruct people what to write.

Considering the complete history:the wilderness act


There is a long history of disagreement over the meaning of wilderness; this is not a unique circumstance to the Drakes Estero conundrum.  So to suggest that the meaning and intent of wilderness is clear and unambiguous here, regardless of which “side” one is on, can only result from a selective (or cherry-picking) view of the history.  I first got involved with this debate, back in 2007, because it seemed that the pro-wilderness side was doing just that: looking at a few sentences in isolation without considering the broader record.  It is that cherry-picking tendency that sharing of my research here is intended to address.


Carolyn Longstreth pointed out last week that the 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits commercial enterprises within wilderness areas—but Drakes Estero isn’t wilderness, it’s potential wilderness, with the oyster farm expressly allowed to remain as a non-conforming use.  No one has proposed removing the “potential” status, so, like the High Sierra Camps located within potential wilderness areas of Yosemite National Park, there is no current conflict between the structures, or the use, and the designation.


It is bit ironic that Longstreth quoted the then-NPS Director from his 1976 testimony about temporary uses in wilderness, because that testimony was given to argue against designating Drakes Estero as potential wilderness.  Given that the oyster farm had already been a fixture of the Estero for more than 50 years at that point, it was impossible to see it as “temporary,” and that was part of the NPS’s reasoning for why that area shouldn’t be included in any designation at all.  It does not follow that, because Congress ignored the NPS’s argument and went ahead with the potential wilderness designation anyway, that somehow requires the oyster farm to “become temporary.” (And there’s really no way of conceiving of a now 80-year use as temporary!)


Longstreth also quotes from House Report 94-1680 (which was actually written before passage of the bill, not after as she states), which included a single sentence that refers to the “efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles” to eventual wilderness conversion. In contrast, there are numerous sentences and statements elsewhere in the legislative record, as I discussed in my last guest column, clearly stating an intention to allow the oyster farm to remain—and there is absolutely no reference, anywhere, to allowing it to remain only until the reservation of use (RUO) expires.  To suggest that it is “plain” that everyone meant “only until the RUO expires” is to put words in their mouths—and three of the legislators in question have recently assured the Interior Secretary that no such intention existed.  How can Congress, written generically, have that intention if the sponsoring Congressional representatives did not?


And there is no requirement to convert potential wilderness to “full” with any particular speed.  Even taking that single sentence literally, it still says nothing about the pace of removal, other than to say “steadily.”  Considering that the following sentence in the same document directs the Park Service to remove the utility lines in the Muddy Hollow corridor “as promptly as possible,” it becomes clear that these are relative terms; it took the NPS 23 years, from 1976 to 1999, to accomplish that first assigned task.  To remain on a steady pace, literally, the NPS has at least until 2022 to make the next change—and probably longer, since 23 years was “as promptly as possible.” And as the State of California still retains reserved rights in the Estero, confirmed by a letter from the Department of Fish and Game this past week, the oyster farm is not the only remaining obstacle to full wilderness designation.


It is important to remember that the 1976 wilderness bill was the first Congressional use of the potential wilderness designation, so to suggest that it had an unambiguous meaning at the time is reading today’s values into the record.  A second legislative report that accompanied the bill, this one from the Senate, made clear that many legislators were in fact uncomfortable with the designation: “The [Senate] Committee’s retention of the potential wilderness provisions contained in the House passed measure should not be construed to be an advocacy of this classification by the Committee. Although the Committee understands the Department’s rationale for this legislative classification, the Committee reserves the right to question this procedure at future wilderness hearings.”


Similarly, there is no clear consistent policy within the NPS today on conversion of potential wilderness to “full”; for example, the 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan stated, “The Ostrander ski hut and the High Sierra camps will be reclassified as potential additions to wilderness. They will continue to be available for public use.” Just five years ago, an NPS official testified before Congress that Southern California Edison could continue its use of a check dam for hydroelectric power within proposed potential wilderness in Sequoia-Kings Canyon “as long as it wants,” stating nothing about its steady or eventual removal on any time frame.


Reading through the 1976 wilderness hearings, it appears that the primary intention of insisting on potential wilderness status was to keep motorized off-road vehicles or jet skis out of the Estero. The Sierra Club’s representative testified, “The possibility of jeeps and motorcycles having access to the Estero shore and adjoining area is a frightening one.” Similarly, a letter from the Marin Conservation League specified, “MCL strongly urges inclusion in Wilderness of the quarter-mile strip of tidelands and Drake’s Estero. The fragile and important estero must have protection from recreational motor boats. The beaches must be protected from off-shore vehicles. We recommend controlled burns in the Bishop pines forest and Douglas fir forest and we do not object to the non-conforming use of the Johnson Oyster Co. operation in Drake’s Estero.”


Furthermore, if one is to take the language from the 1964 Wilderness Act literally regarding no commercial enterprises being allowed to enter or use wilderness, then all commercial pack trips, kayak guides, or photography workshops should be banned as well—these are all instances of one party commercially profiting from a use of wilderness.  In addition, the cameras themselves should be left at the wilderness boundary, as the law bars any mechanical uses in wilderness; this is why mountain bikes are not allowed.  One could argue that hiking, sight-seeing, and photography are passive rather than direct uses of the resource, but the wilderness law does not make this distinction; and, what could be more direct a use than walking through a wilderness area and setting up camp for the night?  As a society we tend to exempt recreational or tourist uses of places from the meaning of “use,” but they are uses, and are not free of impact; the Wilderness Act states that the “imprint of man’s work should be substantially unnoticeable,” yet trails are constructed and maintained by people for their own use, and are clearly noticeable across an open landscape.


We will not solve the great debates over wilderness here at Point Reyes—and the decision about continuing the oyster farm does not represent a crucial precedent in the management of wilderness.  While my book manuscript is not yet complete, I’m happy to share my research with whoever would like to examine the historic record more closely for themselves, so that they can reach their own conclusions about what it means. But we cannot take individual sentences or words from that record, and take them literally, without considering the entire historic record.

Published October 2012

Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at PRNS.

Ah, Wilderness!

Follow-up to West Marin Citizen, in response to Amy Meyer’s letter.

In her recent letter to the editor, Amy Meyer described her role on the Citizens Advisory Commission (CAC) back in 1975, making recommendations for the designation of lands within Point Reyes National Seashore as wilderness. She asserted that, by including Drakes Estero in the “potential wilderness” category, it was always the intention of Congress and the public that the oyster farm cease operation in 2012, once its reservation of use expired. She described this as a “promise,” the breaking of which could threaten the entire national wilderness preservation system.

What she did not include is any documentation of this promise. As an academic historian, I am always interested in finding more documents—so if any exist that confirm these assertions, I would love to see them!

In my own research, reading through everything I’ve been able to find about the designation of wilderness at Point Reyes—the planning documents, comment letters from environmental organizations and members of the public, and testimony from Congressional hearings, as well as the formal bills and reports, and subsequent management plans—I have not come across any statements anticipating closure of the oyster farm in 2012.

In contrast, quite a number of statements suggest the opposite: that the oyster farm was intended to continue under potential wilderness designation, with no clear end point or expiration date. For instance, in the 1974 Final EIS for Proposed Wilderness (page 56), the NPS wrote, “This is the only oyster farm in the seashore. Control of the lease from the California Department of Fish and Game, with presumed renewal indefinitely, is within the rights reserved by the State on these submerged lands. . . and there is no foreseeable termination of this condition.”

In response, the Sierra Club wrote a letter of comment, including (page A-51): “The draft Environmental Impact Statement implies that none of the Drakes Estero can be classified as wilderness because of Johnson Oyster Farm. This is misleading. The company’s buildings and the access road must be excluded but the estero need not be. The water area can be put under the Wilderness Act even while the oyster culture is continued — it will be a prior existing, non-conforming use.” No suggestion of eventual termination was included.

Ms. Meyer’s own CAC subcommittee suggested the following at their meeting on August 5, 1975: “Specific provision should be made in the legislation to allow the following uses to continue unrestrained by wilderness designation: a. Operation of that portion of the Murphy ranch that falls within the proposed wilderness. . . b. Operation of Johnson’s Oyster Farm including the use of motorboats and the repair and construction of oyster racks and other activities in conformance with the terms of the existing 1,000 acre lease from the State of California.” (They also recommended that “the preamble of the wilderness legislation should clearly state the atypical nature of wilderness at Point Reyes.”)

These recommendations were expressly endorsed in Congressional testimony by legislative co-sponsors Senator Cranston, Senator Tunney, and Representative John Burton. In addition, letters from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, the Marin Environmental Forum, the Inverness Association, and from Jerry Friedman as Chair of the Marin County Planning Commission all specifically endorse the recommendations of the CAC. Nowhere in the 1976 hearings does anyone make a specific objection to the oyster farm, nor give any indication that they expected wilderness designation would be hindered by its continued presence, nor discuss an end to its operation in the future.

Since passage of the wilderness bill, the 1980 General Management Plan for PRNS included management objectives, under Natural Resources Management, “to manage seashore activities in the pastoral and estuarine areas in a manner compatible with resource carrying capacity,” and specifies “To monitor and improve mariculture operations, in particular the oyster farm operation in Drakes Estero, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game”; and under Cultural Resources Management, “to monitor and support productive land uses and activities which are consistent with historic patterns,” and specifies “to ensure that agricultural and maricultural activities are consistent with the historical evolution of land and water use in Point Reyes.” In the Assessment of the Alternatives, the summary table of development proposals lists Johnson’s Oyster Farm as both the existing and proposed uses at that location; in other words, the EIS did not consider the possibility of the oyster farm shutting down.

These historic documents, plus the renewal clause in DBOC’s lease, suggest that closure of the oyster farm was not widely anticipated as a result of potential wilderness designation. My research findings on this issue are similar to those of John Hart, whose book, An Island in Time: 50 Years of Point Reyes National Seashore, has just been published. Again, if anyone has additional documents to share, I would very much like to read them.

Published October 2012

Of oyster farming and wilderness


A few weeks ago my former student, Adam Williams, arrived in Sonoma County after completing a 4500-mile bicycling trip across the country (he started in April in Maine), as part an organization called Foodcycle (foodcycleus.com) to raise awareness of lunchroom sustainability in schools. His incredible commitment of time and energy to this issue has reminded me of just how central food has become to environmentalism in the past decade.

Oddly, when I started my dissertation research at Point Reyes in 1999, there was a common presumption in West Marin that agriculture was on its way out; many believed that the local dairy industry could not compete long-term with the Central Valley, and soon it would lose economic viability and gradually disappear. Yet the last decade has brought this enormous change, with an explosion of organic producers, farmers markets, niche products—in some ways returning to Point Reyes’ early days of butter and cheese! Liquid milk, while still important, isn’t the only game in town these days.

Last year I reviewed a wonderful new book on national parks, written by William Tweed, called Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks. Tweed, a long-time NPS employee from Sequoia NP, articulated a strong need for a shift in NPS management, mostly in response to the challenges posed by climate change; he argued that the old idea of park preservation as “keeping things the same forever” no longer applies in today’s evolving circumstances (review at http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.1/rethinking-national-parks-and-wilderness).

Adam’s cross-country odyssey and Tweed’s book now come together in my mind regarding the debate about Drakes Bay Oyster Company and the bewildering intensity with which it has become polarized. What makes this controversy somewhat unique is that both “sides” are environmentalists; this is not Big Industry vs. a greener vision of the world, it is two not-entirely-unrelated visions of a healthy environment, and Point Reyes straddles both.

Because here in West Marin, we have two powerful strands of environmentalism, wilderness advocacy and sustainable agriculture, arguing over the same patch of tidelands. Both approaches are important and valid, but we as a society haven’t worked out what to do when they conflict. In some core way, the disagreement seems to be over whether humans have a role in nature beyond that of a tourist, visiting on the occasional hike and snapping photos.

After all, the wilderness status at Point Reyes is not in danger here; Drakes Estero was designated potential wilderness in 1976, and has been managed as wilderness ever since, with the sole exception of maintaining the oyster rack structures, which long pre-date the designation (and the park). The “commercial operation” itself is on shore, on land that is historically part of the pastoral zone, and which is not part of the wilderness designation. DBOC is part of a long history of fishing and mariculture in West Marin, and many families have maintained traditions of hiking the estero or kayaking its waters and then gathering around a picnic table to celebrate with a plateful of oysters. For them, there is no either/or between sustainable agriculture and the wild.

When you think about it, there is little difference between DBOC’s use of the potential wilderness of the estuary and that of commercial kayak tours; both are providing a service to paying customers that relies on the natural ecosystem, without inputs or manufacturing. Oysters thrive in the same wild conditions that other organisms do, and DBOC is guiding our use of the shellfish resource in a similar way that a kayak guide shows visitors to the most spectacular spots. An oyster even tastes wild, bringing the sharp brininess of the sea to our mouths along with a deep appreciation of place, like the idea of terroir in winemaking.

Another, more direct parallel exists between the oyster operation and livestock grazing, a practice specifically allowed in wilderness areas by the 1964 Wilderness Act. The cattle or sheep move out across the landscape, finding their own dinner in the meadows of a wider variety of public lands, and convert something inedible to humans, grass, into useful meat and fiber. Human guardians lightly guide their movements, but the animals do the work themselves. Similarly, the oysters hang around in the water column and filter out the nutrients they need, turning something inaccessible to us into (delicious) edible protein—the oyster racks and bags are akin to fences at best, the oyster workers more like cowboys who check on their progress and safety, and then occasionally round them up, without diminishing the wild ecosystem upon which they depend.

Regardless of which metaphor you prefer, the wildness of the estero and the passive production of oysters are not as mutually exclusive as the rhetoric sometimes suggests. To return to Tweed’s discussion of changing management strategies in parks, I would argue that Point Reyes represents the future, as we will increasingly need to reconcile the two “sides” of environmentalism, finding new ways for them to coexist and complement one another. Because of this, I personally believe that DBOC should not be closed, nor grudgingly tolerated for only another ten years, but embraced as an integral part of our experience of this place, of relying on nature for something in addition to recreation; it truly teaches us about the interdependence that has always existed on the Peninsula between nature and humans.

Published September 2012

Dr. Laura A. Watt is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Planning at Sonoma State University, and is currently completing a book project on the history of management at PRNS.