Big Green may have a bigger, richer and greedier shark than the National Park Service, but the latter can be considered the worst glutton when it comes to taking others' property. Since its authorization in 1916, the NPS has destroyed so many private homes and businesses to make way for new parks that, if shown by pins on a map, the pattern of personal heartbreak it has left in its wake would look more like a carpet-bombing run than the growth of a beloved national institution.
At the same time, the American love of visiting great scenic wonders is such a powerful shield against criticism that NPS bureaucrats have come to believe they are not only above the law, but that they are the law -- and they've been getting away with it for decades.
President Reagan's interior secretary, James Watt, told me while I was writing his biography in 1981 that it was pointless to put much effort into reforming the NPS, even though the agency was directly under his control -- on paper. The NPS was like a feudal fiefdom in the midst of a modern democracy, he said. It was ruled by lords in and out of government, served by battalions of activist groups able to trash anything that threatened their goals. They trashed him mercilessly.
The Drakes Bay Oyster Co. at Point Reyes National Seashore in California has become today's celebrity Park Service victim, put out of business by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's late-November refusal to renew its lease.
An NPS environmental study claiming the oyster operation threatened the bay's wildlife had been discredited by Interior's Solicitor's Office and scorched by criticisms from the National Academy of Sciences. With no evidence of damage in hand, Salazar shifted gears and ruled from politics, claiming he had the authority to end the oyster company's lease and declare the area wilderness.
Point Reyes bureaucrats salivated at the prospect of ending oyster aquaculture in Drakes Estero and winning the prized wilderness designation, which bans motorized vessels and all structures and comes with a higher level of power and control -- and promotions for the bosses.
Locals were furious. They hated federal control of their community. They cherished the oyster operation not only because they loved oysters, but also for being a sustainable form of aquaculture with minimal environmental impacts. Even California's Green Queen, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, had championed the business and wanted it saved.
Oyster company owner Kevin Lunny and the nonprofit legal group Cause of Action are counting on a federal lawsuit to save his business. Salazar's decision shows he'd rather be sued by a little capitalist oysterman than by Big Green's monster lawyers.
The current NPS director, Jonathan Jarvis, understands the logic. He knows from Jim Watt's experience what pain Big Green could inflict on the agency. His older brother Destry is the very embodiment of the NPS power network.
For 16 years in the 1970s and '80s, Jonathan's brother was vice president of the NPS front group National Parks Conservation Association ($59.7 million in assets), then spent five years as executive vice president of the NPS feeder group Student Conservation Association ($20.9 million in assets).
In 1993, Destry Jarvis hopped into the National Park Service as assistant director, then advanced to senior adviser to the assistant secretary for fish & wildlife & parks. With loads of experience and contacts, he started his own consulting firm and did extensive fundraising from foundations, corporations and government grant programs for green groups.
A word from Destry Jarvis might mobilize Point Reyes National Seashore Association ($2.9 million assets, funded by San Francisco's moneyed elite). Another word, and ...
Well, Big Green leaders know Destry Jarvis. And who his brother is. And how vulnerable the NPS can be.
Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.