Point Reyes National Seashore, embattled at 50

  • Susan Ives


We’re supposed to be celebrating here at Point Reyes, a foggy enclave along the Northern California coast about an hour’s drive and a world away from San Francisco.

Fifty years ago, President Kennedy signed the Point Reyes National Seashore into existence.  For years, a national seashore had been little more than a pipe dream until Marin County supervisors agreed to turn the pristine dunes and beaches of this foggy peninsula into subdivisions and resorts. Locals saw what was coming -- a four-lane freeway along the bucolic coast -- and appealed to a higher power: Congress.

Thousands of grassroots activists and the nation’s leading environmental organizations took up the cause, eventually persuading a skeptical Congress to buy out the developers and ranching families at Point Reyes to create a new brand of national park -- one within reach of millions of urban Americans.

At the time, spending taxpayer dollars to buy private land for a national park was unheard of. Traditionally, national parks had been carved out of far-off public lands. But at Point Reyes, the government paid local ranchers and speculators millions for their land. As part of the deal, longtime dairy and cattle operations were grandfathered into the park and have thrived.

With the Point Reyes National Seashore secured, advocates turned to protecting the park’s ecologically important areas under the newly adopted 1964 Wilderness Act.  In 1976, Congress agreed that some 33,000 roadless and still-wild acres be added to the federal wilderness system. Drakes Estero, considered the ecological heart of the park, would become the jewel of the crown -- the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

Drakes Estero is home to one of the largest breeding colonies of harbor seals on the California coast. A dozen species of marine mammals live or migrate through the area. Endangered coho salmon and steelhead congregate in the Estero’s waters before running its tributaries to spawn. Birders have tallied more than 400 avian species here. Such remarkable diversity and abundance inspired the United Nations to name Drakes Estero part of the Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve.

The only thing standing in the way of full wilderness protection for Drakes Estero was Johnson’s Oyster Farm. The National Park Service had bought the ramshackle operation with plans to demolish it when a 40-year operating permit -- granted to the Johnsons when the park was established – expired. That would happen on Nov. 30, 2012.

There were seven years left on the Johnson’s permit when the Drakes Bay Oyster Company took over the operation from the family in 2005.  Since then, the company has been cultivating not only shellfish, but also powerful friends. California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein took up their cause.

In 2009, California’s senior senator attached a rider to an appropriations bill to extend the oyster company’s lease. As a result, it is now up to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to decide whether to uphold the 1976 wilderness legislation or renew the oyster company’s permit. That decision is imminent. Many legal experts believe it could lead to a precedent affecting not only wilderness at Point Reyes but also the law on National Wilderness Preservation.

In the few years since the Drakes Bay Oyster Company has come to Drakes Estero, federal and state agencies have cited the company for dozens of violations ranging from illegally operating in areas of Estero reserved for wildlife; to polluting the beaches with thousands of plastic tubes it uses to grow its nonnative clams and oysters; to expanding without permits. The company has accrued more than $60,000 in fines. Just last month, on Oct. 24, the California Coastal Commission began enforcement proceedings.

Over decades, park supporters on both sides of the aisle have worked together when Point Reyes was threatened, turning back plans for freeways, marinas and urban sprawl. Support for the park remains strong. When the Park Service issued its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the oyster operation in Drakes Estero, it received over 52,000 public comments, and 92 percent of those comments favored wilderness over oyster production. Conservation and wildlife organizations have formed a national coalition to uphold the wilderness legislation.

Stewart Udall, the Interior secretary who did all he could to secure the support of President Kennedy and Congress for a Point Reyes National Seashore 50 years ago, said, “Over the long haul of life on this planet it is the ecologists and not the bookkeepers of business that are the ultimate accountants.” We’ll soon know if Secretary Salazar agrees. That will be something to celebrate.

Susan Ives is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). She served as vice president for the Trust for Public Land for 10 years and lives a short drive away from Point Reyes.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

nancy Graalman
nancy Graalman
Nov 27, 2012 11:17 AM
Thank you, Susan . . . You are indeed a Defender of this special place.
Tim Hauserman
Tim Hauserman
Nov 27, 2012 03:55 PM
I have spent a lot of time at Point Reyes, and have enjoyed taking groups hiking on the beautiful Tomales Point trail or along the Coast Trail.After hiking we enjoy fresh oysters on the half shell directly from the folks who grew them in this wonderful setting. I see no reason why this business cannot coexist peacefully with the park. The cattle ranches do, and so can the oyster business.
Nov 27, 2012 06:04 PM
When was "spending taxpayer dollars to buy private land for a national park" considered "unheard of"?

That's the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They had no land to build it. Even Ken Burns's fine documentary on the National Parks devoted some time to how the federal government joined with private buyers to get enough land for the park. Small landowners were bought out via eminent domain and evicted. The same goes for Shenandoah National Park, although that was done via the state purchasing land and handing it over to the Feds.

Many of our current military parks (now under NPS control) were acquired via eminent domain in the late 19th Century. Johnson's Oyster Co likely sold to NPS and agreed to the 40 year lease because their land might have otherwise been acquired via eminent domain.
Sarah Rolph
Sarah Rolph
Nov 28, 2012 09:53 AM
There is absolutely no reason not to celebrate now. Point Reyes National Seashore is as wild and beautiful as any place can be that gets 3-4 million visitors per year and has a road running through it.

If you have driven through the Seashore on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, you know that you can’t even see the oyster farm from the road. You have to drive down the oyster farm road to see it.

Also down that road, at the same site as the oyster farm’s shore operations, is a major access point for recreational kayaking—please note that *all* of the kayaking companies that use this area support the continuation of the oyster farm. They are on record with the Park Service about that. Their joint public-comment letter in response to the Park Service’s draft Environmental Impact Statement says that it “misrepresents the wilderness experience that we have consistently encountered over the years” and that, in contrast to the (fraudulent) claims of the EIS, “During our many kayak outings on the estero, the “soundscape” of the wilderness area has not been impacted by the noise of the farm.” Also that “Oyster boats are rarely seen in action and if we do encounter boats, they are always very respectful of our presence, making sure not to disturb us or wildlife in any way.” Says one operator, Tressa Bronner of Point Reyes Outdoors, “I have been guiding on the estero for four years and only once have I encountered a motor boat. And it was on purpose. Kevin Lunny was meeting our group at the oyster beds to discuss the history of aquaculture, and his oyster farming techniques.” Bob Licht of SeaTrek said “I have always felt that the Oyster Company adds rather than distracts from the paddling experience.” John Granitir & Pamalah MacNeily Blue Waters Kayaking said “We feel that the presence of Drake’s Oyster Farm has not been of any detriment to Blue Waters Kayaking or any of our clients. On the contrary, we feel that it has positive cultural and historical significance, is of economic importance to the local community, is a significant example of benign, non-harmful aquaculture, is a safety resource for recreation users, and is in general a model and well run company that should have the option of continued presence on Drake’s Estero. We do not feel that the “wilderness” aspect of the Estero is compromised by the presence of the Oyster farm.”

Ms. Ives is being disingenuous when she claims that “federal and state agencies have cited the company for dozens of violations.” Aside from the ongoing falsehoods from the Park Service, which has been found in a series of investigations to have been guilty of misconduct, there is only one agency that has cited the oyster farm for anything, and that is the California Coastal Commission, which has been harassing the oyster farmers with nuisance claims. The plastic is a legacy issue from the previous owners, and the Lunnys have been helping to clean up that plastic. The so-called illegal operation in areas of the Estero reserved for wildlife is the result of a tiny glitch, a GPS error that sent one boat into the wrong place one time. The expansion without permits applies to silly things like planters being moved in the parking area.

Ms. Ives makes it sound as if these issues are serious. But if they were serious, they would be reported to California Fish & Game, which is the state agency that has *actual* oversight of Drakes Estero. There has never been a complaint about Drakes Bay Oyster Company lodged with Fish & Game. The CCC narrative is bogus.
Gary Nabhan
Gary Nabhan
Nov 29, 2012 11:41 AM
Susan Thank you for your perspective; you are a great writer and a friend to many of us in Western conservation. While much of what you say is true, what you don't say is just as true: the NPS had a mandate from the start to collaboratively work with ranchers and oyster farmers and NOT just buy them out; over time, the NPS has treated both wilderness and that other mandate is incompatible and contradictory although both have been its responsibilities since the start of the seashore. The questions I have for you, Neal Desai and Gordon Bennett are truly about the future of the West, and what will happen if we dualistically pit sustainable food production and nature protection against one another in place after place: Can you inmagine a way that the NPS could work WITH DBOC and ranchers for a win-win situation, as proposed earlier on by former NPS superintendents there and then abandoned? Do you acknowledge that Drakes Bay waters have been ruled by the state to be under its jurisdiction, not the parks? Do you really think it was bad Sectretary Salazar to visit DBOC and talk to its Hispanic workers face to face rather than believing the 3rd-hand drivel (often erroneous) that has come out of the NPCA San Francisco office as character assassinations against the Lunnys and their workers? Do you believe that NPS science has had the integrity at Point Reyes that we all deserve to see, given that 3 different reviews have faulted NPS Science there? Do you reject colloborative conservation and mediation here and in other areas as a means for conflict resolution over land uses adjacent to wilderness? The latter is the key issue for me. I respect you, adore your writing, and think that if we and others actually came together for peace-making, divisive tragedies like the Drakes Bay debacle would not happen as frequently. But the Park Service has to be a true partner and not act as though it has a command-and -control superiority over all of its partners, or conservation WILL indeed stop at park boundaries and ultimately fail. I have called you and others to reach out; I once helped DBOC and NPS get into mediation through the Udall Foundation. Are your friends in the high-rent districts of Mill Valley willing to walk toward the middle, into the Radical Center?
Victoria Hanson
Victoria Hanson
Nov 29, 2012 12:01 PM
Since Sarah lives back east, her view of Drakes Estero is obscured by self-interest. As one of the oyster operator's army of PR shills she's clearly working overtime on the word-count here, as their final assault ramps up. In fact, the smoky haze of oyster dust that coats the hillside leading over the dreadfully wash-boarded road to Ms. Rolph's favorite ramshackle blight, is unmistakably jarring to anyone but the blind.
Please note, the kayak company's, like all of West Marin, are hostage to the Lunny's rath. Even the highly lauded Dr. Goodman would have had dim chances of developing his glorious view estate overlooking Tomales Bay, had he expressed a professionally dispassionate evaluation of the scientific evidence - the video of his initial testimony in 2007 to the Board of Supervisors shows such uncharacteristically meek gratitude for receiving permits, as his preamble. Also note, that kayaks are excluded during the critical months of harbor seal pupping. These companies recognize their financial existence depends on neighborly cooperation and complying with the law.
The Lunny's belligerent sense of entitlement, since they've never owned land on Point Reyes, is bizarre and frightening. It is well known locally that Kevin serves on every politically potent ag-interest board - opposition spells social and economic exile. Hideous accounts of broken relationships inspire fearsome loyalty. One local paper suffered repeated underhanded attempts at economic sabotage; it has now been forced into line. The other is controlled through a convoluted financial structure designed by Dr. Goodman's allies.
The studied ignorance Ms. Rolph promotes is implausible. Her strategy of repetition seeks to limit attention to unrepresentative talking points, but fails to change the factual record. Her main points rely on minimizing and ignoring the length and severity of violations. That characteristic strategy is part and parcel of the pervasive problem with this enterprise.
The 'small glitch' and 'silly things' ploy is standard practice. I've watched Kevin Lunny's prevarications live - he's masterfully on message and ad libs deceit without blinking. Is Ms. Rolph truly that gullible?
Or is her antagonism for the Coastal Commission and public allegiance to the Pacific Legal Foundation (the sworn enemy of public resource protection) key to the fight for expunging peer-reviewed science confirmed by the latest NAS and advancing research? Court records show that the Lunny's have intentionally reneged on their obligations to remedy violations from as far back as 1989 - Marin County's disreputable support for chrony capitalism is legendary.
OH, THIS JUST IN - Salazar did the right thing! GoWild2012!
Victoria Hanson
Victoria Hanson
Nov 29, 2012 12:22 PM
Wow, Gary, you offer so many pieces of skewed bait, it's hard to concentrate. Now that Secretary Salazar has demonstrated the wisdom of Solomon perhaps we can climb down out of the hate tree planted by the Lunny family's backers and find our way back to common ground. As a neighbor, I've spoken with several local ranchers who do not share the Lunny's projection of evil on the park. They and many others of us unskilled in agriculture still share core values - cooperation, truthful responsibility for our choices, and honorable commitment that 'a deal is a deal.' Laying aside inflammatory words and deceptive accusations may seem difficult, but as a leading voice claiming to promote productive consensus, you harm your credibility and hamper progress by using terms like 'drivel'. It seems apparent to me, as someone who has read volumes of original text fundamental to this specific case, that you have not followed your own recommendations. By echoing deceptive interpretations based on unreliable sources you undermine your own professional credibility and sabotage the effort you say you support. With respect and optimism, VHanson
Gary Nabhan
Gary Nabhan
Nov 29, 2012 06:38 PM
Wow Victoria I am not part of any hate tree nor are the Lunnys. I want to see positive collaboration and mediation. Trying to get all parties together two summers ago in mediation through the Udall Foundation demonstrates my commitment to helping people find middle ground, as does hosting (and finding financiual support for) a meeting last spring with NPS anmd other conservation leaders on the future of food security and ecosystem services with parks and protected areas. I do not deny that most work out of NPCA offices is elegant with the right values, but I would be lying if I pretended that Neal Desai's releases out of the Bay area office were of that quality ... they manipulated many facts and photos, as John Hull has documented. Rather than looking at the past though, I want to look to the future. Do you want any food production in abnd around the parks? how can Point Reyes learn to manage such activities as conscientiously as Cuyahoga or Lexington-Concord have? why do we have no NPS-wide policies to provide a level playing field for food prodiuction in parks? What do wilderness advocates want from this world besides wilderness? lets work toward that!
Sarah Rolph
Sarah Rolph
Nov 30, 2012 07:09 AM
I have been following this story closely for seven years. I am a freelance writer planning a book about this topic, not a "shill." I don't know whether Victoria Hanson is a "shill" -- I have noticed that people are often guilty of the things they accuse others of. One thing is clear: Hanson doesn't seem to have added any actual FACTS here. For someone who claims to have all the answers, I find that quite curious.

Gary Nabhan is a respected environmentalist. Who is Victoria Hanson?
Gary Nabhan
Gary Nabhan
Nov 30, 2012 07:41 AM
Thank you Sarah, I look forward to your book. There are stories within stories about the Drakes Bay tragedy, and hopefully you can redeem something from them which will keep us from seeing our communities divided in the future by the dualism of nature conservation and sustainable food production. All we can be sure of from the latest EIS is that the NPS believes that marine mammals are offended by Mexican music! I sense that the real drivers of this conflict have not been fully analyzed or daylighted. A more mature, balanced and reflective approach to this conflict could help stave off others in public land-dominated landscapes.
Sarah Rolph
Sarah Rolph
Nov 30, 2012 01:56 PM
Thanks, Gary. Funny line about the music! That's about the size of it. Speaking of the EIS, here's something truly amazing: they disappeared it!! Yep, after defending it all this time and rushing out a final last week, they decided not to file it with the EPA (as NEPA rules require) and said they're not using it after all. Apparently they backed the draft out of the system, too! The rule of law does not seem to apply when the Park Service wants its way. I'm not sure that will last--we may see another wrinkle in this crazy story before long.

I think you're quite right that the real drivers are still unclear. I am beginning to understand some of the underlying cultural and political issues, but there are still layers to uncover.
Tim Hauserman
Tim Hauserman
Nov 30, 2012 04:49 PM
yes, once again environmentalists have exhibited their total lack of appreciation of economics. They attack "private interests" like it is a dirty word. Private businesses are what produce the products that people want, which produces jobs. Those jobs pay for restaurant meals and buy books in Point Reyes Station, or pay taxes that go to pay National Park Service employees, or buy land to preserve it. Even if you don't work, private businesses and their hard-working employees are what pay for the government programs that provide your social security or the state park that you like to visit. And what is this nasty private business doing? Growing oysters that everybody loves in a place that by no stretch of the imagination is a true wilderness area.
Dave Kangas
Dave Kangas Subscriber
Dec 03, 2012 02:53 PM
Here is another point of view, definitely worth watching and realizing there are ALWAYS two sides to a story.
Susana Ives
Susana Ives
Dec 04, 2012 09:26 AM
Update: The owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. announced Monday he will fight the decision by the federal government to shut down his operation.
"Our family business is not going to sit back and let the government
steam roll our community, which has been incredibly supportive of us," Lunny said in a written statement issued Monday by Cause of Action. "We are exploring possible responses to the National Park Service and will be taking legal action against them soon."
Cause of Action, a 14-month old Washington DC-based nonprofit "government accountability" organization has taken up Kevin Lunny's cause pro bono. Meet Dan Epstein, who heads Cause for Action: From Greenwire: "At 29, Epstein is an unlikely figure to head a Washington nonprofit, with a résumé made up of internships, a stint at the conservative Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and three years on the House oversight panel both when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was the ranking member and when he became chairman last year.
Cause of Action chooses cases that tell a "captivating story," Epstein said. That strategy is exemplified in the group's decision to become involved in the controversy over whether the Interior Department should allow a California oyster farm to continue operating in a potential wilderness area."
Susan Gentleman
Susan Gentleman Subscriber
Dec 04, 2012 09:54 AM
To me, as a biologist and someone who has enjoyed the Point Reyes oysters, it is unbelievable that this essentially sustainable operation is closed down but cattle ranches are not. Is there a major cognitive dissonance going on here or not? I think there is and that it says little for ouyr basic understanding of big pictures.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Dec 04, 2012 09:56 AM
Our intern Emily Guerin wrote a bit about why the cattle get to stay -- basically, it's because the presence of oysters keeps the estuary from being able to be wilderness, but the presence of cows, which are on the land, not in the water, does not affect the marine wilderness. Her blog is here: https://www.hcn.org/blogs/g[…]-agriculture-in-point-reyes

Stephanie P Ogburn, online editor
Gary Nabhan
Gary Nabhan
Dec 04, 2012 03:25 PM
Is Susan Ives's innuendo suggesting that because someone on the right might support the Lunnys that their entire struggle is suspect and their motives are dubious? Well Susan, if you want, I can give you names of former Mother Jones editors, beat Poets, Wobblies, Hippie Ranchers, Conservation Biologists, Conservation Foundation Directors, Immigration Rights Activists, Food Justice Philanthropists and Conscientious Objectors who are distressed at what has happened at Drakes Bay, not just to the Lunnys and Hispanic workers, but to science, level playing fields, Congressional mandates, and other issues. I am not implying that this is not an extremely complex, difficult set of issues fraught with contradictions; I respect your right not to agree with me and to think Wilderness should be the only show in town. But do not pretend that all thoughtful liberals and conservationists are on your side...That is bunk. High Country News has tried to bring together people of all parties, persuasions and classes for decades and its readers deserve to hear your vision as to how to mend fences and communities, rather than any more guilt by association...