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The Public Sides With Point Reyes Wilderness

It is not difficult for either the casual park visitor or the seasoned scientist to recognize the ecological significance of Drakes Estero. Today, we understand the importance of protecting our beautiful and fragile coastline.
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This month, the National Park Service released the results of its final public input process that will inform its upcoming decision on the fate of wilderness protection at Drakes Estero, within the spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore. The outcome is good news for the Seashore, its marine plants and wildlife, and for the tens of thousands of people throughout California and the nation who support achieving the historic objective for the Estero as the first protected marine wilderness on the West Coast.

An overwhelming majority -- 92% of the over 52,000 public comments submitted -- were in favor of full wilderness protection. This response is compatible with the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which conferred full wilderness protection for Drakes Estero starting in 2012, when an existing oyster company's lease expires. Under most circumstances, that should have been the end of the story, but this critically valuable estuary is now threatened by private interests and political maneuvering intent on subverting the public's wishes and the law's requirements.

I first visited Drakes Estero in 1966, 10 years before Congress recognized it as a special place, worthy of permanent protection. Most of California's estuaries, beaches, marshes and coastal meadows had been acquired for commercial exploitation by the time that people were beginning to awaken to the magnitude of the loss, and the cost of such actions to the public good. Today, we understand the importance of protecting our beautiful and fragile coastline.

For years, the oyster company's leasing deal has been honored by people of the country despite growing awareness of the immense benefits derived from protecting natural areas. Drakes Bay Oyster Company knew the limited terms of use when they bought the business seven years ago from the original owner. It is time for the new owners to honor this historic marine wilderness designation, and stop seeking special favors in order to derive financial gain at the expense of a national treasure.

It is not difficult for either the casual park visitor or the seasoned scientist to recognize the ecological significance of Drakes Estero -- enhanced by robust eelgrass meadows and sandbars that provide nursery areas for fish, harbor seals and other marine life, and are visited by tens of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl. Estuaries such as Drakes Estero play a critical role in the larger marine ecosystem that many are urgently working to protect and save from irreparable damage. Their blend of soil, nutrients, saltwater and freshwater allows for ecological processes not possible elsewhere.

The public comments release comes amid repeated signs that the company's operations are highly at odds with the Seashore's goal to protect such sensitive, rare habitat. Last month, the California Coastal Commission criticized the company for allegedly illegally operating motorboats within a harbor seal protection area over the past four years.

The Estero can be restored to its natural ecology, beauty and productivity, but only if it is free of this industrial operation that cultivates non-native oysters. More than 30 years ago, Congress concluded that Drakes Estero deserved full wilderness status. Today, the sheer quantity of supportive public comments illustrate it was the right decision then and now.

Interior Secretary Salazar will soon make the final decision on the future of Drakes Estero -- a decision that will have implications far beyond Point Reyes. At stake is the future of one of the nation's last largely intact estuaries, a hope spot within the nation's increasing troubled waters. It is my wish, and that of the thousands of others who spoke in defense of Drakes Estero, that the right decision is forthcoming.

Sylvia A. Earle, former Chief Scientist of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic, Founder of the Mission Blue Foundation, principal science adviser for One World One Ocean, 2009 TED Prize Winner and author of the 2009 Illustrated Atlas of the Ocean and The World is Blue.

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