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Sustainable Agriculture, Wilderness and Drakes Bay Oysters: The Role of Science in Policy

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In the past couple of years, a debate in Northern California over wilderness protection, sustainable agriculture, and the integrity of science has spiraled into the dirt. The fight is over whether to continue to permit a small privately managed oyster farm, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, to continue to operate inside what is now the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. The oyster operation predates the Park, having been in Drakes Estero for nearly a century, but the Estero is now eligible for wilderness status. Supporters of wilderness believe the oyster farm is an incompatible use and should be closed. Supporters of local sustainable agriculture believe the farm should remain because of its history, benign environmental impacts, and role in the local economy. In late 2012, after an extensive debate marked by disturbing scientific misconduct and abuse, local acrimony among long-time friends, and controversy among federal and state agencies, Interior Secretary Salazar ruled that the farm should be closed, giving the owners a mere 90 days to remove their operations, fire their employees, and abandon the farm.

Parts of Drakes Estero have long been recognized as potential wilderness. At the same time, the oyster farm has long been recognized as a key player in the historic local sustainable agriculture of the region, along with several ranches that remain open and operating. The farm provides as much as 40 percent of the state's supply of fresh oysters and provides important local jobs. Even the sponsors of the original Point Reyes Wilderness Act wrote to Secretary Salazar supporting retention of the oyster farm as part of the pastoral zone in the Estero.

Wilderness versus local sustainable agricultural? These kinds of debates hinge on choosing among conflicting and subjective societal preferences as well as scientific evidence and analysis -- precisely the things that make public discourse, discussion and debate important. But this fight has pitted environmentalist versus environmentalist, and in this fairly liberal community, neighbor versus neighbor.

In truth, the environmental "community" has never had much of a unified, ideological voice. Rather, it consists of millions of people who in one way or another support some forms of environmental protection and regulation, albeit with widely divergent political views and even differences of opinion around specific issues. As far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s there were recognized distinctions between the "conservation" and "preservation" movements, reflected in part in the ideologies of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. Pinchot, a Republican who served the nation in many positions, including most prominently as head of federal forestry programs under President Theodore Roosevelt, believed in the public protection and ownership of forestry, but also in the economically efficient use of natural resources. Early preservationists such as John Muir believed in saving, and setting aside untouched and protected, the best of the unspoiled lands of the nation for future generations.

Deep down, I'm a preservationist: John Muir's voice and vision featured prominently in my wedding vows and my world view, and I'm dismayed at the ongoing relentless destruction of our critical planetary ecosystems. But I'm also a pragmatist: I understand and recognize the complexities of modern society and meeting the basic needs of society in a sustainable way. I find myself arguing both sides of many of these issues, when faced with dogmatic, ideological positions.

These internal environmental disputes are legion: there are pro- and anti-nuclear environmentalists; a vigorous debate over the role of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture; differences of opinion over the role of natural gas in reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change; disputes over the advantages and disadvantages of hydropower and dams; and more. These disputes are among the most interesting and challenging in the world of environmental science and policy: they involve values, priorities, culture and economics, but they also involve issues of science.

Too often in the past few years bad science, or indeed a philosophy antithetical to science, has been pushed by special interests and some policymakers. This isn't new -- there is a long history of pseudoscientific or downright anti-scientific thinking and political culture -- ironic, given how much founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin valued science. Examples include creationism, moon-landing denialism, claims linking vaccines to autism, denials that tobacco causes cancer, and most recently the denial of the realities of climate change. This anti-science mentality is especially discouraging given how vital America's scientific and technological strengths are to our economic and political strengths. In the area of climate change, for example, the respected scientific journal Nature recently called Congressional inactions on climate "fundamentally anti-science" and an example of "willful ignorance," saying:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long.

Good science should have played a key role in the Drakes Bay debacle, and open community discussion should have as well. But we didn't get good science. Instead, the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior (DoI), and some local environmental supporters (with whom I often have strong common cause) manipulated, misreported and misrepresented science in their desire to support expanded wilderness. In an effort to produce a rationale to close the farm, false arguments were made that the farm damaged or disturbed local seagrasses, water quality, marine mammals and ecosystem diversity. These arguments have, one after another, been shown to be based on bad science and contradicted by evidence hidden or suppressed or ignored by federal agencies. The efforts of local scientists, especially Dr. Corey Goodman, professor emeritus from both Stanford and Berkeley and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Science, were central to revealing the extent of scientific misconduct. Reviews by independent scientists and now confirmed by investigations at the Department of Interior and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences show that arguments of environmental harm from the oyster farm were misleading and wrong. One of those reviews criticized the "willingness to allow subjective beliefs and values to guide scientific conclusions," the use of "subjective conclusions, vague temporal and geographic references, and questionable mathematic calculations," and "misconduct [that] arose from incomplete and biased evaluation and from blurring the line between exploration and advocacy through research." The review by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the Park Service:

selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available science on the potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation.

In this case, I believe the decision to close the farm was the wrong one, done for the wrong reason, and it should be overturned. Supporters of the farm are still fighting, and it is possible that there will be a change of heart at either the federal level, or in the courts. But these kinds of disputes will continue throughout the country as we continue to seek to balance conservationist and preservationist ethics and objectives. No matter where this balance falls, however, scientific integrity, logic, reason, and the scientific method are core to the strength of our nation. We may disagree among ourselves about matters of opinion and policy, but we (and our elected representatives) must not misuse, hide or misrepresent science and fact in service of our preferences and ideology.

[Dr. Peter Gleick doesn't eat oysters and he likes wilderness. But he also likes science and sustainable local agriculture.]

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