Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Interior Department's decision to protect Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore as the West Coast's first marine wilderness. The ruling supports the Interior Department's efforts to protect the sensitive marine habitat from the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's ongoing operations that damage the natural environment, pollute National Seashore beaches with plastic debris, and negatively impact wildlife such as birds and harbor seals. Importantly, taxpayers purchased and planned for the protection of the property decades ago, and the company's lease on the land expired in November 2012.
Drakes Bay's campaign to privatize our national parks raises questions about who supports and funds it, and who ultimately benefits. In January, California Common Cause began researching connections between Drakes Bay and the Koch Brothers, the Kansas-based industrialists who finance pro-business causes, including nationwide efforts to privatize public park lands.
The company has partnered with ultra-conservative organizations and politicians, such as the Koch-funded Pacific Legal Foundation and U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA), author of legislation which would expedite permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for gas and oil development, and allow offshore drilling along the California coast and the rest of the country. Tucked at the very end of the 51-page energy bill is a provision which would strip marine wilderness protections and provide the oyster company with a new operating permit.
The company's lawsuit and arguments to the Appeals Court were handled by Cause of Action, a pro-public land development firm with strong links to the Koch Brothers. Though Cause of Action has not disclosed its financial backers, PR Watch reported that the Koch-funded Franklin Center recently provided Cause of Action a gift of nearly $1 million. (Note: After a PBS NewsHour report publicized the Drakes Bay's efforts to privatize national park wilderness with help from ultra-conservative allies in Congress, the Company's "sustainable business" cover was blown and it let Cause of Action go).
The appeals court handily rejected the company's arguments challenging the Interior Secretary's decision to let the company's permit expire. "In letting the permit lapse, the Secretary emphasized the importance of the long-term environmental impact of the decision on Drakes Estero, which is located in an area designated as potential wilderness," the court said. "He also underscored that, when Drakes Bay purchased the property in 2005, it did so with eyes wide open to the fact that the permit acquired from its predecessor owner was set to expire just seven years later, in 2012."
The court also put to rest the company's attacks on peer-reviewed scientific research that concluded Drakes Bay's ongoing operations were harming the environment. "Drakes Bay puts considerable stock in its claims that the final EIS [environmental impact statement] was based on flawed science... Drakes Bay is not likely to succeed in showing that the final EIS was inadequate," the court said.
In response to the ruling, former chief scientist at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle stated, "If the oysters, seals, birds, fish and tomorrow's children could speak, they would be cheering the wisdom of upholding the law, honoring the long-awaited removal of a commercial operation from the midst of a national and global treasure, Drakes Estero. Wilderness areas not only provide increasingly rare safe havens and sources of restoration for wildlife, they do the same for humankind."
Despite repeated setbacks in court, the company's owners are continuing their fight to overturn the decision.
"Two courts have now seen through its attempt to set a precedent for exploiting public lands under the guise of local sustainable food," said Gordon Bennett, president of Save Our Seashore and former president of Westbrae Natural Foods, an early leader in the local organic food movement. "Drakes Bay has cost taxpayers millions, yet it files more delaying lawsuits, raking in more cash and spreading more [invasive species] every week it stays open.
Ultimately, wilderness will prevail, but the question is how much damage will be done in the meantime."
California Common Cause believes our national parks and publicly owned lands are for the protection and enjoyment of all Americans, not for industry exploit, and we will continue to publicize this precedent-setting land-grab effort.