Washington, DC — A senior Democratic Senator is pressuring the Obama administration to grant an illegal permit to keep a commercial aquaculture operation in part of a national park that is supposed to be managed as wilderness. The concerted campaign to retain current non-native oyster cultivation in Point Reyes National Seashore may cause Wilderness Act protections to be set aside to benefit politically-favored enterprises, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
On May 5, 2009, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the appropriations subcommittee setting the National Park Service budget, wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar strongly expressing her desire that he issue a new permit to allow the oyster farm to continue past the end of its current permit in 2012. The Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor has formally opined that the oyster enterprise must, by law, be discontinued as a “non-conforming use”.
Sen. Feinstein contends that a new report by the National Academies of Science which found no “strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects” means that the Parks Service should therefore allow the operator “run its oyster company” past 2012 and address any problems that do arise through “adaptive management”.
“The fate of the Point Reyes commercial oyster operation is a legal question about the requirements of the Wilderness Act, not a scientific question about how damaging non-native bi-valves can be,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization has successfully sued to stop wilderness violations in national parks from Olympia, Washington, to Cumberland Island, Georgia. “How is Senator Feinstein’s arm twisting essentially different from Republican legislators who induced the Bush administration to ignore environmental laws?”
The National Academies report follows a 2008 Inspector General report which concluded that Park Service employees engaged in no “disparate treatment” of the enterprise located in Drakes Estero, one of the most sensitive stretches of the national seashore. The Inspector General, however, demurred on the underlying scientific issues. The National Academies report on those issues stated that Park Service assessments “exaggerated the negative” but, overall, concluded that little was definitively known about the true environmental effects. The National Academies also cautioned that “statements in the report should not be interpreted as recommendations in support or opposition to an extension of the lease” but conceded Interior lawyers had already ruled the lease extension contrary to law.
“Senator Feinstein is setting up a scientific straw man and misusing of the National Academies by dragging it into a permit dispute,” Ruch added. “The National Park Service is not supposed to conduct experiments on treasured natural assets to facilitate commercial profit. I am glad that Park Service is overly cautious in protecting these resources.”