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Oil And Water Don't Mix: How The Energy Industry Is Using Yosemite's Merced River And Point Reyes' Drakes Bay To Facilitate Public Land Exploitation


What is the real motive behind Americans For Prosperity's push against the National Park Service's preferred alternative for managing the Yosemite Valley?

Editor's note: In the following commentary, Barbara Moristch raises questions into the forces behind efforts to see an oyster farm remain in business at Point Reyes National Seashore and to further open the Yosemite Valley to recreation.

During a recent Sunday, as I relaxed into numerous lovely tributes to mothers posted all over Facebook, I scrolled upon a video link shared by a group called “Yosemite for Everyone.” The video, produced by AFP-TV, was called “Common Sense with David Spady.” After opening with a view of the American and California flags waving in front of the state's Capitol, the video focused on a Yosemite National Park entrance sign. Out of sight, a man calmly said: “Tourists and outdoor enthusiasts beware. The heavy boots of environmentalism are about to stomp on your visitor rights in Yosemite National Park.”

Then, the casually-dressed Mr. Spady appears in front of a video screen displaying a film of Yosemite Falls that makes it look like he is actually in Yosemite. And then Mr. Spady begins to spread insidious dis-information about the 2013 Draft Merced River Plan, and to slam the National Park Service. The video can be viewed at this website.

Anti-Park Service Propaganda?

The video is very misleading. For example, Mr. Spady refers several times to 1864 legislation that ceded Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias from the federal government to California, emphasizing the fact that “Yosemite was set aside for public use, resort, and recreation,” and that this designation was to be “inalienable in perpetuity.”

This is true, but Mr. Spady fails to explain that the state of California grossly mismanaged the lands, allowing rampant development and extensive damage to occur. In 1906, the valley and grove were ceded back to the federal government. In 1916, the National Park Service was created, and the agency took over management of the ceded lands plus the much larger Yosemite National Park.

And lest we forget, even though the state grant emphasized use, the mandate of the NPS, based on its enabling legislation, is to promote and regulate the use of the federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations, to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

Court decisions and public input have upheld the ideal that resource preservation must trump use if such use will impair park resources.

I continued scrolling, pondering the brouhaha generated by the draft Merced River Plan that is intended to guide responsible management of the valley with an eye on protecting the river. I couldn’t understand why so many people were so up in arms about plans to remove an ice skating rink, swimming pools, and commercial rentals of bikes, rafts, and horses. As an ecologist, I feel removing the ice rink, pools, and bike rentals is unnecessary; they don’t adversely affect natural resources. But, horses and river rafting have significant impacts on riparian and aquatic habitats, and it would benefit the valley to have them more stringently regulated or eliminated.

I could understand minor disappointment over the proposed changes, but a lot of people and organizations came out strongly opposed to the plan, when the preferred alternative really won’t change much about the Yosemite Valley experience. In my opinion, the plan doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect resources associated with the Merced River.

Will The Park Service Plan Adversely Impact Enjoyment Of Yosemite?

One illustration of the “brouhaha” is a recent on-line petition called “Save Yosemite for our Families!” which implored people to “Help Us Save Yosemite National Park!” It declared, “If the following draft proposed by the National Park Service goes into effect, it will be harder if not impossible for you to enjoy Yosemite.” This makes the plan sound draconian, which it’s not. There is no indication as to who started this petition.

The list of plan opponents crying about the proposed changes in services in Yosemite includes, among others, the American Recreation Coalition, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Mariposa and Tuolumne County Boards of Supervisors, and local area Congressman Tom McClintock. The common feature shared by many, if not most, of these entities is they either make money off of park use, or represent people who do.

Yosemite’s primary concession operator, Delaware North Companies, also stirred up opposition to the plan, although they did so with a bit more finesse. For example, on their blog site they have a post titled: “The Merced River Plan Removes Raft Rentals in Preferred Alternative 5.” The post starts by asking, “Have you ever taken a leisurely float down the Merced River in Yosemite Valley?” They tell readers that raft rentals will be curtailed under the plan, and that private rafters will require permits. Then they ask, “What do you think?” They suggest readers comment on the plan and provide the link for comments.

As I considered the incredible power of social media to influence public opinion in ways both productive and destructive, I came upon another post that really got my attention—it indicated there might be a link between the slanderous Spady video and the infamous Koch brothers.

Connecting The Dots

A quick Google search revealed that AFP, which produced the Spady video, stands for Americans for Prosperity, an American conservative political advocacy group headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. Mr. Spady is AFP’s California state director.

The Center for the Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch says Americans for Prosperity is a group fronting special interests founded in 2004 by oil billionaire David Koch and Richard Fink (a member of the board of directors of Koch Industries). AFP is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Brothers, Inc., and is the third-largest recipient of funding from the Koch Family Foundations. Before 2003, when the AFP was called Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, it received $18,460,912 in funding; more than 80 percent came from the Koch Family Foundations.

Koch Family Foundations is funded by the billionaires who lead Koch Industries. According to Forbes, Koch Industries is the second-largest privately held company, and the largest privately-owned energy company in the United States. Koch Industries has made money in the oil business, primarily oil refining. Presently, it holds stakes in pipelines, refineries, fertilizer, forest products, and chemical technology.

SourceWatch states AFP is also connected to oil giant ExxonMobil. According to ExxonSecrets, between 1998 and 2001, Citizens for A Sound Economy and Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation received $380,250 from ExxonMobil.

Huffington Post blogger Rick Jacobs calls David Spady “the Koch Brothers' hit man in California.”

In addition to infiltrating the Merced River planning process, the Koch brothers have been linked to the controversy swirling around an oyster farm at Drakes Bay in Point Reyes National Seashore. In 1962, John F. Kennedy declared Point Reyes a National Seashore, and permitted businesses were given 50 years to leave. Congress passed a law in 1976 designating the coast as a marine wilderness once that oyster farm, Drakes Bay Oyster Co., left. Point Reyes cattle rancher Kevin Lunny bought the oyster farm in 2004, hoping for a lease extension.

Mr. Lunny mustered support from the growing sustainable food movement as well as U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, who placed a clause in a 2009 appropriations bill giving then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar the option to renew the lease. Last November 29, Secretary Salazar decided against the renewal—the area would become a marine wilderness.

The East Bay Express, in its December 5, 2012, edition, explained the real reason for Ken Salazar's decision: "It wasn't about the environmental impacts of Drakes Bay Oyster Company at Point Reyes National Seashore; it was about precedent." Once one commercial operation is allowed on what is supposed to be wilderness, the Express offered, the door would be open for others to follow suit.

Kevin Lunny sued. Part of his legal team initially was Dan Epstein of Cause of Action. According to Mother Jones, Dan Epstein is “a former GOP counsel on the House's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform under California Republican Darrell Issa. Epstein is also a veteran employee of billionaires Charles and David Koch; he used to work at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and for a Koch Industries lawyer.

Cause of Action’s website states the group “… is a non-profit, nonpartisan government accountability organization that fights to protect economic opportunity when federal regulations, spending and cronyism threaten it.”

So, as The Daily Kos put it last December 7, at Point Reyes, “…the model of environmental sustainability is being represented by a scion of Darrell Issa and the Koch brothers. Not because Epstein likes oysters or environmental sustainability, but rather because fossil fueled Republicans really, really like the idea of commercial businesses on wilderness land.”

(Editor's note: Mr. Lunny ended his relationship with Cause of Action late last month after the legal firm went after PBS over a segment it did on the oyster farm's situation.)

If the involvement of Epstein, Issa, and the Koch Brothers was not evidence enough of the link between the oyster farm and the keen interest of multi-national corporations in exploiting public lands, the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013 provides the smoking gun.

This bill, introduced by Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, on February 27, would expedite permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for gas and oil development, allow more offshore drilling, cripple the Endangered Species Act with respect to greenhouse gas or climate change impacts on any species, and, last but not least, extend the oyster farm’s operating permit for at least ten years. As the East Bay Express noted this past March 27, “...Republican lawmakers increasingly view the oyster farm as a poster child for the rights of corporations operating on public land.”

As counterpoint to the Spady video, I would say: “Everyone who cares about the future of national parks and other public lands beware! The very wealthy who seek only to line their pockets more lavishly at your expense are about to destroy every bit of public land they can gain access to.”

AFP doesn’t care about the Merced River Plan, Yosemite Valley, or Drakes Bay; they have a much bigger agenda. They want to ensure businesses already operating on public lands are securely locked in place, and they want unlimited access to further exploit America’s public lands, primarily to extract fossil fuel based energy resources at minimal cost to their companies.

Yosemite’s ice rink and swimming pools, and Point Reyes' oysters are symbolic, pawns in the efforts by the Koch brothers and their “cronies” to exploit public lands. Next it will be shale resources under Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and other parks and wilderness areas that harbor fossil fuels.

The Drakes Bay controversy, the Yosemite video, and much of the anti-river plan, anti-National Park Service sentiment is being stirred up as part of a much larger campaign being waged by multinational corporations to manipulate public opinion, to instill fear, anger, and divisiveness in people (i.e., the millions who love national parks), and to elicit knee-jerk reactions against the National Park Service and “radical environmentalists” for supposedly taking away people’s “rights” to enjoy their public lands.

The National Park Service is not perfect, but it doesn’t deserve this kind of slander, which degrades support for the agency among the general public, paves the way for gross exploitation of public land, and allows the very rich to make deeper, destructive inroads into our most glorious national treasures. These efforts by big business to turn people against each other and government agencies, even the National Park Service, which has long been held in very high esteem by the American public, are extremely damaging.

We can’t allow this kind of fear-mongering and defamation to go on when we know the ulterior motive is only to generate huge short-term profits for the already very wealthy at the expense of the most beautiful and special places in the United States. If we do, we stand to lose it all.

Barbara J. Moritsch worked for the National Park Service as an ecologist and interpretive naturalist in five western parks, including Yosemite. She holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in natural resources and environmental science, and currently lives in Eagle, Idaho with her husband Tom, two cats, two dogs, and three horses. She is the author of The Soul of Yosemite: Finding, Defending, and Saving the Valley's Sacred Wild Nature.


Thank you very much for this, Barbara. We need a lot more people like you out there who are willing to try to stand up to the powerful monied interests of the Koch family and other plutocrats who would rob the rest of us.

Judging by what I've read elsewhere, there is still a majority of Americans with enough good sense to understand what those folks are trying to do. Let's work to keep that going. It's the only way we'll preserve precious places from pillage and rape by those who worship dollars.

Everyone reading this should go find a copy of "Who Stole the American Dream" by Hedrick Smith. Read it very carefully.

fronting for special interest, fear mongering, devisiveness, defamation.....

Talk about the kettle calling the pot black!

Wow! You have very productive Sundays. Thank you for putting all the work into this. I definitely prefer knowing who is pulling strings and trying to control our public lands.

OH NO!!!! Not the "infamous Koch Brothers", those defamers of the natural world bent purely on the destruction of all we love and cherish. And that devil McClintock is working with them too!!!

Brought to you by B. Moritsch and her impeccably unbiased sources DailyKos and Huffpo.


This is such an interesting question. Since prior to the signing of the Wilderness Act, there have been deep and abiding questions about the philosophical and logical underpinnings of the idea of wilderness. What is it? The best I can deduce, wilderness is a romantic, 19th and early 20th century concept that is rooted in the depopulation of what is now the United States of American Indian peoples, who did not generally have any western concept of wilderness (at least in the "dangerous to humans" sense). How could you be afraid of your mother or your brothers? How could they be dangerous to you, if you knew their characters?

So, wilderness, if it is a viniette of primitive America (Leopold 196X), does that include tribes? Shouldn't they have priviledged access to National Parks and Park lands, especially if they are practicing traditional hunting and gathering? If they are part of "primitive America", does that mean they are primitive? Isn't that fundamentally racist? I think that ultimately the Wilderness Act will need to be re-written to place it on a foundation that is less racist and more informed by human-driven changes and their origins. We are changing the entire world, and the faster we face the facts that the socially-defined wilderness' are changing, too, the faster we can widen the scope of protection to help all of us continue to live on our planet. It's not just about oyster farms in "wilderness", it's about how poorly the National Park Service has performed in changing American behavior to protect our collective environment inside and outside of National Parks.

Is it really the best thing for the environment for hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners and Easterners to trek to Yellowstone every year by car, plane, and train? Aren't they supporting the very oil industry Ms Moritsch is sounding the alarm about?

Wow, that is one awful article. So, if I understand the half baked logic applied above it appears that we have a simple choice: either we get rid of an ice rink and bike rentals in Yosemite or the Koch brothers are going to loot and despoil every single national park out there. That's some pathetic argumentation. I'm no fan of the Koch brothers, but the article glosses over the gaping holes in the NPS plan (in the case of Yosemite) or actions (with the DBOC) and would rather focus of the character of the NPS detractors.

May I suggest to Ms. Moritsch that if the NPS was smarter and listened to its constituents, maybe it would not face such a negative reaction.

I would like to thank Traveler and op-ed author Barbara Moritsch for a thought provoking article. Ms. Moritsch is quite informed on Yosemite issues and, for that matter, ecological issues in general. The controversy surrounding the current Yosemite Planning effort is again very contentious, I have attended several of the public meetings soliciting input and have both met and received emails from the individuals or organizations identified in Barbara's post. As is true in so many of the debates happening politically in the country, polarization is the rule of the day, with some parties on both sides stating they are right about one issue or another, brooking no compromise. From my own perspective, the groups identified by Ms. Moritsch are particularly strident and represent, for better or worse, a no rules, privatization agenda that I do not agree with. In any case, thank you Barbara Moritsch for presenting an intelligent and informed view on the current planning effort in Yosemite National Park. I agree that the draft plan is fairly status quo, was in draft form and the final decisions will not be known until the EIS is released later this summer.

Zeb - I particularly like her indicting Issa and the Koch brothers for a " link between the oyster farm and the keen interest of multi-national corporations in exploiting public lands" because a former employee of theirs (Epstein) was part of a legal team working with Lunny.

I suppose Clinton is in bed with Fox News since Dick Morris worked for both of them.

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