Wilderness trumps sustainable agriculture in Point Reyes


An epic battle over the future of an oyster farm in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore ended last Friday when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rejected a request to extend the oyster company’s lease.

Salazar’s decision effectively evicts the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, which has operated the farm since 2004, and turns the 2,700-acre Drakes Estero into the first federally designated marine wilderness area on the West Coast. The company, operated by local rancher Kevin Lunny, has 90 days to clear out of the site, and cannot continue to grow oysters after Nov. 30, the day the lease expired.

“It’s disbelief and excruciating sorrow,” Lunny told the San Francisco Chronicle after Salazar called him to tell him of the decision. “There are 30 people, all in tears this morning, who are going to lose their jobs and their homes. They are experts in seafood handling and processing in the last oyster cannery in California, and there is nowhere for them to go.”

The estuary has been home to oyster cultivation since the 1930s and continued even after the National Park Service turned the bay and surrounding headlands into Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 to protect the area from development. Ten years later, the NPS purchased additional land in Drakes Estero from the Johnson Oyster Company and gave it a 40-year lease term. When the lease was up on Nov. 30, 2012, the estuary, which Congress designated as “potential wilderness” in 1976, would become full wilderness.

But new owner Lunny, who bought the farm knowing its lease was set to expire eight years later, thought he could petition the NPS to extend his lease. He enlisted the help of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who added a rider to an Interior Department appropriations bill that would task Salazar with the decision to extend the lease for another 10 years.

To help Salazar with his decision, NPS began writing a draft environmental impact statement for the oyster farm. In 2009 an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences found park service scientists had exaggerated the oyster farm’s impact on the environment. But ultimately, neither the controversy nor results of the EIS appeared to have much impact on Salazar’s decision not to renew the lease. The draft and final EIS, he wrote, “are not material to the legal and policy factors that provide the central basis for my decision,” although he said they informed him.

In making up his mind, the secretary appeared to place the most weight on Congress’ intentions in declaring the estuary a “potential wilderness,” noting the oyster farm is the only thing standing in the way of a full wilderness designation. Despite shutting down the oyster operation, Salazar reaffirmed his support for Point Reyes’ cattle ranches, which were grandfathered into the park when it was created and do not affect the estuary's wilderness designation.

The long-running fight pitted traditional allies against each other, as wilderness advocates duked it out with locavores who maintained Drake’s Bay, which grows 40 percent of California’s oysters, was a source of sustainable seafood and an important player in the local economy.

Linda Petersen, the publisher and managing editor of the West Marin Citizen, has been in both camps.  After moving to the area seven years ago and taking over the local paper, Petersen said her thinking on the issue changed. Initially she considered herself in the pro-wilderness camp, but after researching countless stories on the conflict, she found herself siding more with the Lunnys, who she described as running a non-polluting, successful business within a national park. Since Salazar’s decision last Friday, Petersen has gotten an earful from area residents, many of whom viewed the 10-year lease extension as a good compromise. “The feeling was that 10 years makes very little difference with the wilderness status,” she said. “The community is quite shocked over the decision.”

Since then, supporters of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company have created a petition encouraging President Obama to overturn Salazar’s decision. Supporters have been flocking to the company to offer hugs to employees or place a final order for oysters, and the company is encouraging them to write letters to the Interior Department.

"We expected a different decision,” Lunny told The Associated Press. “We really thought that there was a right and a wrong here, and we expected the secretary to make the right decision.”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of oyster in Point Reyes National Seashore courtesy Flickr user jillmotts.

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