A Deal Is a Deal

This October 2011 photo shows Timothy McCarthy, of Berkeley, Calif., consulting a trail map at Point Reyes National Seashore
This October 2011 photo shows Timothy McCarthy, of Berkeley, Calif., consulting a trail map at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, Calif., north of San Francisco, as part of a series of bicycle excursions in Northern California. This part of the tour included a hiking and mountain bike jaunt along some of the park’s many trails. (AP Photo/Paula Froke)

In this era of big government scrutiny, federal agencies quickly become scapegoats -- their decisions cast as evidence of insensitivity, over-reach, and impediments to economic progress. Sometimes, things are not what they seem.

Eight years ago, a California entrepreneur purchased the then-failing Johnson Oyster Company, which operated under a permit at the Point Reyes National Seashore in California. He had purchased the company, understanding the permit was set to expire on November 30, 2012. A day before that deadline, the Department of the Interior affirmed that the permit would expire as scheduled.

Last summer, the owner told a reporter he believed that if he could revive the operation, the National Park Service would renew the permits. "That was," he said, "a bad assumption."

This tale might appear to be a poster story for economy versus environment and business versus bureaucrats. Why terminate a permit for a business that generated jobs -- and food? But there is a larger story behind the termination, a story about taxpayer trust and honoring agreements.

The expiration date at Point Reyes had been imposed decades ago by taxpayers that purchased the property, and by Congress that recognized the area needed protection. The oyster company operates on publicly owned land purchased in 1972 for inclusion in the Seashore. The land transaction contract allowed the company 40 years to operate and transition.

With the clock ticking on the oyster company's permit, tensions escalated locally, sparking old-fashioned debates about the economy versus the environment. The National Park Service completed what became a controversial study of the environmental impact of the oyster operation. The business owner and his lobbyists persuaded Congress to create a loophole to allow the Interior Secretary to extend the permit past its expiration and the congressional mandate. The State of California wrote numerous letters to the company and fined it for violations of State law.

Yet this political jockeying is a distraction from the central issue. This case involved a contract and commitment made to taxpayers decades ago.

In the end, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar decided to honor the land transaction contract. On November 29, the Secretary announced that the permit would expire as scheduled. Concurrently, he extended the Seashore's ranching permits from 10 to 20 years. Unlike the oyster operation, the working ranches were specifically protected by law when this park was established, and the extension will provide greater certainty to these businesses. These extensions underscore that the decision is not one of bureaucrats versus business.

Fifty years ago, my parents' generation paid to acquire and protect public lands at Point Reyes National Seashore when the park, north of San Francisco, was authorized by Congress in 1962. Later, when Congress passed legislation to protect part of the seashore's sensitive marine habitat as wilderness, Drakes Estero was included -- suitable for full protection when the commercial oyster company permit expired.

The attempts to upend the contract and rewrite the law create uncertainty for private enterprises that have operated inside and next door to national parks for generations -- and undermine expectations of taxpayers who foot the bill for creating and now protecting this national seashore.

There are nearly 400 parks within the National Park System. Many of them have concessionaires, private businesses, and even family ranches as permitees. These private business owners count on the Interior Department to keep the terms of its agreements, and taxpayers, who own and fund our national parks, count on these business owners in turn to sustain their agreements. As in the private sector, upholding contractual agreements in the public sector is a fundamental tenet of good government.