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Stealing the Heart of a National Park: Oyster Company's Alliance With Big Oil

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Two months ago, California Common Cause released a report that looked at efforts to privatize America's public lands and raised questions on who is funding these efforts. We investigated and wrote about the efforts of the controversial Drakes Bay Oyster Company and its ongoing campaign to privatize Drakes Bay, a glove-shaped estuary known as the ecological heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California. We discussed the role of their legal team and Congressional champions, both that have ties to the Koch brothers, noting our concern that the public interest was being subverted for special interests.

Recent developments demonstrate how deeply involved the company is in the larger political agenda aimed squarely at opening up our most treasured landscapes to inappropriate commercial uses. Over the past two months, the plot has thickened considerably, with the oyster company teaming up with Big Oil interests and anyone else who could benefit from its precedent-setting land-grab effort.

As a refresher, here are the key facts: the Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962 and ten years later, taxpayers purchased the property that belonged to the Johnson Oyster Company for inclusion and protection in this national park, though a 40-year non-renewable leaseback meant the public would have to wait until 2012 to see the fruits of their investment. In 1976, Congress designated 33,000 acres of wilderness in the Seashore, including the Drakes Bay estuary, giving these prized lands and waters much needed protections. Notably, the estuary was the first marine wilderness on the West Coast. But again, the temporary existence of the oyster company meant the protections wouldn't manifest until the oyster lease expired.

Fast-forward to 2004: The original oyster company sold its lease to new investors, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, who purchased the business at a significant discount given the looming 2012 lease expiration. But immediately after purchasing, the company commenced a lobbying campaign to stay beyond 2012, a campaign to hijack from taxpayers the land they purchased and planned for the historic conservation achievement of marine wilderness. The new company owners, their lawyers, lobbyists, and political backers fought for an extension, which outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denied. He allowed the permit to expire under its own terms and in turn, ensured there would be no precedent set by allowing commercial development of a natural area already deemed by Congress as deserving of the highest protections.

Under the legal leadership of a little known, but well-funded "government accountability" group called Cause of Action, the company sued the government over the decision. The lawsuit, which claimed "government overreach" over the decision to honor the terms of the lease and let it expire on its own terms, failed to impress the Federal District Court Judge, who rejected the company's injunction request. But the company filed for an appeal which will be heard May 14th.

Oil and water? We know they don't mix. As for oil and oysters, apparently they do. In February, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) introduced the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, which would expedite permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for gas and oil development, allow for offshore drilling along the California coast and the rest of the country, and provide the oyster company with a new operating permit even though its lease expired months ago.

Soon after, as Congress was working on must-pass legislation to avert a government shutdown and present a budget, Senator Vitter filed a legislative amendment (known as a "rider") to the Senate Budget Resolution that would reverse Secretary Salazar's decision and provide the oyster company with a cozy, annually-recurring multi-million dollar entitlement in the form of a new permit. Though the oyster company petitioned senators from all around the country to support Senator Vitter's rider, the amendment failed to receive a vote.

This month, a clear political exercise on behalf of the oyster company was initiated by Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Hastings, relying on unsupported allegations by the oyster company and its discredited scientist that Secretary Salazar abused science in his decision, demanded reams of documents associated with the decision and the Inspector General's report that determined the allegations were baseless. Rep. Hastings said his inquiry was an attempt to address "serious concerns" raised by the oyster company, whose owner said "he appreciated Hastings' support" and that "No one should be afraid of an inquiry to see that the scientific process was respected."

Not so fast said Chris Coursey, a columnist at the North Bay's largest paper, the Press Democrat, who noted that Secretary Salazar's decision was based on matters of law and policy, not science or environmental impacts:

"So why would Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, demand a document dump from Salazar, saying 'serious questions have been raised about the science used by the National Park Service to justify the closure,' while also acknowledging that he knows Salazar's decision 'was not based on scientific data'?

Well, because that's the way politics works these days. And believe me, the closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is no longer about oysters, or the terms of the lease, or jobs, or science. It's about politics."

Northern California Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA), whose district includes the Seashore, agreed, saying Rep. Hasting's inquiry "reflected a Republican Party agenda to make public lands 'available to oil and mining interests to exploit.'"

Back to the core, this matter is about taxpayer trust and playing by the rules. The implications are far-reaching into the ability for our parks to fend off commercialization and privatization schemes. In discussing the oyster company's lawsuit challenging the public's right to benefit from the land they bought for protection in the Seashore, Neal Desai, Pacific region associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said "Taxpayers bought the (Drakes Estero) property, paid to protect it, and finally stand to benefit after waiting 40 years."

Concludes the Guy Kovner, "The oyster farm's lawsuit 'demands taxpayers accept a "heads I win; tails you lose" proposal where Americans get nothing. It's a raw deal.'"

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