By Sarah Rolph
After seven years of repeated National Park Service (NPS) allegations that Drakes Bay Oyster Farm harmed the environment, the multimillion-dollar NPS Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) created to support those claims was quietly abandoned by Interior Department Secretary Salazar and NPS Director Jarvis, raising fresh questions about the propriety of the process. Secretary Salazar claims his decision against the oyster farm was based on sound legal interpretation, yet he cited no legal opinion or analysis document. The Salazar decision was a complete reversal of established NPS policy. And it directly contradicted previous NEPA assessments of the very same oyster farm.
Just fourteen years ago, in 1998, Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) officials supported plans to upgrade the shore operations of the oyster farm (then owned by the Johnson family). This was to be a major construction project, creating a new, modern visitor and education center that would also house the oyster processing facility.
NPS held that a full EIS was not necessary for the upgrade, and instead created an Environmental Assessment (EA), pursuant to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). The EA was fully approved by Marin County officials, who jointly with the NPS issued a Negative Declaration under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as being consistent with their coastal planning policy. The local community was supportive, including local environmental organizations. A Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) was issued by NPS, and the project was approved. Sadly, Mr. Johnson died before the project could be completed.
The contrast between the NPS 1998 NEPA process and the NPS 2012 NEPA process could not be more stark.
The NPS 1998 EA cited support for aquaculture in the NPS General Management Plan (GMP) for Point Reyes National Seashore, cited the county approvals as significant, stated that “no special-status species are found in the project site area,” and made no mention of a sunset date for the oyster farm—in fact, the EA cited as an issue to be addressed “the long-term status of the lease agreement past 2012.”
The NPS EIS ignored the existing GMP, ignored the county, contained an entire section on endangered species it claimed would be impacted (most of which do not even exist in the estero), and alleged incorrectly that existing law required that the lease agreement not be extended past 2012.
No public statements have been made about what, if anything, in law, policy, and science has changed since 1998 to justify the Park Service changing its position from strong support of the oyster farm to its current position that the law requires it to be shut down.
While NPS was silent as to its reasons for the change, its new position was supported and promoted by a vociferous group of wilderness activists, often citing the same bogus science.
For example, the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA), sent an online mass mailing to its members in October 2011 saying “Drakes Estero is home to several endangered plants and animals, including eelgrass, harbor seals, and birds including Black Brant and Great Egrets. Yet industry wants the waters for its motorized oyster boats…”
The definition of an endangered species is, of course, a matter of Federal law. None of the species named here were or are actually endangered—the claim was fabricated. In fact, eelgrass has doubled in Drakes Estero during the past 20 years, and according to federal agencies, harbor seals are at near-carrying capacity in Drakes Estero. It’s a gross exaggeration and deliberate distortion to say that “industry wants the waters,” for motorboats or anything else.
If the oyster farm did harm the environment, it would be a simple matter to report this to the appropriate authorities—the California Fish and Game and/or the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (which is responsible for wildlife protection). This has never happened.
National Academy of Science (NAS) reviews, directed by Congress, found NPS claims of harm to be without merit. In 2009, the NAS found that NPS scientific documents “selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented” data. In 2012, the NAS review of the NPS Draft EIS found “a high level of uncertainty” with the document’s impact assessments for harbor seals, the coastal flood zone, water quality, soundscapes, and socioeconomics. The NAS determined “there could be reasonable, equally scientific, alternate conclusions for impact intensity.” That’s a very polite way of saying that the document is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Nevertheless, groups such as NPCA relentlessly worked to claim otherwise with misleading advocacy campaigns, even going so far as to flood the public review process for the EIS with non-substantive comments.
In November 2011, the NPCA and three other groups sent online mass mailings to their members encouraging them to “take action” by clicking to send a form letter to NPS. The form letter was sent directly into the Park Service comment database, thanks to sophisticated software from Convio, an Austin, TX firm that provides what it calls “constituent engagement solutions” to “help organizations translate their mission into online or integrated marketing programs that successfully acquire, engage, and convert individuals into lasting supporters.”
While these programs may be appropriate for fundraising and some kinds of advocacy, the use of these systems to populate a NEPA public-comment database is troubling. The public comment process is meant for informed, substantive comments on pending federal activities. The NEPA guidelines state: “Commenting is not a form of “voting” on an alternative. The number of negative comments an agency receives does not prevent an action from moving forward.” Not only do NEPA guidelines specify that the process is not intended to be a vote, it also makes it clear that form letters must be treated differently from substantive comments.
Yet the activists conducted a campaign to create thousands of form letters.
What’s more, they did this with emails that were highly misleading. For example, one begins: “The National Park Service wants to hear from you! Should they preserve the only marine wilderness on the West Coast or commercialize it?” One would never know from this that the oyster farm in question already exists, and has for eight decades.
Nor would one know from this pitch that this is a request for a NEPA comment. Significantly, the mass mailings do not even mention that the point of the solicitation is a comment on an EIS, much less suggest that recipients read and consider that document.
Yet the results of the mailings were trumpeted as if they were informed, substantive comments. On March 1, 2012, NPS issued a press release saying it had “posted 52,473 public comment letters.” Minutes later, the wilderness activists issued a press release that said: “Of the 52,473 public comments submitted on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), 92% (48,396) supported ending the private commercial use of the estuary and designating full protection for America’s only marine wilderness on the West Coast.” Most of these 48,396 comments were exact-duplicate form letters sent via the Convio campaign.
The Park Service and its allies did not act in good faith. As independent scientist Dr. Corey Goodman said when first interviewed by the author in 2009, “I just watch it evolve month after month and I realize my government—I’m sure there are a lot of fine individuals—but overall, my government doesn’t have any ethics when it comes to scientific data, and doesn’t actually care about scientific integrity; it just cares about winning and getting its way.”
That Goodman statement was hauntingly prescient. The NPS falsified science, abused the NEPA process, disregarded its own policies and guidelines, and pretended that the 1998 EA—which should have been a baseline for the EIS—did not exist. DOI and NPS spent more than two million taxpayer dollars to prepare an EIS that was abandoned nine days before the Secretary made his decision to close the oyster farm. It is undeniably clear: Secretary Salazar’s misguided decision hides from real history and abandons responsible science.
Sarah Rolph is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Massachusetts. A California native whose favorite place is Point Reyes, she is writing a book about the Lunny family. Her website is www.sarahrolph.com
John Hulls contributed to this article.