“People seeking food will see an opportunity to hunt, gather, or cultivate. People who are well fed, but seek spiritual sustenance in nature, will see a refuge. Wildlife biologists will see a laboratory, archeologists a dig, real estate developers a suburb, park managers a place of employment.” — Mark Dowie of Inverness.

(From The Fiction of Wilderness published in the West Marin Review. The essay was adapted from an upcoming book Vital Diversities: Balancing Protection of Nature and Culture. Dowie teaches science and environmental reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.)

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A small group of Point Reyes National Seashore visitors buying oysters from Drakes Bay Oyster Company and quietly picnicking beside the water a couple of weeks ago.

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The tranquility at the oyster company contrasted with the folks screaming in excitement at another national park 200 miles away. In Yosemite, two rock climbers set a speed record for going up the face of El Capitan.

The climbers, one from Lafayette and one from Japan, shaved 2 minutes and 12 seconds off the 2 hour, 45 minute, and 35 second record held by two German brothers.

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Back at Drakes Bay, oyster-company owner Kevin Lunny is fighting an attempt by National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher to close the oyster farm when its lease runs out in 2012.

Supt. Neubacher’s administration says the 125-year-old oyster farm is incompatible with a wilderness area. Of course, the oyster farm isn’t actually in a wilderness area. So far, the government has labeled Drakes Estero, the inlet where Lunny’s oyster company is located, merely “potential wilderness.”

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Drake’s Bay Oyster Company’s parking lot in the foreground and the Coast Guard’s white buildings in the background.

But it’s a stretch to call Drakes Estero even “potential wilderness.” By act of Congress, the land around it is reserved for agricultural. From the oyster farm, visitors can view not only this “pastoral zone” and traffic on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard but also a US Coast Guard Communications Station.

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One chunk of parkland that is in a designated wilderness area is El Capitan.

The 3,000-foot-high granite monolith is part of what the Park Service boasts is “one of the world’s greatest climbing areas.” Not surprisingly, members of the press and public were on hand for a week to hoot and holler as climbers Hans Florine and Yuri Hirayama repeatedly scrambled up El Capitan. Hirayama has said that if he climbs the rock again, he’ll bring a movie crew from Japan.

Encouraging an international hullabaloo in the Yosemite wilderness area is apparently appropriate when the national park is looking for good publicity. In their own way, national parks do a fair amount of huckstering. The National Seashore, for example, holds sandcastle contests at Drakes Beach every Labor Day to lure crowds to Point Reyes.

tunnelview2.jpgAll this commotion suggests that seeking solitude in nature to restore your soul can sometimes be more romantic than realistic — whether you’re wandering on Point Reyes or in Yosemite (right). Even without climbers and their fans, Yosemite’s wilderness is crawling with an estimated 500 black bears. If you don’t want your meditations disturbed, it’s better to follow the Savior’s advice (Matthew 6:6), and “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet.”

So what activities are appropriate in a “wilderness” area? That apparently depends on the park superintendent of the moment and whom he likes or doesn’t. Ever since Lunny helped organize the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association so that ranchers could put up a united front in negotiations with the park, Supt. Neubacher’s Administration has made it clear they don’t like the oyster grower/beef rancher.

From a strictly environmental standpoint, Neubacher’s justification for trying to close Lunny’s oyster farm reveals the irrational way the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service is being administered these days. If this region of the Park Service is so fastidious it wants to close down a 125-year-old oyster farm to protect “potential wilderness” at Point Reyes, what the heck is the region doing promoting environmentally damaging rock-climbing competition in Yosemite’s “wilderness area?”

“As the number of climbers visiting the park has increased through the years, the impacts of climbing have become much more obvious,” the National Park Service acknowledges. “Some of those impacts include: soil compaction, erosion, and vegetation loss in parking areas, at the base of climbs, and on approach and descent trails, destruction of cliffside vegetation and lichen, disturbance of cliff-dwelling animals, litter, water pollution from improper human waste disposal, and the visual blight of chalk marks, pin scars, bolts, rappel slings, and fixed ropes.”

And what about the 2 million visitors a year the National Seashore attracts to Point Reyes. By any chance do they affect the wilderness around here more than a low-key, family-owned oyster company? Or the National Seashore’s filling in a wetland at Drakes Beach to provide parking for for this multitude… how did that preserve nature?

Given all this, just what does the Park Service mean when it talks about protecting the “wilderness?”

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'” — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.