National Park Service Gone Wild

Well, the National Park Service is at it again. In the latest example of the National Park Service continuing its trend of managing humans by locking them out, an oyster farm that has been in operation for 70 years at the Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California was suddenly shut down in late November.

Surely you might think there is sound scientific reasoning behind this decision… Nope.

In his directive announcing the decision, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said, “There is scientific uncertainty and lack of consensus.” What he is referring to are numerous criticisms and critiques of the science collected and used by the National Park Service claiming harm by the oyster farm to Pacific harbor seals, which has been deemed irresponsible and inconclusive by impartial experts and the Marine Mammal Commission.

Regardless, Secretary Salazar claimed that the paltry evidence put together by National Park Service scientists was “not material” in his decision.

Instead, he relied upon an interpretation of Congressional direction from 1976 that noted the waters surrounding the oyster farm as a “potential wilderness area.” Trying to interpret Congressional intent from decisions made recently, much less over three decades ago, is pretty murky business. Other evidence shows that Congress did not intend to phase out existing non-wilderness uses at Point Reyes National Seashore.

What isn’t open for interpretation is that all 30 employees of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. have lost the only livelihood they’ve known and a sustainable oyster farm that had been in operation for longer than most of us have been alive must close its doors forever.

This oyster farm provided California with 40 percent of its oysters, the demand for which will now likely be fulfilled by oysters shipped in from overseas.

National Park ServiceThe only benefit that comes from this is an ideological one for environmentalists, who can tout this newly designated wilderness which few, if any, humans will ever interact.

It’s important to note that Point Reyes National Seashore and the surrounding area are not hurting for protection. Just adjacent to this new wilderness are two marine conservation areas, a marine reserve, and two national marine sanctuaries. The impacts to the overall ecosystem from designating this new 1,300-acre area as a wilderness are minimal at best.

Let me note that I have visited dozens of National Parks, most recently the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion and find that by and large, the National Park Service manages some beautiful landscapes while providing excellent visitor experiences. While this is true in general, there is a growing list of exceptions where the National Park Service has closed public access without a sound scientific basis and far beyond what is needed for resource protection, with major implications for recreational fishermen.

National Park ServiceJust ask any angler who visited the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Recreation Area in North Carolina this year only to discover that as a result of a newly approved management plan, a majority of the best and most popular surf fishing areas on the East Coast have been closed. The beach closures were enacted in an effort to protect nesting shorebirds. However, these bird populations are largely controlled by predation and weather, not pedestrian or off-road vehicle traffic on the seashore.

The local community, which is almost entirely dependent on tourism, is suffering greatly. As a result of lost fishing access, businesses have closed down, jobs have been lost and many visitors swear they’ll never come back due to the Park Service-imposed restrictions.

Officials at Biscayne National Park, located adjacent to Miami, Florida, have proposed similar onerous regulations. A proposed general management plan for the park released in the fall of 2011 included a 10,500-acre marine reserve that would close a substantial portion of the park’s most popular and productive fishing reefs.

Not only are park managers ignoring recommendations from their own stakeholder working group, which proposed other management alternatives instead of a no-take area, but also an agreement with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to jointly manage the park’s fisheries. Just like the stakeholder group, the Commission also believes that closing the park’s waters to fishing is going too far.

At the end of the day, it’s a lot easier to manage an area that no one is allowed to access than one where human activities must be managed to ensure resource sustainability. But this lazy approach should have no place on our nation’s public lands, which are held in the public trust for the benefit of current and future generations.

Fortunately, at Biscayne National Park, pressure brought forward by anglers, boaters and legislators has slowed down the National Park Service’s attempt to take the easy way out and manage by closure. Park officials have agreed to step back from the originally proposed management plan and work with the Commission to develop alternative strategies that anglers hope will sustain the park’s fisheries resources while still allowing the public to enjoy them.

But the proof is in the pudding, and based on these recent examples, it’s hard to be optimistic that the National Park Service will recognize that anglers, or people in general, have a place in our National Parks.

Mike Leonard
Mike Leonard is the Ocean Resource Policy Director at the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), based in Alexandria, Virginia. ASA is the sportfishing industry's trade association, providing the industry with a unified voice when emerging laws and policies could significantly affect sportfishing ...