Environmental Petition Spreads Discredited Information

From the Russian River Times July-August 2009

A river of environmental misinformation flows all the way from a card table in Sebastopol, across the country, down C Street in Washington, past the Department of Interior and eventually discharges into the halls of Congress.  The Russian River Times tracked it to its source.

A few days ago, at a table outside the Sebastopol Whole Foods store, a representative of a local environmental coalition was asking patrons to sign a petition.  It asked Rep. Lynn Woolsey to reverse her support of Senator Feinstein’s proposed legislation to extend the lease of a historic oyster farm, located on Drake’s Estero within Point Reyes National Seashore.  According to the petition handout, it was being presented by Save Drakes Bay (SDB), a coalition of environmental groups, including amongst others, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.

The person at the table, who identified himself as ‘Brian’ showed an aerial photo of eel grass beds, pointing out that eelgrass, an important part of the ecosystem, was “nearly all gone” and that the shaded areas showed where it was “dying because of the oysters”. He claimed that the “seals were dying” as the result of the “oyster factory operation”.  He claimed that if Feinstein’s amendment to the Park Service appropriations bill were approved, it would “destroy the Wilderness Act” for the commercial benefit of a local business owner.

None of these charges are true.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the National Park Service at the request of Senator Feinstein, shows that there is no scientific indication that Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) is having any meaningful negative effects on the Estero

The report states that the Park Service deliberately distorted and misrepresented claims of damage.  It states that “…coverage of eelgrass has expanded from 361 acres in 1991 to about 740 acres in 2007”.   Likewise, the seal population which local Park scientists had previously stated may be approaching its maximum size based on the available food resources, varies little from site to site around Point Reyes. This would not be the case if the oyster company were harming seals. The Park Services own seal database shows that the oyster company accounts for less than one percent of the total number of seals disturbed since Drake’s Bay Oyster Company took over operations in 2005. The one percent attributed to the oyster farm are based on three events, each of which as been discredited. The other 99 percent of disturbances were mostly park visitors, followed by natural or unknown causes.

Following the flow of misrepresentation to Washington, the Times spoke with Jeff Rusch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who has also lobbied extensively against the oyster farm and the Feinstein amendment.  Asked if he could provide any sources of information to substantiate PEER’s allegations against the oyster farm or if he could refer us to government agencies that supported their position, he stated that all of the PEER information came from the NAS report and an earlier Department of the Interior Inspector General report and a letter from a Park Service solicitor, which were all on the PEER website at www.peer.org

Asked about allegations of scientific misconduct by NPS,  Rusch stated that the IG report fully exonerated Jon Jarvis, the NPS Western Regional Director, and currently nominated to head the Park Service, and his staff “did not falsify scientific data”. Rusch stated that the IG did not investigate scientific misconduct. However, the IG did investigate procedural scientific misconduct, while deferring to the National Academy of Sciences as to the actual scientific data.  The report contains 30 pages of scientific misconduct, ranging from deliberate misquotes of existing research made by NPS scientists to overstatements of facts.  The Department of the Interior’s Semi-annual report to Congress lists a summary of this report under the headline, “NPS Scientist Misrepresents Research”.  Ruch’s response: “No one was charged”.

A 7 May 2009 PEER press release downplays the National Academy’s highly negative report about the Park Service science, and claims that Senator Feinstein is “pressuring the Obama administration to grant an illegal permit” and issue a “new permit” which would dangerously undermine the Wilderness Act.  Asked if SDB was the source of this information,  he stated that Feinstein was using the science, which was “all “pixie dust”,  to distract from the real issue which was that Feinstein was “doing a political favor for a private party.”  Asked directly if PEER was in communication with the SDB coalition, and was aware of the misinformation on their website, he denied being in contact with them.  However, this was contradicted by the Executive Director of EAC, Fred Smith, who stated that members of the SDB coalition were in regular contact with PEER and a large number of other environmental organizations whom they had e-mailed to enlist in their campaign against the oyster company.  Smith’s position is confirmed by an April 8, 2008 letter from Ruch to Senator Feinstein which predates both the 1 July 2008 IG report and the 5 May 2009 NAS report.  In the letter, which repeats many of the false allegations on the SDB website, Ruch clearly states that his understanding of the facts was based on communications with various government offices and not-for-profits working in West Marin.

The misinformation goes beyond just the science to the legal issues, especially the claim in the SDB petitioner’s handout that there have been no public hearings on the future of mariculture in Drakes Estero.  Many of the members of the SDB coalition submitted testimony at hearings not only for the original bill that created Point Reyes National Seashore in the early 60’s, but also for the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act. (Public Law 94-544).  All the hearings on this act, including the Environmental Impact Statement are a matter of public record.  In the written testimony at the Hearings on S.2472, Bill to Designate Wilderness at Point Reyes National Seashore, Feb-March 1976, the sponsors of the bill wrote as follows: “The existing agricultural and maricultural uses can continue” (Senator Tunney p.271).  Representative John Burton states, “There are two areas proposed for wilderness that may be included as wilderness with “prior-nonconforming use” provisions.  One is Drakes Estero where there is a commercial oyster farm.  The other is the farming operation of the Murphy Ranch… (p. 272-273)

The statements of the Sierra Club, in the Final Environmental Impact Statement on the bill (23 April 1974) shows that their current position that the law mandates removal of the oyster farm in 2012 is an attempt to rewrite the legislative history. In its Yodeler magazine, the Sierra Club recently quoted the ’74 EIS, stating that;  “The Seashore’s Final Environmental Impact Report notes, “In terms of preserving and protecting marine life systems, Drakes Estero and Limantour Estero could well be considered the most significant ecological units within the National Seashore.” Drakes Estero Wilderness has been waiting 40 years for the oyster operation to move out. Forty years is enough!”  However, in the actual hearings on the 1974 EIS, they state the exact opposite:  “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.”

The acrimonious nature of the debate over Drakes Estero, and all the conflicting information flowing into Congress is an indication of a far larger problem.  These conflicts can only be avoided by a strong hand at the helm of the National Park Service who commands respect as an unbiased manager of the entire public interest and foster an environment of cooperative collaboration.

The Times next spoke on this issue with Gary Nabhan, who has published an article on the Estero situation in the well-respected High Country News, entitled “What we got here is a failure to collaborate”.  Dr. Nabhan has served on the National Park System Advisory Board under two presidents and contributed to the study, Rethinking National Parks for the Twenty First Century.  He is also granted a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for his conservation work.  His article points out the need to nurture the collaborative conservation movement and his concerned that the current nominee to head the Park Service, Jon Jarvis,  may be the wrong person to foster this approach.  Nabhan notes that it is a complex task to balance the inevitable conflicts that arise from the many diverse stakeholders in the National Park system.   He is of the opinion that in many cases, the Park Service has failed to follow its own procedures in resolving the many inevitable conflicts that arise between diverse stakeholders within the National Parks and with surrounding communities.

In the High Country News article he states,  “Jarvis knows how to preach to the wilderness choir, but national parks are about more than wild landscapes. A third of the nation’s 400-some parks, monuments, seashores and heritage areas contain culturally significant “working landscapes.” Park staff interacts with Navajo shepherds in Canyon de Chelly, Mormon orchard-keepers in Capitol Reef, bison ranchers in Great Sand Dunes and commercial fisherman around the Channel Islands. If his appointment goes through, Jarvis will be charged with the complex task of resolving the inevitable conflicts between such diverse stakeholders and protectionists.”

He concludes by saying, “Whatever the outcome of the upcoming congressional hearings on Jarvis, charges of his scientific misconduct are still sitting on Salazar’s desk. If Jarvis doesn’t change his tone and open his agency up to negotiations with farmers, ranchers and shellfish harvesters, he will face stiff opposition from the collaborative conservation movement that has flourished in the West for 15 years. And there is nothing better than President Obama’s own words to guide him:  “The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific … integrity. …The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.”

The High Country News article is available on-line at: http://www.hcn.org/wotr/what-we-got-here-is-a-failure-to-collaborate/article_view?b_start:int=1&-C=

Jarvis’ NPS Western Region has seen two conflicts that eventually ended up being resolved by legal action rather than by cooperative collaboration with local communities and stakeholders, as required in Park management policies.  In 1998, the Park Service announced that they wanted to build a massive 350-room hotel and conference center at Fort Baker at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge on the site of the old Army Barracks.  With its unparalleled views of the Bridge and San Francisco across the bay, the site was a great favorite with many local residents who would jog and walk their dogs and enjoy the spectacular views. With many major hotel chains such as Marriot and Hilton interested in the development, the city of Sausalito was very concerned about the scope of the project, with its impacts on the environment and traffic on the one road south of the town. The Park wouldn’t listen.

To gain the communities perspective, the Times spoke with Amy Belser, former mayor of Sausalito.  “It was the start of an 6 year battle.  Went through three rounds of negotiations, but the Park Service wouldn’t compromise so we finally filed suit” said Belser.  “ It was never an even fight: a small city against the Park, who had access to all the legal and research resources of the Federal Government.   For those of us involved, it changed our whole lives.”  The city of Sausalito even had to fight for the right to be heard in court.  While the suit was originally rejected, on appeal the 9th Circuit Court ruled that the city had the standing to sue, and the Park Service settled.  “I’m really proud of what we in Sausalito accomplished by establishing that communities next to National Park land have the legal right to be part of the planning process and be assured that the Park would obey all the law, policy and procedures, especially with respect to the environment.”

The NPS compromise with Sausalito more than halved the size of the project, down to a 142-room lodge.  Even better, from Belser’s point of view, a local group, renowned for its ecologically sensitive hotels such as Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, won the right to develop the project.  The newly opened Cavallo Point changes little of the historical footprint, comprising sixty-eight rooms housed in the former barracks and officer’s quarters, in addition to 74 contemporary eco-friendly rooms.  Belser is pleased with the wonderful restoration of the older buildings, externally identical to their Army heyday.  “Now, our relationship with the NPS is very good.  After all, Fort Baker is our oldest and closest neighbor and the project turned out very well.”  While this incident ended on a high note, Sausalito still had to bear the costs, both in time and legal expense, to force a compromise that could have just as easily been reached in a spirit of collaboration.

In a far-reaching case, on 27 March, 2008, the 9th circuit court, on appeal from NPS, upheld the original decision that the Park Service had failed to follow the mandates of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in its plans for the Merced River within Yosemite National Park.  Local environmental groups including Friends of Yosemite Valley, had sued, claiming that the Park Service was using the excuse of repair of damages after a 1998 flood to set the stage for massive development, had not filed an adequate Comprehensive Management Plan (CMP) and that it’s failure to follow the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act would effectively gut a critical piece of environmental legislation. In the ruling, Judge Wardlaw commented on the development that had taken place during the 17 years that the NPS had failed to comply with the WSRA.

“To illustrate the level of degradation already experienced in the Merced and maintained under the regime of interim limits proposed by NPS, we need look no further than the dozens of facilities and services operating within the river corridor, including but not limited to, the many swimming pools, tennis courts, mountain sports shops, restaurants, cafeterias, bars, snack stands and other food and beverage services, gift shops, general merchandise stores, an ice-skating rink, an amphitheater, a specialty gift shop, a camp store, an art activity center, rental facilities for bicycles and rafts, skis and other equipment, a golf course and a dining hall accommodating 70 people. Although recreation is an ORV (ed. Outstanding Remarkable Value) that must be protected and enhanced, see 16 U.S.C. § 1271, to be included as an ORV, according to NPS itself, a value must be (1) river-related or river dependant, and (2)rare, unique, or exemplary in a regional or national context. The multitude of facilities and services provided at the Merced certainly do not meet the mandatory criteria for inclusion as an ORV. NPS does not explain how maintaining such a status quo in the interim would protect or enhance the river’s unique values as required under the WRSA.”

The full opinion can be found online at:http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2008/03/26/0715124.pdf

These lengthy legal battles make clear the need for Dr. Nabhan’s call for collaborative cooperation to preserve the working landscapes of our National Parks.  Major issues like the Merced River and the Sausalito development attract sufficient support to mount a lawsuit against the full legal and research resources of the National Park service when it fails to follow its legal mandates and policies. However “the Navajo shepherds in Canyon de Chelly, Mormon orchard-keepers in Capitol Reef, bison ranchers in Great Sand Dunes and commercial fisherman around the Channel Islands” discussed in Dr. Nabhan’s article don’t have the resources for legal battles with the Park Service, nor with environmental groups using misleading petition drives to influence legislators.

All Park visitors rely on the correct application of laws and policy to prevent the greater public interest being drowned in a sea of misinformation and spin. Under Western Region Director Jon Jarvis, NPS management of Drake’s Estero, Fort Baker and the Merced River show a pattern of ignoring laws and science when it suits them, such as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act,  the Coastal Zone Management Act and the Wilderness Act, and the provisions of NPS policy that require cooperation with all stakeholders and surrounding communities and use of ‘best available science’ as the basis for decision making.   It is the responsibility of the Department of Interior under the Obama administration to reverse the influence of narrow interest groups, be they environmental or commercial, and insure that NPS follows laws, policy and procedures fairly for the benefit of everyone who enjoys the use of our National Parks.

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About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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