From the Russian River Times November- December 2011 Issue
The National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) campaign against the presence of historic Drakes Bay Oyster Company farm (DBOC) in Point Reyes National Seashore has a readily apparent pattern of inflammatory press releases and petitions timed to influence public input. The allegations in these press releases and petitions from NPCA and its coalition show a reckless disregard for the truth, using incendiary language such as, “threats to endangered species”, “repeal of the Wilderness Act”, “causing the deaths of harbor seals”, “wiping out endangered eel grass” and a host of other words and misinformation designed to shock the public into responding to public comment periods for National Park Service actions and to their legislators. These releases are distributed to a wide range of national and local environmental groups who re-release them, creating an echo-chamber of misinformation. None of their charges are true.
The latest case is the public comment period for the National Park Service (NPS) Environmental Impact Statement of DBOC, made in conjunction with the extension of the oyster farm’s lease. The NPCA recently issued press releases claiming that they submitted photographic evidence to the California Coastal Commission (CCC) September 7-9 meeting in Crescent City, in Northern California, demonstrating that Drake’s Bay Oyster Company violated the seal protection protocols by operating boats in prohibited areas. Having manufactured the complaint, they then turned around and cited the CCC’s Sept 21 letter of inquiry to DBOC requesting a meeting, as ‘proof’ that the company was being ‘reprimanded’ for violations of the seal protection zone in Drake’s Estero. The image in question shows the boat well outside the prohibited zone. By either design or coincidence, the draft EIS was released to the public two days later.
Tom Moore, recently retired from California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), supervised the State shellfish leases from 1988 until his recent retirement, and was responsible for the negotiation of the 1992 joint agency protocol agreement between CDFG, NOAA Marine Fisheries and National Park Service and the California Department of Public Health. Upon his review of the photograph in question, Moore stated that “there is absolutely no way that anyone who had any familiarity with the protocols could claim that the photos show that DBOC is in violation. None of the signatories to the agreement have ever cited DBOC for any violation of seal protection protocols.”
Neal Desai, the NPCA official who made the claims, not only attended the National Academy of Science hearings on the oyster farm’s impact in Drake’s Estero, including a presentation by CDFG’s Tom Moore, where there was detailed discussion of the seal haul-out areas. Desai also represented the NPCA in the recent Marine Mammal Commission investigation and was one of two petitioners for the investigation. He was also present on official tours of the Estero to the same spot where he alleged that the violations occurred. In addition, Desai attended meetings at which MMC was informed that DBOC, because of what they felt were false claims against them, were logging all boat trips by global positioning system, yet NPCA apparently felt no obligation to check with DBOC before making these claims. DBOC never received any letter or citation of protocol violations by either CDFG or NPS since taking over operation of the oyster farm from 2005 to present.
Ironically, the photo in question is part of a series of aerial images taken as research to accurately determine positions in the Estero for a May 2011 Russian River Times article on the conflicting seal haul-out maps presented by NPS, entitled ‘The Gang that Couldn’t Map Straight”. In the CCC letter to DBOC, the photo is credited to the author of this article, Times Contributing Editor John Hulls and his associate, Todd Pickering. The only authorized and published use of the images was by local scientist Dr. Corey Goodman, who used two of the photographs in an August 29, 2011 presentation to the Marine Mammal Commission, labeling key areas and distances from oyster areas to seal haul out sites. MMC released the report to NPCA and others on August 30th. The NPCA’s use of the doctored photo came to the Times attention when the photograph appeared on the National Parks Traveler (NPT) website on October 5th with Dr. Goodman’s label removed. National Parks Traveler confirmed that NPCA’s Desai was the source of the photograph, and presented it with the claim that CCC was ‘reprimanding’ Lunny for causing harm to harbor seals. Upon being shown the actual photos and discussing the alleged violations, NPT took down the photograph on October 6. However, the NPCA press release triggered numerous on-line articles with headlines citing their false claims.
The previous incident of highly charged NPCA false claims took place during the public hearings to determine the scope of the NPS EIS. On November 4, 2010, NPCA distributed an e-mail stating that there were endangered plants and animals within the Estero including harbor seals, birds including Black Brants and Great Egrets, along with eel grass that were being threatened by DBOC. According to the Fish and Wildlife service, none of these species are in any way threatened or endangered. Significantly, NPS statistics make it possible to see the impact of this widely distributed press release. Sarah Rolph, a writer, tabulated the results. According to her review, the 3,894 responses received during the 15 October-10 November 2010 comment period, between 2,952 or 75 percent came in during the week following the NPCA flyer with 1,497 on the exact day as the release. The statistics show that misleading actions such as Desai’s using emotional trigger words like ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ bring about surges of well-intentioned one-click environmentalism. Rolph reports that many of the negative responses were simply cut and paste from the NPCA release. In cases such as small communities like West Marin, local input must compete with a tide of national misinformation. Informal local surveys by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper and local groups, where there has been in-depth coverage of the issue, put support for the oyster farm’s continued existence at around 90 percent.
In an earlier 2009 incident, NPCA participated in an equally blatant signature gathering campaign to convince Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey not to support the Feinstein legislation authorizing Interior Secretary Salazar to extend DBOC’s lease for ten years. The group, SaveDrakesBay.org (SDB) had a table set up at the Sebastopol ‘Whole Foods’ store, manned by a person named ‘Brian’, who was telling the passing shoppers outrageous fabrications such as that seals were dying because of the oyster factory operation and there was also a conspiracy to destroy the Wilderness Act. He displayed maps claiming to show that the eel grass, an important part of the ecosystem ‘was nearly gone” and that it was ‘dying because of the oysters”. Once again, these claims fly in the face of evidence. According to NOAA officials, the seal population is healthy, and according to the NAS, the eelgrass doubled in the Estero in the last 20 years, increasing from 361 acres in 1991 to 740 acres in 2007. There was no explanation as to how extending the lease for an allowed pre-existing non-conforming activities (regularly allowed in wilderness areas) would open the door to commercial exploitation of areas protected by the Wilderness Act. This episode was extensively covered in the July 2009 issue of the Times in an article entitled “Environmental Petition Spreads Discredited Information”
Records show that NPCA officials launched the SDB website in April of 07, registering the domain name and listing the Administration Contact as email@example.com. The site claims to involve a coalition of local and national environmental groups. Many of the NPCA press releases appear to be distributed through the group, and the organization has recently launched a second website. It is possible to trace the NPCA claims of the protocol violations through SDB to many other sites and environmental groups. For instance, the California water news website Aquafornia.com leads a recent post with the headline, “Coastal Commission reprimands Drakes Bay Oyster Company; Motorized boats, plastic pollution “pose serious threats to marine habitats and wildlife”. and makes several other demonstrably false claims that appear to have their origin in NPCA’s inflammatory claims. Aquafornia cites one of NPCA’s partners in the SDB organization as the basis of their article.
In 22 November meeting with NPCA’s Western Region Director, Ron Sundergill, he claimed that while NPCA was a member of the SDB coalition, NPCA was not responsible for the site or the actions of its members. Regarding the photograph and the violations of the protocol, he stated that Desai checked with both the Marine Mammal Commission and the California Coastal Commission concerning violations of the protocols shown in the photograph. He showed the Times two photographs from the controversial NPS ‘hidden camera’ program which show the boat in approximately the same location as the original photo. He claimed they supported NPCA’s contentions and also showed a marked up version of the original photograph in question that showed Desai’s interpretation of the protocols.
Desai’s markup directly contradicts the protocols, especially a 2 June 92 letter from NPS to CDFG agreeing to allow use of the western channel to tend the oyster harvest areas. He also stated that he has relied on Desai to handle the DBOC campaign for the past five years. He also stated that while he had not reviewed the protocols, he “had not seen any misrepresented facts” in NPCA’s presentations. Sundergill responded to Times claims that the original photo had been altered from its only published form by removing the labels by stating they were “removed in the process of copying”and that both versions had been submitted to the CCC. However, he confirmed that Desai sent NPT only the image with the labels removed, but claimed that this did not count as ‘cropping‘ the original photograph. He did not know who else had received the doctored image, and declined to have NPCA issue a retraction stating that the original photograph did not show a violation of the harbor seal protection zones.
In a matter unrelated to the photographs, NPCA also claims that CCC imposed a fine on the oyster company $61,250 in December 2009 which is highly misleading as CCC attempted to impose a fine for which it had no legislative authority. The CCC was notified of this on 19 January 2010 The legislation establishing the Coastal Commission defines its relationship to other agencies and Section 30411(a) clearly states “The Department of Fish and Game and the Fish and Game Commission are the principal state agencies responsible for the establishment and control of wildlife and fishery management programs and the commission shall not establish or impose any controls with respect thereto that duplicate or exceed the regulatory controls established by these agencies pursuant to specific statutory requirements or authorizations.” The imposition of the fine was challenged under this section, and no attempts at collection have been made.
In addition, CDFG had previously notified CCC that the confusion over the lease areas resulted from a clerical error by CDFG which was already in the process of being corrected. Tom Moore of CDFG said “I brought this mistake to the attention of the National Academy of Science in my presentation on mariculture in Drakes Estero hearings in Mill Valley on September 4, 2008. This whole idea of ‘rogue oyster growers’ is just ridiculous. Their leases give them a specified time to fix any issues we observe, up to 90 days, and we rarely if ever fine anybody. Lunny has done everything he was supposed to since purchasing the oyster farm” The Fish and Game Commission corrected the lease on 9 December 2009, which has the force of law.
The Drake’s Bay situation points out the need for national organizations like NPCA to be responsible for their actions at the local level, or the integrity of the environmental movement will continue to be divided and compromised,as has been noted by several researchers and pollsters. More importantly, it show how the NPS, without a proper watchdog or national policy for agriculture and mariculture within the parks, places rural communities and their citizens at the whim of the local Park Superintendent. Over a third of the 400-some national parks, monuments and seashores contain culturally significant working landscapes. In the case of Drake’s Estero, the Superintendent flip-flopped from planning a multi-million dollar upgrade of the oyster farm facilities, signing off that it didn’t require any action under state and federal environmental laws, to conducting a highly questionable campaign to get rid of DBOC. His actions resulted in millions of taxpayer dollars spent on reports, studies, staff time and environmental impact statements, and has yet to produce any data showing that the oyster farm is detrimental to the Estero.