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111th Congress Did Well When it Comes to National Park Wilderness, But It Could Have Done Better


A review of how the 111th Congress acted on wilderness legislation shows that the National Park System benefited quite nicely, but it could have fared better.

According to Frank Buono, a former National Park Service official who now tracks wilderness issues, "the 111th Congress designated wilderness in more separate park units (6) than in any Congress since 1980 in the Carter Administration."

That said, he notes that "the number of acres designated was dwarfed by the park wilderness in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994."

As, it seems, with any other legislation coming out of Washington these days, the wilderness provisions at times cover more than wilderness issues. For instance, notes Mr. Buono, "(T)he 111th Congress also adopted a provision that is unprecedented in the history of National Park System wilderness. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) inserted a provision into an Interior Appropriations Act to allow the Secretary to permit for a ten-year period a commercial aquaculture operation in an area of designated potential wilderness in Point Reyes National Seashore, California.

"Specifically, Section 124 of the Interior Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (October 30, 2009) authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to renew a permit for a commercial oyster farm in Drakes Bay, an area designated as potential wilderness in 1976, for a ten year period, beginning on November 30, 2012," he notes. "The authorization for the oyster farm in the Drakes Bay Estero was due to expire in 2012. At that point the nonconforming use would have ceased, enabling the NPS to convert the potential wilderness into full wilderness by publication of a Federal Register notice."

Here's a recap of recent congressional action on wilderness issues from Mr. Buono:

Senator Thomas Coburn (R-OK) almost single-handedly blocked any wilderness designation in the ending days of the 110th Congress. In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) placed an omnibus federal lands bill at the top of the Senate calendar in 2009. The 111th Congress hit the ground running on park wilderness, and other public land issues. On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed into law Public Law 111-11. The law designated wilderness in six areas of the national park system. They are (in alphabetical order):

1. Joshua Tree National Park (California) - Congress designated 36,700 additional acres of wilderness and 43,300 acres of potential wilderness in Joshua Tree. The new wilderness came on lands that were Joshua Tree by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. Joshua Tree became the first park in which Congress acted on three separate instances to designate wilderness.

2. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (Michigan) - Congress designated 11,740 acres as the Beaver Basin Wilderness in Pictured Rocks.

3. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) - Congress designated approximately 249,339 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness.

4/5. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California) - Congress established the John Krebs Wilderness in the Mineral King area of Sequoia National Park, encompassing 39,740 acres and 130 acres of potential wilderness. Congress also designated 45,186 additional acres of wilderness in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness. The John Krebs Wilderness is one of only three NPS wilderness areas where Congress did not make the references in the Wilderness Act to the “Secretary of Agriculture” applicable to the “Secretary of the Interior.” Thus the “special provisions” in the Wilderness Act found at section 4(d) are inoperative in the John Krebs.

6. Zion National Park (Utah) - Congress designated 124,406 acres of Zion as wilderness. Zion is one of the three NPS wilderness areas where Congress did not make the references in the Wilderness Act to the “Secretary of Agriculture” applicable to the “Secretary of the Interior.” Thus, the “special provisions” in the Wilderness Act found at section 4(d) are inoperative at Zion.

The 111th Congress designated wilderness (including potential wilderness) within the National Park System of approximately 550,000 acres.

While the additions certainly are welcome, the list of parks that have no officially designated wilderness is not short and, in some cases, quite surprising. For instance, neither Yellowstone nor Glacier have officially designated wilderness. Nor do Canyonlands, Voyageurs, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Big Bend, Grand Teton, Craters of the Moon National Monument, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, or Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Wilderness designations can be contentious issues. Mining interests oppose them because they can put potential reserves out-of-bounds. Developers can't open up roads. And even mountain bikes can't negotiate them because of The Wilderness Act's prohibition against any "form of mechanical transport."

How important are the designations? In places such as Glacier or Yellowstone probably not overly so, as the rough and rugged backcountry of these places is managed for their wilderness qualities and not likely to be intruded upon by roads or structures. At the same time, lacking official wilderness designations, these landscapes could still be eyed for communication towers or mountain bike trails, Park Service officials have noted.

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Is there a correlation between the 111th doing well and the country being in the tank with disaster looming?

Wilderness is valuable to discourage development in the back country. In 1966 the superintendent at Zion showed me a map indicating a proposed development of visitor facilities in the wild lands east of Zion Canyon, to be accessed by a spur road off the Mount Carmel highway. In that era some NPS managers seemed to favor development of campgrounds and roads in the back country to "reduce crowding" in popular front country areas. Perhaps it was a lingering influence from Mission 66. That proposal was later dropped, NPS recommended the area for wilderness designation, and it became part of the Zion wilderness in the 2009 law. Development ideas will continue to pop up; wilderness designation helps NPS managers resist them.

The information here about Drake's Bay Oyster is inaccurate and misleading.

This statement is not true: "The authorization for the oyster farm in the Drakes Bay Estero was due to expire in 2012. At that point the nonconforming use would have ceased, enabling the NPS to convert the potential wilderness into full wilderness by publication of a Federal Register notice."

The Reservation of Use and Occupancy for the oyster farm's shoreside facility does expire in 2012, but that legally binding document contains a renewal clause. The Department of Fish and Game, in 2004, renewed the farm's shellfish aquaculture lease in Drakes Estero through 2029, a clear sign that the oyster farm has been expected to continue. It is not true that the oyster farm (a "nonconforming use" that pre-dates the National Seashore by decades) was intended to cease in 2012. There is ample evidence that the authors of the Point Reyes wilderness act, Sen. Gene Tunney and Rep. John Burton, expected the oyster farm to continue.

The idea that the oyster farm was intended to be eliminated in 2012 is misinformation being spread by those who want the oyster farm to be removed. (They are also spreading misinformation about the oyster farm's environmental impact.)

The former Park Service superintendent wanted to remove the oyster farm, and has always had the authority to do that, but apparently didn't want to take responsibility for that decision, given that there are at least as many local-food advocates in West Marin as there are wilderness advocates. It's a complicated history, but the Feinstein legislation was meant to underline that authority, not to change it.

There are strong differences of opinion on this issue, but there are no legal or scientific facts that support the removal of the oyster farm.

The historic dairy farms still operating at Point Reyes seem to be working but to purists (?). How do purist's make a living, anyway?
I'm glad there are a few decisions that actually include us in the food chain. :) Boy, does it ever storm at Point Reyes. The pines I saw grow horizontally :).

Mr. Buono has it wrong with respect to Senator Diane Feinstein’s provision to allow a ten-year extension of a two acre on-shore facility associated with a State of California aquaculture lease in Point Reyes National Seashore.

In fact, the Secretary of the Interior already had the authority to renew the statutorily renewable permit for the mariculture operation’s on-shore facilities, which are adjacent to, not within, an area of potential wilderness designation. That authorization is due to expire in 2012, but is explicitly renewable. Feinstein’s provision merely made explicit the State of California’s interest in seeing the on-shore permit renewed. The State of California’s right to aquaculture within Drakes Estero was explicitly retained when the State passed the Estero to the National Parks Service in 1964. It was this retained right, and other issues, not the on-shore oyster processing facility, which was considered incompatible with full wilderness designation when the Point Reyes Wilderness Act was passed in 1976.

It is the Secretary of the Interior, not the NPS, who declares, through publication of a statement to that effect in the Federal Register, when all nonconforming uses have ceased, and thereby changes potential wilderness designation to full wilderness designation. By adopting the Feinstein provision, Congress merely confirmed this fact. Since the State of California has no intention of giving up the 50% of its mariculture production represented by its Drakes Estero leases, wilderness advocates should perhaps finally, after 35 years, accept the recommendation of the principal author of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, Representative John Burton, who said, "This legislation is intended to preserve the diverse uses of the seashore... There are two area proposed for wilderness which may be included as wilderness with 'prior non-conforming use' provisions. One is Drakes Estero where there is a commercial oyster farm." Another author of the Act, Senator John Tunney said, "… The existing agricultural and aquacultural uses can continue."

Senator Feinstein, recognizing the public value provided by the oyster farm and the State of California’s retained rights to mariculture in Drakes Estero, simply supported the original congressional intent of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act. Anyone who cares about sustainable food production or understands the importance of shellfish mariculture to the conservation of marine resources, should applaud Senator Feinstein’s action and support the continuation of mariculture in Drakes Estero.

Well, this is a nice, thought-provoking article to start off the new year. Thanks.

Now perhaps you could help us all with an article explaining this statement: "The John Krebs Wilderness is one of only three NPS wilderness areas where Congress did not make the references in the Wilderness Act to the “Secretary of Agriculture” applicable to the “Secretary of the Interior.” Thus the “special provisions” in the Wilderness Act found at section 4(d) are inoperative in the John Krebs."

Also, it seems we could use a little reporting to clarify the Drakes Bay situation.

Kurt, Bob et al, you can't imagine how much more interested in the nuances of park management I have become since I discovered NPT, and I work here! Thank you for the in-depth reporting, and for casting your eye far and wide across the breadth of the whole national park system. For many of us, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of viewing "the national parks" from the limited perspective of one or a few parks where we might live, work, or play.

Thanks for your note, Ranger. I think more than a few of us are learning about the nuances every day as we follow life in the parks.

As for the Point Reyes oyster debate, we've had a few stories on it:




This indeed is an intricate issue, one with more than a few nuances as some of the comments above indicate.

What seemingly is accepted by all is that commercial oyster farming was well under way in Drakes Estero in 1976 when Congress designated the estuary as potential wilderness.

After that, though, views vary.

Back in the 1970s Interior Department officials, noting that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operation would run counter to official wilderness designation, directed the National Park Service to push for that designation in 2012 when the oyster farm's lease expires.

According to the National Park Service, "the eastern portion of the estero (Estero de Limantour) is congressionally designated Wilderness Area and the rest of the estuary is designated potential wilderness and reverts to full wilderness in 2012."

While Sarah Rolph above disputes that statement, the Interior Department's Office of the Solicitor has rendered an opinion that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company must be removed from the estero because it would be a "non-conforming use" under the Wilderness Act.

Cue the lawyers.

My understanding about the renewed shellfish permit for DBOC is that its validity is contingent on the NPS reauthorizing the use of those specific shore operations. For example, the DBOC couldn't lose their right to their current shore operations and farm oysters in Drakes Estero with shore operations at Tomales Bay.

I know there are some statements and documents that claim that the oyster farm's shore operations must cease, but they're only legal opinions that can change with administrations and of course with legislation. I've seen plenty of "non-conforming uses" in NPS and Forest Service wilderness (and/or potential) areas, including dams, buildings, large signs, or campgrounds. The High Sierra Camps continue to operate in Yosemite even though they employ "permanent structures". Several lakes in the Sierra are surrounded by wilderness areas, but with existing businesses (lodges, stores, campgrounds, boat rentals) allowed to exist just outside the wilderness boundaries.

I've participated in several discussions on this issue in other forums, and some of the rhetoric is off the charts. One rather unknowledgeable person claimed that the oyster farm's shore operations were designated to be wilderness and the current road to the farm should be allowed to revert to vegetation. This road is a preferred route for kayakers, whose activities will still remain legal in Drakes Estero regardless of wilderness status. I even recall Neil Desai verified this (that the road and shore operations are not within the potential wilderness boundary) in a comment attached to his guest column on NPT.

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