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It's business vs. wilderness in oyster farm's fight to extend federal lease

Dwayne Newton/California Watch The Drakes Bay oyster farm grows about 500,000 pounds of non-native Pacific oysters each year and harvests them using motorboats. The boats make more than 1,000 trips a year. 

On clear days at low tide from his home above Drakes Estero, Kevin Lunny can make out the wooden racks of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. farm. Lunny, who is also a cattle rancher and contractor, bought the business in 2005 – despite some daunting conditions. 

The original tenants – Johnson’s Oyster Farm – had left a legacy of public health violations and plastic debris polluting the bay and shoreline. Along with this vexing environmental cleanup, Lunny inherited another mess. 

The federal lease for his operation, which allows Lunny to harvest oysters within the pristine Point Reyes National Seashore, expires Nov. 30. With the backing of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. – a powerful ally and ardent supporter of his oyster farm – Lunny is seeking a 10-year extension that would mean survival for Drakes Bay.

The resulting conflict – between supporters of a thriving, sustainable oyster farm and wilderness advocates trying to protect one of the world’s most spectacular conservation areas – has divided the Point Reyes community.

The debate has become one of the most bitter local battles since the Point Reyes National Seashore was cobbled together out of government holdings and private ranches 50 years ago. 

“Kevin Lunny is the most sensitive ecological farmer in our region,” said Sue Conley, whose Cowgirl Creamery produces artisanal cheeses sold all over the United States. “He’s a model for the kind of agriculture that environmentalists should embrace. But this is a stronghold of old-time thinking about environmentalism being separate from human activity.” 

To environmentalists, the status of Drakes Estero is a matter of science, law and federal policy. Much of the Point Reyes National Seashore already is protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines a federally protected wilderness as “retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”

Dwayne Newton/California Watch Freshly harvested oysters are sorted on a conveyer belt at Drakes Bay Oyster Co. 

Lunny’s farm grows 500,000 pounds of non-native Pacific oysters each year and harvests them using motorboats. Some 30 people work on the site. It’s a rustic-looking operation, surrounded by a shucking room, packing room and large round tanks used to grow oyster larvae. 

Visitors are guided past mountains of discarded shells, used to restore habitat and aid in new oyster growth. Using only organic feed – naturally occurring phytoplankton – the business is California’s last oyster cannery. About half of the Drakes Bay crop is packed in jars and sold in the retail market; the rest supplies fresh oysters to scores of restaurants statewide. The business brings in just a little less than $2 million a year.

The roots of Lunny’s dilemma go back four decades. In 1972, the National Park Service – which owns Drakes Estero as part of the Point Reyes National Seashore –granted the Johnsons a 40-year terminable lease called a “reservation of use.”  

Four years later, with the Point Reyes Wilderness Act [PDF], Congress designated the 2,200-acre inlet a “potential wilderness.” This means that in November, when the oyster farm’s lease expires, the park service would take over the land. Drakes Estero then would become the only federally protected marine wilderness on America’s Pacific coast.

Dwayne Newton/California Watch Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, says she’s "working to honor a congressional wilderness designation” in her fight against the oyster farm. 

“Once Congress says you are potential wilderness, you’re on a one-way path,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. “The Lunnys knew the deal when they moved in seven years ago. I’m not working to shut down the oyster farm. I’m working to honor a congressional wilderness designation.” 

Initially, those conditions were acceptable to the Lunnys. In 2006, however, they began working with Feinstein to protect their growing business. In 2009, she attached a rider to an appropriations bill, giving Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar the discretion to extend the Lunnys’ lease an additional 10 years. His decision is due by Nov. 30.

The rider has raised the political stakes of the decision and puts substantial pressure on Salazar and the Obama administration. Salazar must decide between a new national wilderness and, in a time of economic uncertainty, a small business that a powerful California senator has fought to defend through legislation, press releases and public statements.

Only three months after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, Feinstein wrote Salazar saying she was “concerned about the National Park Service’s apparent efforts to shut down a family-owned oyster operation in Drakes Estero by casting it as harmful to the environment. Drakes Estero has been home to a family-owned oystering business since 1934 – long before the park was established. It employs 30-40 people, and is part of the sustainable agricultural movement in West Marin.”

Dwayne Newton/California Watch Kevin Lunny, the owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., is fighting to extend his lease for a decade. Some 30 people work for the farm, which produces about 40 percent of the oysters consumed in California. 

Few deny that Lunny’s operation has an effect on the character and ecology of Drakes Estero. It now falls on the National Park Service to assess, with a consultant specializing in preparing environmental documents, whether the Drakes Bay oyster farm is harming the estuary’s marine, bird and plant life. 

There’s no question that the oyster farm itself is not compatible with wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines the term as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 

The farm’s footprint is subtle, but it’s not invisible. Noise from the oyster-collecting boats, which make more than 1,000 trips a year, may disturb pupping seals. Some patches of native eelgrass have been covered. 

And there is an ongoing problem with “legacy” debris: 6-inch black plastic spacer tubes, used in the cultivation of oysters, that wash up on Point Reyes’ beaches. Clumsy farming methods by the Johnsons let thousands of these tubes escape. Although Lunny is phasing these out in favor of more eco-friendly methods, his oyster farm also uses the spacers when necessary.   

Dwayne Newton/California Watch A boat brings in oysters harvested for the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Environmentalists oppose extending the farm’s lease to harvest within the Point Reyes National Seashore, a designated "potential wilderness." 

“We’re not pretending that there’s no effect,” said Lunny, whose operation attracts some 50,000 visitors a year and produces about 40 percent of the oysters consumed in California. “Going out on a boat, there will be times when we may flush birds or whatever. There's no such thing as zero impact.”

So far, the peer-reviewed science examining Drakes Estero has produced little direct evidence that the oyster operation is creating a significant impact on the seal population, eelgrass or tidal waters. A 2009 report from the National Research Council stated the dilemma plainly: “The adverse or beneficial effects of oyster farming cannot be fully understood given the existing data and analyses.” 

The result of this uncertainty is that scientific findings made by one side are swiftly challenged by the other. This has led to dueling environmental impact reports and seemingly endless peer reviews, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. 

Activists assert that the estuary’s designation as a potential wilderness, coupled with the oyster farm’s soon-to-expire lease, indelibly shows what Congress intended when it passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act.

“National Park wilderness is our nation's most sacred public trust resource,” Trainer said. “And here it is under attack. It took a big fight to get this wilderness designation for Drakes Estero. Think of all the times we've battled to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; this is the same concept. ”

Dwayne Newton/California Watch The Drakes Bay oyster farm grows about 500,000 pounds of non-native Pacific oysters each year and harvests them using motorboats. The boats make more than 1,000 trips a year. 

But Lunny – who can see the fingerling outlines of Drakes Estero from the front door of his Historic G Ranch, just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard – believes the very notion of calling the area a wilderness is a stretch. Oyster farms, he said, have been a part of the estuary since 1936.

“Drakes Estero is a hand-shaped estuary completely surrounded by ranches,” he said. “What this will do is cherry-stem a small wilderness into the middle of farmland.”

Another more recent point of contention centers on what actually was meant when Drakes Estero was designated a “potential wilderness.” Did Congress want the oyster farm to stay or require it to leave? Nearly four decades later, one of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act’s supporters – former congressman and longtime environmentalist Pete McCloskey – claims Congress never intended to remove the oyster operation. 

“The oyster farm is a valuable resource for education and research as well as food production,” McCloskey wrote in a July 2011 letter to the Point Reyes Light newspaper. 

The statement was frustrating for wilderness advocates, who respect McCloskey but hold him to the law he helped pass in 1976.

Dwayne Newton/California Watch Freshly harvested oysters are sorted on a conveyer belt at Drakes Bay Oyster Co. 

“If he wants to change his mind on how he wants to interpret this policy, that’s fine,” said Neal Desai, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Pacific regional office. “But the law has been clear and in writing for years.”

Trainer agrees. In September, she said, the National Park Service called for comments on its draft environmental impact statement. There were more than 50,000 responses from all over the country. Of these, an estimated 92 percent called for the “no-action alternative,” which would allow the oyster farm lease to expire.

“The public support for wilderness,” she said, “is overwhelming.” 

The next step is a final environmental impact statement, which is designed to summarize whether the commercial operation is consistent with existing policy, law and science. Salazar will review these findings, along with arguments to the contrary, and decide whether to make the business a part of the estuary’s landscape for at least another decade.

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Salazar’s ruling, when it comes, will resonate far beyond the wooden oyster beds of Drakes Bay. Environmentalists contend that if the oyster farm’s lease is extended, park protections everywhere could be affected. 

Desai said there are hundreds of similar “reservation of use” leases throughout the national park system. The environmental importance of Drakes Estero cannot be replicated, he said, while oysters can be grown on other farms, some as close by as Tomales Bay, less than an hour’s drive away. 

“Secretary Salazar's decision will have a major impact, for better or worse,” Desai said. “He can affirm that our country's national parks are managed for public benefit, rather than private gain.” 

While many well-known environmentalists have expressed strong support for the Drakes Estero wilderness – including biologist E.O. Wilson and oceanographer Sylvia Earle – the issue is likely to be decided on strictly legal and scientific grounds. 

The final word is due this fall. Until then, no one can predict what Kevin Lunny will see from his porch when December rolls around.


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This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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