There is a legendary place along Northern California's coast where the ocean meets the land, a natural haven for birds, fish, harbor seals, and humans. Held sacred by coastal Miwoks who used to inhabit the area, this shallow, glove-shaped extension of the Pacific Ocean called Drakes Estero, is part of the spectacular Point Reyes National Seashore.
Already part of the National Park System, Drakes Estero became on Dec. 1 the first protected marine wilderness on the nation's Western coast, an enduring legacy for the people of this country. This was made possible by the wisdom of U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose historic decision provided a gift of nature to the people of this country, a significant step to restore health to an ocean that has been greatly stressed in recent years.
I first visited Drakes Estero in 1966, before Congress recognized it as a special place, worthy of permanent protection.
During that time, people were just beginning to wake up and realize the negative impacts of commercial exploitation on California's estuaries, beaches, marshes, and coastal meadows. Many lands were lost, but lessons were learned that increased our understanding of just how important it is to protect our beautiful and delicate coastlines. Shortly after, we saw the passage of landmark legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, and the Wilderness Act.
While the land and waters of Drakes Estero are owned by the American people, in 1972 a privately owned oyster farm was given a 40-year permit within these public waters, to cultivate non-native Japanese oysters, a species proposed but rejected for introduction into Chesapeake Bay where native oysters are prized.
Owners of the original oyster operation sold their company seven years ago to a cattle rancher and businessman with the full understanding that in November 2012, the company's infrastructure would be removed and the land and sea returned to its naturally productive state.
Seagrass meadows would replace the oyster racks, birds could once again feed and rest undisturbed, and the people of the nation could enjoy the benefits of access to a wild coastal system within an hour's drive of San Francisco. It would be the completion of a promise to taxpayers who purchased this area.
The concept is simple: A deal is a deal. But this deal was nearly stolen from all of us equal owners of this estuary due to significant pressure applied by the oyster company to extend the lease.
Secretary Salazar resisted, and it makes me very proud of our country's conservation legacy when we have leaders in place who take care of our marine environment and national parks for future generations.
This decision could not have come at a more important time. As the legislative session winds down in Washington, D.C., this is the first Congress since 1966 (the Congress that passed the Wilderness Act) to not pass a single wilderness bill. This decision also comes at a time when increased pressures are being placed on our coastal inlets and estuaries, seemingly erasing the ability to protect our natural heritage.
Drakes Estero is a crown jewel in a California treasury of coastal natural assets that includes marine reserves and four National Marine Sanctuaries such as Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones. Its estuarine environment is uniquely significant for achieving the long-term vision set forth by state and federal governments to leave a healthy ocean for future generations.
Drakes Estero was studied under the state of California's Marine Life Protection Act Initiative a few years ago. All of the stakeholder groups, which included varied perspectives such as commercial and recreational fishing interests, agreed that Drakes Estero should receive State Marine Reserve protections once the commercial use ended.
Such protections would complement the recent federal wilderness designation and demonstrate a state and federal partnership in managing our waters.
While I have studied aquatic landscapes for decades, it does not take a seasoned scientist to recognize and appreciate the significance of Drakes Estero or the importance of Secretary Salazar's decision. Estuaries such as this play a critical role in the larger marine ecosystem that many are urgently working to protect along the California coast and across the world.
There are other oyster farms in California and elsewhere in the country, but there is only one Drakes Estero. I praise Secretary Salazar for understanding the value of these lessons and for serving as a beacon of hope for our natural heritage during these troubled times.