Experience Marine Wilderness at Point Reyes—With or Without the Oysters

There is no explicit definition of ocean or marine wilderness anywhere in the world, but there are about a dozen generally-agreed-upon places in the United States where you can—and should—see it


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Based on the calendar, the battle over bivalves in Point Reyes National Seashore was supposed to end on Thursday, when the Drakes Bay Oyster Company was to cease its operations in Drakes Estero, where it farms around a third of all the oysters grown in California. But it will not, thanks to a reprieve that the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco granted the company on Monday.

And so, the years-long saga—rife with accusations of bad science and cronyism—continues. (It also continues to be interesting, thanks in part to this Los Angeles Times investigation.) The company can stay open until at least mid-May, when it will make another appeal over the end of its lease, which, per its 2004 agreement with the National Park Service, was supposed to end in November. This is pursuant to a wilderness designation for the Drakes Estero, which was made in 1976.

What does the ongoing battle mean for the roughly two million people who visit Point Reyes? It means they can still buy oysters, for now, in the estuary. But in terms of access and recreation, nothing will really change if and when the company is finally evicted.

What you’ll find in most reporting on the struggle to keep Drakes Bay Oyster Company open is that the only other marine wilderness in the U.S. is Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, and that Drakes Estero is in line to be number two.

But what marine wilderness is, and is not, is not well defined. In fact, it’s not defined at all, explains Bradley Barr, an oceanic policy expert who spent more than six years studying marine wilderness as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Alaska. “There is no explicit definition of ocean wilderness in any law or policy in any part of the world,” he says. “Before I started studying marine wilderness areas, we didn’t know how many existed [in the United States].”

According to Barr’s reckoning, there are roughly a dozen marine wilderness areas in the U.S., based on a wilderness designation (pursuant to the Wilderness Act) in areas that happen to include ocean and coastal waters. In other words, marine wilderness areas exist to the extent that the land around them is wilderness in the regulatory sense.

Because they are wilderness areas, non-motorized recreational access is generally allowed, and, in fact, prioritized, in marine wilderness. Drakes Estero, which is within the Philip Burton Wilderness inside Point Reyes National Seashore, can be explored by foot and by paddle—except during the March 1 to June 30 harbor seal pupping season, during which boat access is restricted. (Think on the bright side: you’ll have plenty of time to plan your trip between now and July 1.)

When I asked Melanie Gunn, Point Reyes outreach coordinator, how the outcome of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company suit might impact accessibility, she said it really will not make any difference.

Wilderness areas do have rules around commercial guides, but the park has long issued permits to sea kayak tour operators who paddle into Drakes Estero—though it is often, Pamalah MacNeily, co-owner of Blue Waters Kayaking has told me, a windy area that can be quite challenging to paddle.

Private boaters are welcome (again, except during pupping season), as are stand-up paddleboarders. “There are leopard sharks and rays in the estero that would be great to see from a stand-up paddle,” says Gunn. That’s just what this SUPer saw.

The park also offers a trail network, much of which allows mountain bikes.

Barr’s inventory of other U.S. marine wilderness areas includes two small parks in Georgia—Blackbeard Island and Wolf Island, both of which are National Wildlife Refuges.

Floridians can dip their paddles into the waters in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge near St. Petersburg or the mangroves of J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. (And of course there is a little park called the Everglades that you’ve likely heard of, though motorboats are granted access there, because only the lands under the park are considered wilderness.)

Those who “summer” on Cape Cod can explore the marine wilderness in Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.

But the motherlode of marine wilderness (in arguably the truest sense of the wilderness part) is in Alaska, which, aside from Glacier Bay, offers the four-million-acre Lake Clark National Park & Preserve and the 3.5-million-acre Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

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