Tilting at Windmills

This month, a U.S. District court ruled that yes, the commercial Drakes Bay Oyster Company squatting in Point Reyes National Seashore after its lease expired had to vacate as long planned.

In its latest assail against American taxpayers, the company's lawyers had filed an injunction, hoping the court would allow it to continue operating within the boundaries of a congressionally-designated wilderness area in the northern California national park. All while it pursues a lawsuit seeking to overturn the November 2012 decision by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that the company adhere to the terms of its lease and relocate within 90 days of when said lease expired.

In her ruling, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers wrote, "The Court finds it does not have jurisdiction to review the Secretary's Decision. Moreover, even if Plaintiffs' claims could be construed to give this Court jurisdiction, based upon the record presented, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of the claims nor that the balancing of the equities favors injunctive relief."

But of course, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's lawyers, Cause of Action, have filed an appeal, seeking to continue operating their illegal commercial business on publicly-owned national park land.

Every year, more than two million people head north of San Francisco to explore Point Reyes National Seashore--just as Sir Francis Drake and the Coast Miwok Indians did hundreds of years before. Visitors bring binoculars to catch a glimpse of the annual gray whale migration, or a rare bird species. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders enjoy park trails. A historic lighthouse, the Tule elk range on Tomales Point, and the Elephant Seal Overlook are also big attractions at this breathtaking national park.

Congress protected the park in 1962 and several years later, passed legislation to protect part of the seashore's sensitive land and marine habitat as wilderness. But sea critters weren't the only inhabitants of that designated wilderness area; a privately-owned commercial oyster company was operating with a non-renewable, 40-year permit in the Drakes Bay estuary on land bought and paid for by American taxpayers for inclusion in the park.

Congress stipulated that the area where the oyster company operated would be deemed "potential wilderness" until immediately after the incompatible activities ceased.

In 2004, the oyster company changed hands but the operating permit remained the same: non-renewable with a November 30, 2012, expiration date. Regardless, the new owners of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, their lawyers, lobbyists, and political backers fought for an extension, which U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar denied. He allowed the permit to expire under its own terms and in turn, ensured there would be no precedent set by allowing commercial development of a natural area already deemed by Congress as deserving of the highest protections.

Lynn Scarlett, Deputy Secretary at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush, supports Secretary Salazar's decision and recently described the negative implications to taxpayers from the oyster company's ongoing attempts to seek a permit extension: "This case involved a contract and commitment made to taxpayers decades ago...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."

According to media reports, five days after Secretary Salazar had announced the "return [of] the Drake's Estero to the state of wilderness" as designated by Congress, the oyster company announced it had retained the services of a little-known "government accountability" group called Cause of Action, and filed a lawsuit.

Cause of Action describes itself as a "nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses investigative, legal, and communications tools to educate the public on how government accountability and transparency protects taxpayer interests and economic opportunity." The nonprofit is only a year old. Should Cause of Action succeed in overriding the lease expiration, it would set a dangerous precedent for commercialization of our national parks and public lands.

Common Cause has raised some questions about this, namely: where did Cause of Action come from and why is it financing Drakes Bay's ongoing lawsuits to use taxpayer-purchased public land for private gain?

Cause of Action CEO Dan Epstein simply told a reporter his benefactors are "individuals and charities that are committed to economic freedom."

A former Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation employee, Epstein has maintained some ties to Koch Industries since joining Cause of Action. He was among the speakers at a Koch Foundation panel in October 2012 entitled: To Be or Not To Be in Government: Starting Your Career in Public Policy. Within its first year of operation, Cause of Action also has investigated comments by an Obama Administration official that suggested the Administration had inside information on Koch Industries tax status.

Epstein also served as a staff member for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Darrel Issa, a California Republican. Rep. Issa and his committee also have ties to the Koch brothers and the Point Reyes dispute:
• Several committee staffers count Koch businesses or groups among their past employers.
• Rep. Issa and other committee members have received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions linked to the Koch brothers.
• In 2011, Rep. Issa's committee launched an investigation into the National Park Service's handling of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company issue.

The latest men of La Mancha? Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, which insist the oyster company is suffering at the hands of the Big Bad Government.

Amy Trainer, Executive Director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin offers a dose of Sancho Panza's common sense: "The court rightly decided that Secretary Salazar had full discretion to let the oyster operation permit expire on its own terms and honor the 1976 wilderness designation for Drakes Estero. We are very grateful for this decision, which supports the Estero's full wilderness protection, and we urge the company to fulfill its long-standing responsibility to its workers by assisting them during this time of transition."

Time to move on. Literally.