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Dianne Feinstein's Study Comes Up Short

A report she commissioned on Point Reyes National Seashore is inconclusive.

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In her attempt to block the creation of the first marine wilderness on the West Coast, US Senator Dianne Feinstein commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences to analyze research used by the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore. Feinstein apparently hoped that the national academy would help her stymie the park service's efforts to close an oyster farm at Point Reyes — a commercial operation in the middle of the planned marine wilderness area. And while the national academy study released last week provided Feinstein and other oyster farm supporters with some ammunition in their long battle against the park service, the report was anything but definitive.

In fact, the National Academy of Sciences said in a statement that the park service's conclusion that the oyster farm is likely harming the Point Reyes environment was "reasonable." Moreover, Thomas Malone, chair of the National Research Council panel that conducted the study, told Eco Watch that, overall, the report found that closing Drakes Bay Oyster Company would probably be "beneficial" for the environment.

Malone said that the main problem that his panel had with the park service's draft environmental statement on the planned creation of the marine wilderness was that its findings were too conclusive. Unfortunately, he said, the scientific data on the oyster farm and its impacts on the environment was too scant to be certain about what will happen when it closes. "Given the data in hand, there were other conclusions that could have been reached that weren't in the report," he said. For example, he said there's a chance that the environmental benefits from closing the oyster farm may be small.

As a result, the national academy is urging the park service to express more "uncertainty" about the oyster farm's effects when it finalizes its environmental impact statement on Point Reyes this fall, Malone added. The park service is conducting the EIR in advance of a decision later this year by US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the fate of the oyster farm. The farm's lease at Point Reyes is scheduled to expire November 30. Feinstein, an ardent backer of the oyster farm, has asked Salazar to extend its lease for ten years, a move that would block the creation of the marine wilderness.

Feinstein requested the National Academy of Sciences report after she was angered by the conclusions in the park service's draft environmental impact statement. It was the second time that Feinstein had asked the national academy to analyze work conducted by the park service at Point Reyes. The senator apparently was hoping for a replay of the first national academy review she requested; it ended up being strongly critical of park service science. However, the national academy report released last week was far more measured. In fact, the new report is unlikely to settle the long-running dispute over the oyster farm's environmental impacts at Point Reyes.

Moreover, as the Express has previously reported, the degree to which the oyster farm harms the environment is ultimately irrelevant as to whether its lease should be extended. That's because the coastal inlet the oyster farm occupies at Point Reyes — known as Drakes Estero — cannot become a marine wilderness under federal law as long as the oyster farm operates in the middle of it — even if the farm has no measurable impacts on the environment.

Indeed, that was one of the conclusions reached by researchers at UC Berkeley School of Law that was officially published in August in Ecology Law Quarterly. The research, which the Express first publicized in June, concluded that the fate of the oyster farm is really a legal and political issue — not an environmental one. The reason is that if Salazar decides to extend the oyster farm's lease, it will set a nationwide precedent. The federal government has never before extended the lease of a commercial operation, such as the oyster farm, in an area designated by Congress to become a federally protected wilderness area, the UC Berkeley researchers found. Congress made that designation about Drakes Estero in 1976, calling it "potential wilderness." As such, the estero is to become a full-fledged marine wilderness as soon as the oyster farm's lease expires (even the National Academy of Sciences report that was released last week acknowledged that fact).

The UC Berkeley researchers noted that if Salazar agrees to Feinstein's request and extends the oyster farm's lease, it could lead to the same thing happening on other federal lands around the nation that Congress has designated as "potential wilderness" areas. Although Feinstein has claimed that Salazar's decision would not set a nationwide precedent, the UC Berkeley researchers pointed out that her disclaimer "does not preclude other members of Congress — noting the Secretary's willingness to sacrifice wilderness values under political pressure — from seeking legislative (or legislatively authorized consideration of) extensions" of commercial operations in potential wilderness areas in their own states.

As for the oyster farm itself, it remained closed last week because of food contamination problems. The California Department of Public Health noted that at least three people had become violently ill after eating tainted raw oysters from Drakes Bay Oyster Company in July.

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