NorCal oyster farm dispute spreads to Capitol Hill

December 10, 2011 - 11:35 AM

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE, Calif. (AP) — A creaky wooden scow piled high with gnarled oysters slides over the water toward wooden racks hung with rows of the shellfish on Drakes Estero, a stunning estuary teeming with marine and bird life.

Then oystermen in green waders haul up 100-pound strings of the bivalves for Drakes Bay Oyster Co. — a chore that annually yields almost 40 percent of the California's commercial crop.

The oyster farming has endured here for more than 70 years in what is now Point Reyes National Seashore. But swirling around these peaceful waters about 50 miles north of San Francisco is a tumultuous and costly debate over whether the federal government should renew the farm's lease next year or convert the estuary to untouchable wilderness.

The rancor has reverberated all the way to Washington. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the National Academy of Sciences have charged that the National Parks Service is attempting to oust the oyster company by exaggerating its negative impacts. The park service and environmentalists say boats and other equipment used by the oyster farm are harming harbor seals and native grasses, as well as fostering non-native species.

To help Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reach his decision, the government has spent well over $1 million on research, according to records and interviews. A draft environmental impact statement released by the National Park Service in September alone cost more than $600,000, not counting staff time and other costs.

Much of the furor began in 2007, when a park service pamphlet outlined research critical of the oyster farm's effects on local harbor seals, which use the estuary to pup. And the agency made clear it did not plan to renew the farm's lease.

But scrutiny of the research unearthed errors and omissions that critics say showed the park officials had an agenda of getting rid of the oyster farm.

"It should have been reviewed better and errors were made, and that's the source of why people think we were out to get them," said Melanie Gunn, the park service outreach coordinator for the oyster farm project. "We're having a difficult time getting people past that page of the story."

Kevin Lunny, who bought the oyster company in 2004, knew that the lease would expire in 2012, but his lawyers nonetheless felt an extension could be negotiated. Lunny, whose family has owned a cattle ranch overlooking the estuary since 1947, said other families in Point Reyes — where 15 cattle ranches are allowed within the park — are anxiously watching his case.

"Most of the ranchers feel pretty threatened ... so if this one goes first, they feel it's the first domino," said Lunny, sitting at a picnic table near the creaky wooden shack where park-goers can buy fresh oysters.

Some observers see a David versus Goliath struggle, with a federal agency and moneyed environmental groups picking on a family-run business.

But the Lunnys are not alone. The farm is backed by some powerful supporters, chief among them Feinstein, who has called the company an important piece of the rural area's economy.

When park service lawyers determined the agency did not have legal grounds to issue a new permit, Feinstein authored 2009 legislation allowing the interior secretary to issue 10-year permits.

Then the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 released a report detailing the park service's scientific errors, prompting an investigation by the Interior Department Solicitor's Office into possible criminal wrongdoing.

In March, the solicitor found no criminal wrongdoing but concluded that park scientists "mishandled research" and made mistakes that "eroded public confidence." The park service later worked to correct its mistakes through a new report. However, it reached the same conclusion as the disputed study, namely that the harbor seals would benefit from removal of the oyster farm.

The environmental assessment in September concluded that the "environmentally preferable alternative" would be to allow the lease to expire. The report said extending the lease by 10 years would have "moderate adverse impacts" on the seals, which are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Feinstein criticized this latest assessment, saying the park service ignored the National Academy of Sciences findings that "there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effect."

And in October Congress got involved, with the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., requesting hundreds of documents and testimony from park officials.

Environmental groups say Feinstein and the Lunnys want to break a decades-old deal with the park service that allowed the farm only to exist until 2012.

"The public has waited nearly four decades for rare marine wilderness protections to be implemented there— an immense compromise in itself," said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Oysters can be commercially grown elsewhere, but Drakes Estero is irreplaceable."

While it does impact the environment, Lunny's practices are considered at the forefront of the so-called "locavore" movement, which prizes sustainable farming practices and locally grown food. Lunny only sells his oysters nearby — to restaurants in San Francisco, Napa and Marin County — in keeping with this ethos, and some say the operation should be allowed to continue and serve as an example of how to do shellfish farming right.

Some in the community are backing a compromise proposal that would renew the lease for 10 years, but require the farm to work collaboratively with the park service to decrease any impacts and increase the farm's sustainable practices.

Jeff Creque, an agroecologist for McEvoy Ranch, a certified organic olive farm and vineyard nearby, backs this proposal and says in denying the new permit when the science is clearly disputed means a compromise is the best outcome.

"If there are impacts, then let's look at it and get real about this and make it work in a way we can all be proud of," Creque said.