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Oyster farm battle

Permit renewal dispute pits commercial cultivation operation in Drakes Estero against wilderness advocates and National Park Service

Drakes Bay Oyster Company employees Lorenzo Hernandez, left, Francisco Lopez, Francisco Manzo and Rogelio Camacho remove Pacific oysters from a rack in Drakes Estero and load them onto a barge on Thursday morning, June 14, 2012.

Christopher Chung / PD
Published: Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 11:37 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 11:37 a.m.

An early morning breeze ripples the surface of Drakes Estero, the silence broken by the outboard motor on a weatherbeaten work boat heading south to harvest oysters.

Facts

OYSTER FARMING ON DRAKES ESTERO

1930s: Commercial oyster farming begins in Drakes Estero.
1962: Point Reyes National Seashore is established by President John F. Kennedy, preserving it from development.
1976: Congress designates 33,000 acres, including Drakes Estero, as wilderness.
1998: National Park Service endorses former owner Charlie Johnson's plan to redevelop the oyster farm.
2004: Lunny family negotiates purchase of farm from Johnson; Park Service official asserts that farm must be removed.
2009: Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legislation gives Secretary of Interior sole discretion to renew oyster farm's permit for 10 years.
Nov. 30: Oyster farm permit to expire.

Three men wearing rubber waders step onto a sandbar, knee-deep in the estuary's cold, clear water, and hoist bags full of the prized mollusks onto a 30-foot barge lashed to the boat.

"This is sustainable agriculture," said Ginny Cummings, seated on the work boat's gunwale. "A perfect example of coexistence."

But in almost her next breath, Cummings, who grew up with her three brothers on a ranch overlooking the estero, acknowledged how fiercely some people believe otherwise.

"We're talking about two different ideologies," she said.

The 2,500-acre estero, a five-fingered estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore on the Marin County coast, is an anomaly.

It is a maritime cornucopia that yields about 8 million commercially cultivated Pacific oysters a year. And it is a designated wilderness, defined by Congress as a place "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Oyster farming in the estero dates back to the 1930s, but the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., operated by Cummings and her brothers, depends on a permit granted by the federal government 40 years ago when it bought the property from a previous owner.

The permit expires Nov. 30, and for the past five years, a maelstrom of politics, disputed science and conflicting principles — pure wilderness versus productive use of natural resources — has swirled around the estero and the oyster farm located near its northern end, just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

The dispute is headed for resolution this fall by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who holds sole authority to decide whether the oyster company's permit is renewed for 10 years.

There is little, if any, room for compromise. The dispute pits wilderness advocates and the National Park Service against the oyster farm, sympathetic Marin ranchers and their ally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, one of the most powerful members of Congress.

Wilderness advocates want the farm, which harvests $1.5 million worth of oysters a year, shut down and its presence, including shoreline buildings and wooden oyster growing racks in the estero, removed.

"There are appropriate places to grow clams and oysters," said Amy Trainer, executive director of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee, a 41-year-old nonprofit group based in Point Reyes Station, 10 miles from the oyster farm. "A national park is not the right place."

It's a matter of principle, said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association, a national watchdog on parks policy.

"We were promised a marine wilderness," Desai said. "The public has waited for 40 years. Now it's time for a higher and better use for the estero."

Sylvia Earle, a world renowned oceanographer based in Oakland, said the estero — teeming with fish, birds and harbor seals — should be free of those who "derive financial gain at the expense of a national treasure," she wrote in a Huffington Post column in March.

Kevin Lunny, who runs the family-owned oyster farm, said the estero is an incomparable ecosystem that benefits from shellfish cultivation. The farm, which employs about 35 people, boosts the local economy and helps the nation deal with a $10 billion a year seafood trade deficit.

"We've always been open to compromise," Lunny said, but his opponents "haven't moved off the dime at all."

Nearly all — 92 percent — of the more than 52,000 public comments on the National Park Service's draft environmental report last year favored full wilderness protection for the estero, Earle said.

A final version of the 2-inch-thick report is due out before the oyster farm's permit expires, but it's unclear when Salazar might make a decision. National Park Service officials in Washington did not respond to repeated telephone calls and e-mails regarding Salazar's action.

The 500-page environmental report released by the Park Service in September did not identify a "preferred alternative" regarding the oyster farm permit. But it said the "environmentally preferred alternative" would be to deny the permit renewal, protecting the estero from motorboats, oyster racks and other impacts.

The final report will include a preferred alternative.

Feinstein, a San Francisco resident, weighed in five years ago at the request of Marin County supervisors, and now asserts that the Park Service has "stained its reputation" with faulty science regarding the oyster company's impact on the estero.

In a letter to the state Fish and Game Commission in May, Feinstein cited four instances in which the Park Service's scientific assessments were faulted and said "it is my belief that the Park Service is doing everything it can to justify ending the oyster farm's operations."

Feinstein's legislation in 2009, an amendment to a Department of Interior appropriations bill, gave Salazar the sole discretion to renew Drakes Bay Oyster Company's permit for 10 years. If he does not, the farm must cease operation, its opponents say.

The Marin County Board of Supervisors, on a 3-2 vote in 2009, backed Feinstein's action, also supported by the county's Farm Bureau.

Supervisor Steve Kinsey, whose district covers West Marin, said the Lunny oyster farm is "a substantial part of aquaculture in California."

"I don't believe this undermines the Wilderness Act," Kinsey said, asserting that scientific evidence shows the farm causes "no significant impacts" to the estero.

Supervisor Susan Adams, who voted against Feinstein's amendment, said she would support a renewed permit, preferably for less than 10 years and allowing no expansion of the operation.

Adams said she's concerned, however, that a renewal might set a precedent for commercial operations in other national parks.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who supported Feinstein's bill, is not taking a position on the permit. "It's time now to let Secretary Salazar make his decision," she said.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose district includes Point Reyes and is Woolsey's likely successor, also expressed neutrality.

"We've got to let this run and see what develops," Huffman said. "There are people of good will on both sides."

The estero itself illustrates the conflict.

Thick, green eelgrass blankets much of the shallow estuary's bottom, forming the base of a food chain that supports tiny invertebrates, fish, migrating birds, bat rays, leopard sharks and one of California's largest harbor seal colonies.

For centuries before and after Sir Francis Drake is believed to have landed there in 1579, Coast Miwok Indians feasted on shellfish — including Olympic oysters, the area's native species — harvested from the estero and from Tomales Bay on the other side of the Point Reyes peninsula.

The national seashore was established by in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, preserving it from development. In 1976, when 33,000 acres were designated as wilderness, the estero was included as "potential wilderness," eligible for full wilderness status only when the oyster farm was eliminated.

But the dun and green bluffs surrounding the estero are anything but wild. The windblown grasslands are grazed to the water's edge by beef and dairy cattle on ranches within Point Reyes seashore's 28,000 acres of "pastoral lands," where agriculture is allowed.

Ginny Cummings and her brothers, Kevin, Joe and Bob Lunny, grew up on the family's 1,100-acre ranch overlooking the estero, where oysters have been commercially harvested since the 1930s.

Cummings remembers catching leopard sharks, which her mother made into cioppino. Kevin remembers marveling at the oyster farm run by the late Charlie Johnson, hauling thousands of oysters at a time from the estero.

"An awesome food source," Lunny said.

Every week, the farm trucks oysters to restaurants and grocery stores, mostly in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, arriving 24 hours after they've been pulled from the estero's 51-degree water.

The farm, which includes an oyster cannery, produces 38 percent of California's oysters, Lunny said. The cultivation process starts with minute oyster larvae, sprinkled 7 million at a time into planting tanks, with water pumped from the estero and heated to 74 degrees.

The non-native Pacific oysters grow quickly in the chilly estero in 13 to 18 months, and fewer than 1 percent of the larvae make it to market.

In the 1950s, Johnson installed the network of 100 racks, made with treated lumber and standing 6 feet tall, in clusters scattered around the estero. Placed in a straight line, the racks would stretch for five miles.

At low tide, workers step onto the slippery tops of the racks to pull up oysters attached to metal wires suspended in the estero's waters, rich in the microorganisms consumed by filter-feeding oysters.

Oysters also mature in heavy-duty black plastic mesh bags, which rest on the estero's sandbars.

Lunny said he can appreciate the question of why, given the 2012 expiration date for Johnson's permit from the Park Service, he bought the company in 2004.

Johnson's farm included the same two dilapidated shacks and wooden pier by the water's edge that Lunny continues to operate. Lunny said he believed that if he could revive the operation, the Park Service would renew the permits.

In retrospect, "that was a bad assumption," he said.

But Lunny noted, among the reams of documents relating to the permit dispute, a Park Service endorsement in 1998 of Johnson's plan to clear the oyster farm site and replace the old buildings with a new facility.

The redevelopment would have no "significant impact upon the environment," said a Park Service report dated Aug. 11, 1998.

Lunny took over the farm in January 2005, and spent $300,000 cleaning up and installing a new septic system, he said.

However, Park Service solicitor Ralph Mihan had written a letter in February 2004 asserting that the Park Service was legally obligated to "actively seek to remove" the oyster farm and allow the estero to become wilderness.

Park Service officials concluded they had no authority to extend or renew the permit, originally granted to Johnson when he sold his property to the government in 1972.

Lunny said the Park Service "flipped" between 1998 and 2004, and he doesn't know why. The environmental report notes that aside from the septic system, none of the redevelopment plan was implemented. It also says that Park Service management policies "have been revised" since 1998.

Feinstein said the Park Service has "repeatedly misrepresented" science since 2006 "to portray the farm as environmentally harmful."

For example, she cited a National Academy of Sciences finding in 2009 that the Park Service had "exaggerated the negative and overlooked potentially beneficial effects of the oyster culture operation."

Trainer and Desai, the wilderness advocates, contend that law trumps the disputed science over the oyster farm's impact.

A report by the Environmental Law Society at UC Berkeley's School of Law in December found that an oyster farm "does not resonate" with any established exception for commercial activity in a wilderness area designated by Congress.

The report also concluded that an area like the estero is "on a one-way journey to becoming full wilderness" and that commercial uses "must be phased out when practicable — not extended or expanded."

Granting a new permit for the oyster farm "would be an unprecedented act," the law students said.

Despite the threat to her family's business, Ginny Cummings said she remains thankful that Point Reyes was shielded from development 50 years ago. "Our grandfathers' generation saved the land," she said.

The beauty of the protected peninsula, home to tule elk herds, pristine beaches and visited by more than 2.3 million people a year, still brings tears to her eyes, Cummings said.

Her family's work there hinges on a decision they cannot control. "Our lives are in limbo," Cummings said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovnerat 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)

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