Sunday, December 2, 2012

California Oyster Farmers in a Stew Over Lease

Point Reyes National Seashore.  Click for photo credit.
I don't know if you have been following the saga of the Point Reyes California oyster farm, but if you haven't it's an interesting story that gets to the heart of one of the long-standing debates in the environmental field:  wise use or preservation.  You can read more about it here.

Point Reyes is a pretty remarkable part of the California coastline.  If you haven't been there, put it on your bucket list.  Grand sea cliffs tumble down to the shore where crashing waves have built a spectacular broad beach that is home to hundreds of seals and where you can sea whale migrating out to sea.  The San Andreas Fault cuts through the landscape adding linearity and drama.  Early settlers of California made the site a trading post and the U.S. Government purchased the land in 1962 making it part of the National Park Service and a National Seashore.

Part of the purchase involved long-term leases with ranchers and oyster farmers.  The government could continue the leases or not renew them.

This year, the government decided to not renew the leases for the oyster farmers.  They decided that the preservation of the natural environment was more important than continuing the lease.

This highlights the long-standing and continuous debates between preservation and wise-use.  Advocates of preservation seek to remove any impact on the environment.  This is a view that can be traced back to John Muir.  In contrast, the advocation of wise-use of public lands can be traced to Gifford Pinchot.

This decision is a highly controversial one in California.  The two Democratic Senators are on different sides of the debate with Dianne Feinstein supporting the oyster farmers and Barbara Boxer supporting the decision by the National Park Service.

I think this is an easy or difficult decision depending upon one's viewpoint.  Clearly the National Park Service owns the land and the oyster farmer's lease can be renewed or not renewed in the same way that any of us who rent can see our leases terminated at the close of the lease.  So, if the National Park Service feels that this is the best decision, so be it.  

However, in my mind the case is difficult due to the nature of the founding of the park.  The U.S. Government gained access to the property 1n the 1960's with the partnership of ranchers who were losing money due to falling dairy prices.  They looked to the government to help them preserve their ranching and oystering activities in the area.  Thus, when the park was founded, there was an agreement to allow agricultural and fisheries activities on the land.  So, to many, the decision to end the oyster leases is a change of focus for the park and calls into question the long-term intentions of the National Park Service with regards to other agricultural activities on the land.  

But, it has been fifty years since the park was founded and it does make sense to review the very purpose of the park and the role of the leaseholders in the overall vision for the park's future.

I also think there are some economic development issues here.  Forty percent of California's farmed oysters come from within Point Reyes National Seashore.

Decisions like this are never easy and I don't envy those making them. 

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