Drakes Estero Marine Wilderness


Since 1971, EAC has supported wilderness designation of acreage Point Reyes National Seashore. EAC supported the Sierra Club's proposal for designation of 30,000 acres of wilderness (rather than the Point Reyes National Seashore's request of only 5,000 acres), provided testimony at hearings, and organized EAC members to write letters to President Nixon supporting designation. Most recently in 2007, EAC successfully advocated for Drakes Estero to be converted from potential wilderness to full wilderness in 2012.

"We are exceptionally fortunate to have Point Reyes National Seashore, a rare ecological haven, in our backyard. For decades, Point Reyes has served as a natural sanctuary for wildlife and wilderness lovers. At Point Reyes, we relish the opportunity to reconnect to the wild heartbeat of nature that is deeply rooted within us. Drakes Estero, long considered the ecological heart of spectacular Point Reyes, is the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast. After a long battle over the heart of this national park, on Thursday Drakes Estero will run wild — free of non-native oyster cultivation — for the first time in almost eighty years. 

Thankfully, tens of thousands of national park and wilderness advocates from west Marin to Washington, D.C., including biologists Sylvia Earle and E.O. Wilson, the late coastal champion Bill Kortum and Miwok ancestors who have sacred sites there, came together to defend Drakes Estero.

The harbor seals that come to Drakes Estero to give birth and raise their young, the great egrets roosting on the Estero’s shores, the salmonids that use the Estero as a nursery and the hundreds of acres of eelgrass in the Estero will finally be free from disturbance and damage." (Close to Home: Welcome to the West Coast's Only Marine Wilderness)

It is not difficult for either the casual park visitor or the seasoned scientist to recognize the ecological significance of Drakes Estero—enhanced by robust eelgrass meadows and sandbars that provide nursery areas for fish, harbor seals and other marine life, and are visited by tens of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl.
— Sylvia Earle, Explorer in Residence at National Geographic

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

history and wilderness designation of point reyes national seashore 

The Point Reyes National Seashore (Seashore) was established in 1962 by President Kennedy when the National Park Service (NPS) had actively sought to establish a beachhead on the California coast. 

The Seashore supports diverse ecosystems and microhabitats host a variety of species, "approximately 80 species of mammals, 85 species of fish, 29 species of reptiles and amphibians and thousands of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrate species, and 490 of the bird species, half of the species in the entire North America have been spotted in this area." (Point Reyes National Seashore Animals)

Additionally, the peninsula also has a rich history of human activity, including dairy ranching. In the 1950s and 60s Marin County officials had embraced a growth plan that favored developers. To prevent the loss of the ranching heritage on the Point Reyes peninsula dairy and cattle ranchers formed an unlikely and successful alliance between the Sierra Club and other environmentalist in hopes of preserving ranches and west Marin open space. The compromise hammered out by Congress and signed by President Kennedy in 1962 provided for the retention of the ranches in a designated pastoral zone. Over the ensuing ten years, NPS acquired the 17 remaining operating ranches and the property of the abandoned ranches. (Point Reyes National Seashore History and Culture)

In 1964, national attitudes around environmental responsibility began to shift. Responding to the increased environmental awareness and activity, the 88th Congress passed The Wilderness Act to preserve wild lands in the United States in their natural state for future generations.


In 1964, national attitudes around environmental responsibility began to shift. In response to the increases of environmental awareness and activity, the 88th Congress passed The Wilderness Act to preserve wild lands in the United States in their natural state for future generations.

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness
— Wilderness Act

In 1976, the 94th United States Congress recognized the ecological significance of the area and applied the Wilderness Act to the Point Reyes National Seashore, designating 25,370 acres as wilderness lands and an additional 8,003 acres as potential wilderness (An Act to Designate Certain Lands 1976). The potential wilderness designation encompassed Drakes Estero, where the Johnson Family Oyster Company operated a small family oyster farm. The designation of Drake's Estero as wilderness would occur when the last non-conforming use, Johnson Oyster Company, was removed when its special operating permit expired on November 30, 2012 (Green Nylen, et.al 46).

Today, the Seashore is composed of 71,000 acres and is divided into several different types of public uses. The primary land uses include 33,000 acres of wilderness lands and 21,000 acres of pastoral lands.

With the creation of the Seashore several areas of the Point Reyes peninsula were protected from development and urban sprawl. To protect and enhance the quality of life of residents and visitors, to protect natural resources, and to preserve traditional farming in West Marin, several community groups and nonprofits have formed over recent decades. The efforts of these organizations ensure the preservation of the unique natural character and rich traditions of the West Marin community. The result of such strong community involvement in West Marin has created a unique community spirit where people and the place they inhabit have a dynamic connection.

drakes estero wilderness

The 1976 designation of the 8,003 acres of potential wilderness at Drakes Estero. The intent of this status implied that the land would become full wilderness without further legislative action in 2012 when non-conforming uses to wilderness requirements ended (Green Nylen, et al. 46). 

In 2005, Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) purchased the remaining land-lease from Johnson's Oyster Company. Prior to this transaction the Park Service had begun a series of analyses focusing on the impact of aquaculture on the Estero. DBOC asserted that the studies were flawed and in 2007, the Marin County Board of Supervisors appealed to Senator Dianne Feinstein to arbitrate the conflict. Senator Feinstein ordered the Seashore to subject their scientific findings to the National Academy of Sciences for review and have the Inspector General of the Department of the Interior Investigate the claim of scientific misconduct. In 2009, after the park studies were vindicated by these two reviews, Senator Feinstein attached a rider to a Senate appropriations bill authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to extend DBOC's permit by ten years.

In response to the 2009 rider, "NPS initiated an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) publishing a Notice of Intent (NOI) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to help decide whether or not to issue a new Special Use Permit" (Green Nylen, et al. 48-49). The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was developed and public comment was requested in January and February 2012 (Green Nylen, et al. 49). The results of the public comments overwhelmingly supported the full Wilderness designation of Drake's Estero, with 92 percent of the comments supporting protection and creation of America's only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

On November 29, 2012, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued a decision which allowed "Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s operating permit to expire at Point Reyes National Seashore in California according to its terms" and return the area to wilderness ("Department of Interior").

After the 40-year lease expired on its own terms in November 2012, the DBOC filed a lawsuit. District and appellate federal court decisions rejected the company’s claims, and in June 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

In October 2014, the DOI and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company signed a settlement agreement filed with the federal court that dismissed the oyster company’s failed litigation with prejudice, allowed the company to continue harvesting oysters through the end of the 2014, and assigning clean-up costs to the American taxpayers.

© Robert Campbell

© Robert Campbell

The settlement agreement is a very generous deal for the oyster company that will have had 25 months to operate rent-free since its lease expired. We are glad that Drakes Estero, a magnificent ecological treasure, is finally on its way to be restored to its wild, natural rhythm, free of non-nativeand invasive species
— Amy Trainer, EAC executive director 2010-2015

© Daniel Dietrich

© Daniel Dietrich

© Morgan Patton

© Morgan Patton


The Seashore began restoration of Drakes Estero in January 2015 in partnership with the National Park Foundation and Point Reyes National Seashore Association. The restoration of the 2,500 acre estuary complex includes 2,300 acres of underwater wilderness—which is more than twice the size of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—includes:

  • removing five miles of wooden oyster racks

  • cleaning up acres of underwater plastic, metal, and shell debris

  • removing plastic, metal, and cement debris from the sandbars, where one-fifth of California's harbor seal pups are born and raised

  • conducting long-term scientific monitoring of non-native species, eelgrass, harbor seals, and water quality

  • help stop the spread of invasive species and allow for the growth of critical native species.

Point Reyes National Seashore Drakes Estero Restoration


"Department of Interior." Department of Interior News Press Release Secretary-Salazar Decision on Point Reyes National Seashore Permit. N.P., 29 Nov 2012. Web. 01 May 2013.

"Green Nylen, Nell, et al." "Will the Wilderness Act be Diluted in Drakes Estero?" Ecology Law Currents Vol. 39.46 (2012): 46-99. Ecology Law Currents a publication of Ecology Law Quarterly. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.