It's Not Just About the Oysters
California Lawyer

It's Not Just About the Oysters

Legal battles between an oyster company and the park service break the peace at Point Reyes National Seashore.

March 2014

Photo by Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora Open/Corbis

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In the dramatic landscape of western Marin County, majestic tule elk graze near cattle amid dense, wafting fog. Lush pastures, dotted with occasional ranch houses - some inhabited, some abandoned - roll on for miles before dropping sharply to the ocean. And tourists who flock to the village of Point Reyes Station brush shoulders with ranch hands buying supplies at Toby's Feed Barn one minute and browse for pricey art or prize-winning local organic cheeses the next.

West Marin's landscape of contrasts - social and economic, as well as natural - is shaped largely by an unconventional deal struck with the federal government in 1962 as it was establishing Point Reyes National Seashore. Under the deal - the first of a handful that now permit agriculture in selected national parks - about two dozen active ranches on Point Reyes dating to the 1850s were sold to the government, but the ranchers were allowed to stay in business by renting back the land at very low rates.

That bargain has succeeded for more than four decades. In the early days, it helped to preserve the local economy, stave off sprawling planned commercial and residential development, and beat back an interstate highway planned to cut through rugged Lucas Valley and across another 20 miles of ranchland. As highly restrictive zoning took hold and the delicate relationship between ranchers and the park matured, the deal allowed organic agriculture to develop even as nearby real estate prices soared. Less than an hour's drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, West Marin is now home to rock stars and CEOs; retirees, artists, and marketing executives; a newspaper heiress turned olive oil magnate; and more than a few environmental pioneers.

But the balance in West Marin is now threatened as locals debate the fate of an oyster farm on the southern shore of Point Reyes. In November 2012, after a brief visit, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar opted not to renew the 40-year lease of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, exercising the discretion he had over all federal leases in national parks. Unlike the cattle and dairy ranches in the park, which occupy a pastoral zone that specifically allows farming, he said the oyster company was operating in waters designated as "potential wilderness" under the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act. (See Pub. L. Nos. 94-544, 94-567.)

Instead of closing the business, owner Kevin Lunny - who with his siblings took it over in 2004 from Johnson Oyster Company - fought back, seeking an injunction to let him stay open while he pursues a federal lawsuit claiming that Salazar abused his discretion and acted on incorrect information. Federal District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers denied the request, affirming Salazar's discretion and ordering Lunny to shut down in February 2013. Gonzalez Rogers ruled that Salazar had the right to make final decisions on park leases. Even if she had jurisdiction over those decisions, she wrote, Lunny had failed to show the four elements necessary to win an injunction. Those were that his underlying case had merit, that he would suffer irreparable harm without an injunction, that fairness "tips" toward him, and that an injunction would be in the public interest. (Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Salazar, 921 F. Supp. 2d 972 (N.D. Cal. 2013).)

Lunny won an emergency stay and appealed. After a three-member panel of the Ninth Circuit also denied him an injunction, he sought an en banc rehearing, hoping the lone Ninth Circuit judge who said his case should be heard - Paul J. Watford - could persuade more colleagues. That effort failed in January. (Drakes Bay Oyster Co. v. Jewell, 2014 WL 114699 (9th Cir.).) Now, Lunny is operating under a new 90-day emergency stay while he works on petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court.

The business produces somewhere around 7 million oysters a year, sold primarily to Bay Area restaurants. That's a little more than 3 percent of the oysters grown on the West Coast, and it's about eight times the volume the operation had at the start of the lease in 1972.

With each new chapter in the story, locals have grown angrier and wearier. Point Reyes Light editor Tess Elliott says the community increasingly sees the case as a fight about its future, as she wrote in a column about the struggles ranchers face: "The National Park Service could be on the brink of destroying the heart of Point Reyes - the peninsula's unique weaving of wilderness and agriculture."

It used to be that challenges to local businesses or the environment - whether about salmon protection or construction in wetlands or any number of issues - ended with agreements reached or at least truces called. This time, new rips have opened in the local fabric each time residents allied with opposite sides have run into each other at court. Lots of big names have been drawn in: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein accused the park service of treating Lunny in a "biased and unfair manner," even before Salazar terminated the lease. Chef Alice Waters joined an amicus brief filed with the Ninth Circuit by a long list of Bay Area businesses and organizations prominent in the organic and local food movements; they argued that the oyster farm operates in the public interest.

The saga took its sharpest turn when the anti-big government group Cause of Action got involved on Lunny's side. Its tactics and positions quickly became a public relations problem in a county where 74 percent of voters supported Barack Obama in the last election. Cause of Action is led by Dan Epstein, formerly a lawyer with billionaire Charles G. Koch's foundation, which advocates for limited government and free-market economics. The group first approached Lunny after hearing claims that the Department of the Interior had misrepresented scientific findings in a report on the oyster farm's environmental impacts. Amber D. Abbassi, one of the Cause of Action lawyers who represented the oyster farm, filed a petition claiming the park's environmental review was "inaccurate, non-transparent, and deliberately misleading."

Accepting Cause of Action's help seemed sensible to Lunny at first, since it was free. But he ended the relationship soon after PBS NewsHour aired a segment in May 2013 that mentioned the group's involvement. Lunny says his frustration was less about bad PR than the fact that Cause of Action had used his name in publicizing unrelated issues and in arguing for a newspaper to reveal unnamed sources who criticized the oyster farm in a story. But the group's involvement cemented Drakes Bay's position in the center of larger national debates over conservation, management of all types of federal land, and the limits of federal authority. It also made clear how important a precedent Lunny's case could set.

Lunny's current legal team, also pro bono, is led by Briscoe Ivester & Bazel partner Peter Prows. The six lawyers come from three land-use firms: SSL Law Firm and Briscoe Ivester in San Francisco, as well as the Stoel Rives office in San Diego. The team was built on personal connections. Prows and partner John Briscoe, for example, got involved after Nossaman partner William T. Bagley, a former Republican state assemblyman from San Rafael, suggested to Briscoe over lunch that he meet with Lunny. Community fund-raisers for the oyster company's defense have continued, with the money going toward experts, research, filing fees, and representing Lunny in other related actions, Lunny says.

Signs reading "Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm" hang from gas station rafters and on fences along Highway 1, the area's north-south artery. Some ranchers fear that a loss for the oyster company would bring them one step closer to losing their own parkland leases, especially right along Drakes Estero, the estuary off Drakes Bay that hosts Lunny's oyster business. Already the drought is adding pressure for some ranchers when their cattle meet increasing herds of native elk in depleted pastures. And the invective continues, often among people who would be allied in almost any other political dispute.

"The park has decided it wants this oyster farm out because what it really wants is to get rid of all the agriculture," says Phyllis Faber, who started the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in 1980 with Ellen Straus, the late matriarch of the organic Straus Family Creamery.

That's just "spreading false statements," counters Amy Trainer, an attorney who leads the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. Former executive director of the Orient Land Trust in Colorado and, before that, a staff attorney at Friends of the San Juans in Washington state, Trainer has engaged in plenty of battles over environmental protection. She claims some ranchers never saw letters they supposedly signed in support of Lunny. And she notes that, while competition in the beef and dairy industries poses significant challenges, the Point Reyes ranchers receive large government subsidies - not least of which are their cut-rate leases.

The park service has repeatedly expressed support for agriculture in the pastoral zone. And in 2012, Salazar directed the park service to reassure ranchers by offering to lengthen their lease extensions from 10 to 20 years. In contrast, Salazar argued that Lunny knew when he agreed to buy the oyster operation that its land lease would expire in eight years.

"It's fundamentally very simple," says Trainer. "It's a contract issue."

Thanks to Feinstein, a 2009 appropriations bill authorized Salazar to extend Lunny's permits for ten years. (See Pub. L. No. 111-88 at § 124.) But Salazar chose not to, writing that the oyster business was the only use "preventing the conversion of Drakes Estero to designated wilderness" as envisioned by the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976.

Public records at least as far back as 2003 indicate that park officials never planned to renew the oyster lease. One memo, written in February 2004 by the Interior Department's San Francisco field office, concluded that "the park service is mandated ... to convert potential wilderness, i.e., the Johnson Oyster Company tract and the adjoining Estero, to wilderness status as soon as the nonconforming use can be eliminated." Lunny says the park superintendent at the time - Don L. Neubacher, whom he'd known for years - at first advised him not to buy the business but then "called me back the next day and made clear he would be happy if we took over." Yet in March 2005, Neubacher explicitly wrote to Lunny that "no new permits will be issued" after the oyster farm's lease ended. Lunny had already started running the business and sunk money into fixing it up, but escrow was still open and he could have gotten out of the deal. The park service and Neubacher - now superintendent at Yosemite National Park - have declined all comment on the dispute. Lunny's supporters claim in their Ninth Circuit brief that the park service's approach to conservation is "archaic" and reflects outmoded methods.

Attorney Prows says questions of an agency's discretion and what decisions a court can review are of enough national importance to merit a U.S. Supreme Court hearing. A former clerk for the International Court of Justice at The Hague and then in London for an international arbitrator, Prows wasn't involved in environmental law until he helped represent the Micronesian island of Palau at the United Nations on matters concerning climate change and over-fishing. That work helped get him his current job.

Prows and Briscoe argue that Salazar misinterpreted the Wilderness Act, which Prows says expressly allows for nonconforming uses; and that, they say, constitutes an abuse of discretion. Prows also insists the land originally was designated only as "potential" wilderness because the state of California retains mineral rights in the estuary. Lunny pays the state about $20,000 annually to use the water bottoms under a lease that runs until 2029. Oyster farm supporters seized upon those points to pressure the state to assert its rights. Says Lunny: "If the state thought our leases weren't valid, they wouldn't be accepting our money." But California's Department of Fish and Game, which administers the lease, said in 2008 that the arrangement was contingent on the feds renewing their permission.

The oddest part about the whole debate is that so far no federal court has evaluated the scientific and environmental questions about the oyster company's impact - except to the extent judges have found Lunny unlikely to prove his case that Salazar should have weighed the impact in exercising his discretion. Prows claims Salazar needed good reason not to renew Lunny's permit and could surely have offered legitimate evidence. "But he wrote what he wrote, and in our system public officials are held accountable for what they actually do, not what they might have done."

Prows can't wait to argue that the government's decision and other actions were "extraordinarily abusive." But first, he'll have to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that Lunny's case has merits that lower courts didn't see - and that closing the oyster operation in the meanwhile would be prohibitively harmful.

Legal actions now behind Lunny include a complaint he filed in May 2012 under the National Environmental Policy Act concerning the park service's draft environmental impact statement. The Interior Department rejected the complaint, saying: "We found no evidence, documents, DEIS revisions, or witnesses that supported the complainant's allegations." The department also dismissed an Information Quality complaint Lunny later filed making similar allegations; it said "the information challenged in your complaint has not been used and will not be used in a decision-making process." This month, Lunny faces a hearing in Marin County Superior Court on new constraints the California Coastal Commission imposed in 2013 and related claims Lunny filed this January.

Drakes Bay Oyster Company employs about two dozen people in six small, weather-beaten buildings. They work long hours and receive no health benefits, and many live in trailers on the property. They motor back and forth to the racks of metal nets that hold oysters in various stages of growth in the cold water where the estuary meets the bay. Visiting customers mill around picnic tables next to giant piles of discarded shells, grilling oysters or eating them raw.

Above the oyster operation is the beef ranch where Lunny, 56, grew up and where he now lives with his wife and children. His parents have managed the ranch under leases that began before he was born. He and his sister Ginny Lunny-Cummings run the oyster company, and with his brothers he owns an earthworks and grading company in Nicasio, about 20 miles inland. When Lunny bought the oyster business, he says, his plan was to come out even by 2012, after recouping the $700,000 he spent on cleaning up and improving the property. "There was no controversy at the time," he says, and he thought he'd have a "good shot" at getting the lease renewed. Lunny says the operation first turned a profit in 2012, right on schedule, and his gross receipts are about $1.5 million a year, which provides his family a small income, after expenses.

"Lunny had a very good leasing deal," says Neal Desai, field director at the National Parks Conservation Association in San Francisco, a vocal critic who says the land should now be protected as taxpayers have paid and planned for. "He got everything agreed to and more out of the arrangement. The people of the U.S. are still waiting for their end of the deal to be fulfilled."

But John Finger, who owns Hog Island Oyster Company in nearby Tomales Bay, says it's unlikely Lunny's getting rich off oysters. Finger says he always made enough to live on oystering but didn't become highly successful until he opened his own restaurant. "It's a tough business to make money in," he says, adding that most of the profitable West Coast oyster operations are in Washington.

Before the current altercations began, the park service touted the Lunnys' organic beef ranching. Kevin Lunny appeared in a National Park Service brochure called "Stewardship Begins With People" (his name and photo are gone now). His oyster farm first drew wide attention in 2007, after then-superintendent Neubacher complained to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey that noise from the operation was criminally harming seals. The Board of Supervisors held a hearing and then asked Feinstein for help. Kinsey also sought the advice of Corey Goodman, a member of the California Council on Science and Technology, a state policy advisory board that he now chairs.

Goodman, a biotech entrepreneur who lives on a ranch near Point Reyes, also was the founding chairman of the nonprofit that owns the Point Reyes Light, and he has been a neuroscience professor at both UC Berkeley and Stanford. He soon became the park service's loudest critic: Not only were its environmental impact statements wrong, he says, they were deliberately misleading. In place of measuring sounds generated by Lunny's oyster craft, the reports used noise levels measured from police motorboats, Goodman says. He also argued that the park service implied that measurements of oyster feces taken in Japan in the 1950s were made recently in Drakes Bay. (He made these points with Lunny in the complaints filed with the Department of the Interior in 2012.) Federal officials did eventually concede that one 2007 report, "Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary," mischaracterized how the oyster operation affected nearby sediment deposits and fish populations.

And the debate continues. Swing by the bakery, the book store, the coffee cart, or even the Palace Market in Point Reyes Station, and you're bound to overhear comments about the impacts of oyster boats on eelgrass, the relationship between seals and aquaculture, or the appropriate limits of federal oversight. As might occur in any small, tight-knit community, everyone here has become an expert about the biggest local controversy. Somewhat more unusual is an idea to bring residents from across the area into mediation. Until that happens, there's plenty of room for disagreement, so why not join in?

Heading north from San Francisco along the coast, you'll eventually reach an intersection just before Point Reyes Station, with an informal baseball diamond and a wooden sign advertising Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Note the word "Open" pasted across it. Head into town to join the conversation. Or, if you just want a taste, go west along Tomales Bay, pass the hamlet of Inverness and, halfway out the point, turn left down the narrow dirt road to the estuary any day of the week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For now.

Kelly O'Mara is a San Francisco Bay Area writer.

Reader Comments

Louise Gregg - March 4, 2014
I have lived in West Marin for 71 years. My Father was the first Director of the Marin Conservation League. He was serving during the years that included stoping loging on Bolinas Ridge, the Point Reyes National Seashhore was established, the agriculural zoning was strengthened to create Open Space. All the people that worked against Big Development and Big Capitalism were Giving Back to Nature. That is what my dad said "I have recieved so much from Nature in my life I want to give Nature 10 years and he did. After retireing from M.C.L. he worked for Trust for Public Land. That is what it is all about. Suporting and protecting not exploiting. The Environmental Laws NEPA and CEQA are also protecting our Historic and Archiolgogical resources. The people of West Marin who live in protected Historic townes like Point Reyes and Tomales I hope understand that all this open space and the Grace of Historic villages are still in tact because of Grass Roots Politics that was hard won by volunteers that really did not want this place to go to the commercial developers. There is somthing more important that Power and Money. Peace and respecting Nature.
Gordon Bennett - March 4, 2014
One significant piece missing from this article is the precedent intended for private use (read drilling and mining interests) of public lands, especially NPS Wilderness that has the highest level of protection. The author mentions "how important a precedent Lunny's case could set." But then she never defines what that important precedent is and instead only provides a one phrase generality about "larger national debates over conservation, management of all types of federal land, and the limits of federal authority." Thus, the reader is left with the impression that Mr. Lunny took on the Koch-Brothers-backed Cause of Action simply because of their "free" legal services rather than because from the Koch perspective, the oysters were seen as a seemingly benign wedge issue to drive drilling and mining on public land. So these interests jumped on board the oyster boat until their participation backfired and proved the point of the Wilderness defenders. Further, if (as the title says) "it's not just about oysters"), then it's also not about ranching in Point Reyes National Seashore, yet that falsehood gets prominent (albeit rebutted) space in the article, while what the oyster issue is really about (drilling and mining on public land) gets no mention at all except for the one-phrase generality. Lastly, this debate also not about science, although that red-herring also gets prominent (and un-rebutted) print space. Every private company making a case for commercial use of public lands claims to be "environmentally sensitive" based on good science. Such claims should be a necessary and testable criteria for use of BLM lands, for example. But such science-based impacts, whether positive or negative, are totally irrelevant to lands put aside as Congressionally-designated National Park Wilderness. These lands are small but important areas that by law and by NPS policy have been set aside as natural sanctuaries that prohibit commercial uses, motors and permanent structures regardless of their scientific credentials. Of the lower 48 states, 98% are either built-upon or are working landscapes...both of which need tremendous work to make more sustainable. Those trying to push commercial activity into the remaining 2% set aside for Wilderness are setting the precedent for exploitation. The Koch Brothers and their colleagues certainly saw this opportunity to push their extractive agenda in the oyster case, but seemingly the author of this article did not.
Steven Maviglio - March 4, 2014
Sadly, the writer of this article fell into the tired (and proven untrue) frame of David vs. Goliath, which the Santa Rosa Press Democrat rightly called "baloney." To quote the paper's editorial supporting the National Park Service: "This is becoming a parody of modern politics. Don’t be fooled by those who want to make this issue into something more than it is. This is not about the federal government being heavy-handed. It’s about federal authorities keeping a 40-year-old promise to create the first marine wilderness on the West Coast. It’s about time — time finally running out for a company that knew it was on the clock but now wants to pretend otherwise. It’s time to move on." It's fascinating to note that this corporation has boosted its sales significant -- yet provides no health care benefits to its workers. Also interesting is the author portrays the involvement of the Koch Brothers in this fight as a "public relations" problem. This "problem" occured after this right-wing legal organization provided millions of dollars of free legal work for the Lunny's. Oh -- and those signs about saving the oyster farm? They're Astroturf, not homemade but manufactured en masse by the special interests behind wanting to rob Californians of the wilderness that this special part of our state was meant to be.
Yannick Phillips - March 8, 2014
In response to Steven Maviglio's comment and lie: The signs are Individually HAND PAINTED by supporters-which includes myself. I came up with the idea for creating signs after I realized the TREMENDOUS support for the farm in Marin, Sonoma County and beyond. A local artist came up with the design of the sun and waves which has now become the beautiful symbol for supporting the farm-hundreds of signs have been painted and distributed. Some of the signs have been painted even by children. If we could attach photos I would link numerous photos, but if you go to the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm Facebook page, you will be able to scan for signs in the FB thread and see that the signs are FAR from Astroturf signs. As a former supporter of the Sierra Club and a longtime fierce environmentalist and Democrat, I am so saddened by the lies and false framing that fellow environmentalists like Gordon Bennett (and 'reporters' like Steven) have painted. This issue has ALL- Partisan support and they all know it; their false painting of the situation is the true Astroturf in this unfortunate scenario for our Pt. Reyes community.
Robin Carpenter - March 8, 2014
Steve Maviglio, all of those signs are homemade, I'm part of the community group of women who started making the signs. We have sign making parties and have had dozens of community members and farm supporters come and help us create these now iconic signs. You can read more about our community art project here - we decided to do this when we got tired of outsiders coming in and calling those of us (about 85% according to polling by several local papers) who supported the continuation of oyster farming Koch Brothers conspirators. These ad hominem attacks, while silly in our hotbed of far left liberals, seemed to be bullying those of us who wanted the farm to stay and the signs seemed like a positive happy way to show our love and support of the Lunnys and of this amazing, sustainable protein source. And by the way the State Of California owns the rights to those bottom lands for aquaculture and fishing and the Lunnys have a lease until 2029 with the State of California to farm oysters there. It's a complex issue and best to delve deep before you form an opinion. Thanks to Kelly for an excellent article!
Jessica Denning - March 9, 2014
Yes, let small family food business survive and thrive! Let the Oyster company and community continue. We have seen the attack against the ranching families during the last month which we predicted when the oyster company was targeted. I am a retired science teacher, grandmother, visited Tomales Bay and enjoyed it for 60 years, and would love to continue with folks buying from local, sustainable food business and not to buy our oysters from China ... Just look at the takeover of our food and seeds by Monsanto (Agent Orange , Syngenta (babies with birth defects in Hawaii from the pesticides that that would not even name for the neighbors), Dow (Bhopal), BASF and wonder why every last bastion of food freedom is under assault. Corporate greed. I suspect that the fracking industry is after this land... just look at the recent sale in California of parks to private hands and the use of BLM lands for fracking. I appreciate this well-written article.
Mikayla - March 20, 2014
I heard about this place on TV and thought it would be a great place to visit. Tight-knit community, beautiful scenery, and probably some of the greatest oyster farms in all of California. It is quite a shame that the government can just decide to take away land and rights in an instant when a few months before there was not a problem. There are so many other things the government can attend to but they pester little businesses like this about something that is irrelevant. No body seems to have a problem with this small family business or the scenery; from the documentary I saw, the area is almost a historical landmark. Unfortunately it looks like the environment tramples history in the end. It is sad that the government will take away anything and everything just to make it look like they're considering the environment but what about the family and history they're uprooting?
Jacquelyn Nguyen - March 21, 2014
I watched a documentary on this issue- I thought it was ridiculous that the government wanted to get rid of such a memorable and significant farm. This oyster farm isn't just any regular oyster farm- Drakes Bay Oyster Company has been around for decades, and I believe it's important to keep our local businesses up and running. When I was watching the video, it even stated in a magazine, by the National Park Service themselves, that Kevin Lunny, the co-owner to Drakes Bay Oyster Company, was someone who has "been recognized for their environmental stewardship and innovation". Now they have decided to decline renewal of this wonderful farm with that has grown, over time, into a big part of many people's lives? It is very unfortunate for the government to do this.
Jamsheed - March 21, 2014
This area is a little more than 30 miles away from the San Francisco, is it really considered wilderness? These actions are an effort for the N.P.C.A. to practically brag to the world that they are protecting(by designating) so called wilderness. They will carry out this agenda, even if that involves doing away with the historic meaning of Drakes Bay. Not to mention, that the only accurate backing for their actions is based off a completely separate section of the bay that the company has no contact with whatsoever. This is a very unfortunate situation where the our government is displayed as manipulative conspirators. It is not a healthy image for the masses to see. Not only is it disappointing, its embarrassing.
David Ray Miranda - March 21, 2014
I find this article interesting to note that Lunny knew in March of 2005 that the Park Service is not likely to renew his lease and still makes the improvements for his company. The article doesn't really note the argument for the Departmet of Interior in depth as much as Lunny's argument and talks about the events after Lunny's company becomes profitable; as a result, there could be a misinterpretation of the motives between the two groups. Under Salazar, the Interior make the decisions that are deemed best for our nation's lands and if removing the Drake's Oyster Bay Company to make the land wilderness is what may be the best option, then they have the authority to do so after the company's lease expires. This process is what is occurring now and since Lunny is beginning to make a profit and knew well before the company wouldn't get a lease, he is fighting the legal books in order to keep his company to make money. If his company was going downhill, who is to say that he would keep the company and want to renew his lease rather than cut his losses.
Ariana - March 21, 2014
It really is a shame what they are doing to this small business. They have never had a problem before and now they are making such allegations with inaccurate information. The community works so hard to keep it the way it's been for years and help it flourish. I agree with Mikala on how the government hasn't taken the families into consideration. This is certainly a issue that should be brought to the supreme court.
Kevin Dinh - March 21, 2014
With such a beautiful landscape and thriving but delicate community, West Marin is truly a unique place form only through the deal struck in 1962. It is a shame that the government is so willing to uproot these families who have lived on the land for generations and destroy this community. The environmental data that U.S. Senator Ken Salazar and the National Park Service base their position behind is flaky at best. And is turning Drakes Estero into a designated wilderness really their agenda here?
Charles - March 21, 2014
The National Park Service is wasting their and everyone else's time by bringing down a perfectly fine in support of pro-conservation efforts. As shown by the community's outcry, Drakes Bay Oyster Company is an influential part of West Marin and the non-renewal of its lease may indicate that other businesses that operate on "potential wilderness" land as of the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act will be threatened in the future. Because of this, dozens of people will be out of their jobs and homes, something we definitely do not need in our weak economy.
Hannah S. - March 21, 2014
The tragedy of losing one's own business due to legal actions on something that is irrelevant is painstaking. The law is meant to protect, but is the law protecting the environment more than it is protecting the people it was set up for? These people will lose their livelihood and their income. How will they be able to survive? In cases like this, the government needs to have the ability to consider every single life involved, human and animal. Thank you for the well written information on this controversy.
Lane - March 21, 2014
The oyster farm controversy represents the different sides of large governments and its pros and cons. However, the cons are extremely apparent in the bias behavior from the government and how they would destroy something just to look better in the eyes of the public. In the big picture, the oyster farm was essentially shut down to make it seem like the government cares about the environment for popular appeal. Although, by doing this they are bringing down the small businesses that are the back bone of this country. So what are they really accomplishing by being biased and unfair to not only the oyster company but the people are patrons to the company. The heart of Point Reyes should not have to suffer for the government's illusion of "the good of the people."
Jay Kerbs - March 21, 2014
Leave this poor family owned business alone. If anything they are helping the seashores of Marin county but ridding the shorelines of the disastrous oyster infestation. I mean who doesn't love oysters. Put them in a little shot glass with some lime and cocktail sauce then top it off with a little vodka. It's undoubtedly delicious. I find it utterly repulsive that the park owners have the gall to deny the company a new lease on their family owned establishment. These anti-oyster-farm activists are spreading false information about this farm in order to terminate this poor, unsuspecting business. i would hate to see the downfall of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Think of how many people would be out of employment, left to diminish in today's economy. I wish the best of luck to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company.
Joey Mannino - March 21, 2014
After hearing about this story and reading this article, I am shocked that the government was allowed to take away land from these wonderful oyster farmers who were causing no problems whatsoever. It is very unfortunate that this happened to the oyster farms who were receiving praise for their environmentally friendly procedures and effects. I am glad that I researched this topic more, or I would have believed the information that the government provided the public; why would they manipulate dated information and falsely accuse these farmers? It seems as if the government just wanted to look good for the cameras by pretending to help benefit the environment. I understand that the government wants to help our environment, but the lives of these families should have been taken into consideration first.
Mia - March 21, 2014
It is interesting to see what is going on with this case. It is obvious that the government has dealt with this issue in a less than acceptable way, and it is possible there is underlying motives. On the other hand, this does bring up issues of the law, and everything the government has done is legal. It brings up the issues of state rights versus federal rights and the whole tenth amendment. The tenth amendment states that any right not explicitly defined by the federal government is then left up to the state to decide.It should be interesting to see how the situation plays out.
Timothy - March 21, 2014
What is more important - the environment or the people that live in it? It seems like today more and more people consider a few seals more important than human life. In fact, it seems as if almost anything is more important than a human. We claim overpopulation and then try to designate more and more land for eternal wilderness. But I digress. This situation feels like just another battleground of the fight for freedom. Throughout history, many people have overstretched their boundaries of power, even going so far as to reject reality and create their own evidence. Who knows what revolution will grow out of this one, or will this just be another coal thrown into our derailed train?
Kiran - March 21, 2014
This Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is clearly such important part of this community as it has helped it grow and prosper economically and socially. It’s discouraging and upsetting to see how use of irrelevant and inappropriate data has been accepted and tolerated by the government. Federal officials did concede that the 2007 report incorrectly characterized how the oyster operation affected nearby sediment deposits and fish populations. However, I believe further research should be done on how the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is harming the environment, it at all. There should be no misuse of information and the information used to defend a side should be relevant and up-to-date.
Kevin - March 21, 2014
I’ve seen this ad passing by the way to San Francisco, and when I heard about this place I was thinking “Oh no what happaned”. Upon reading this article it seams that the people here do have a right ot their farm. First, the people have a legally binding contact that says they must be able to renew the lease every 40 years unless they choose not to. Second, the oyster feces are fertilizing the grass therefore the population of this fish is going up. So from an environmental standpoint and a legal standpoint it’s a double win.
An - March 21, 2014
Although I have never visited this place before, I feel that it is unfair and unjust to take away such a historic and well-known site. It is ridiculous that the government would take away someone’s home and leave many employees of the company unemployed just because the company is located in “designated wilderness.” With the government making false information about the company, it will only encourage the locals and the owners to continue to fight for their company and keep it in open for business. I hope that everyone’s effort to keep the company open will pay off and the company will continue and prosper. The government has many other issues to deal with and the issue about the company is not one of them.
Andrea - March 23, 2014
We live in a time where preserving our environment is such a crucial part of our society. We want to save any natural beauty we have left and learn to live alongside it. Yet, the government comes in and wants to destroy a family farm that has done just that. Drake’s Bay Oyster Company has lived in harmony with the land it’s on for all the years it has been open. Now the government feels like coming in and kicking them out of the way so they look like heroes saving the environment. However, they had done just the opposite and instead of backing down they have decided to keep going. Drake’s Bay Oyster Company and the community it has grown in are fighting to keep their farm alive. They have families and jobs they need to protect because these people have been on their land for years. The government’s information is inaccurate and faulty at best. Why can’t they let a little business thrive?
David J. - March 25, 2014
This article serves as another example of the argument over to what extent and who the government should protect. This is an unfortunate balancing act, in which the government has elected to put its responsibility of environmental stewardship over protecting the economic interests of the people. The Park Services Study is flawed, and the courts have the responsibility of noting the inconsistencies and ruling in favor of Drake's Bay Oyster Company.
AJM - March 25, 2014
In modern society, the federal government's interests always seem to "get in the way" of the interests of the people. It is disappointing to see a profitable company like this, which not only contributed to its community financially and environmentally, bullied by the government that is supposed to support it. What really surprised me was how obvious the faulty actions of the government were; I guess it is becoming so common for the government to do this that they just stopped putting effort into covering up their immoral and unconstitutional actions.
Max - March 25, 2014
Living in a small town for the entirety of my life, I appreciate the value of small companies, and I understand the importance of shopping on a neighborly level. With the false statistic put to rest, Drake's Bay Oyster Company has no reason to be shut down or otherwise rendered inactive. I wish the best for the company's endeavor to remain a productive and prosperous operation.
Shelby - March 25, 2014
The lush social and environmental life in West Marin is fostered partially by the existence of the Drake's Bay Oyster Company. A master's thesis showed that the grass in the bay had actually thrived more with the development of the oyster farm. Despite Feinstein's 2009 appropriation bill (which gave the Secretary of the Interior rights to extend the lease on the land by ten years), Salazar continued to refuse to renew the lease. The locals enjoy the oyster company as a long-held establishment, and would be outraged to see it go. This is not to mention the workers for the farm, who face unemployment and lack of health benefits if the lease is not renewed. If Salazar has any legitimate evidence for refusing to renew the lease, he needs to present it, because this is getting ridiculous.
Marc Monaghan - March 25, 2014
Being one of owners of the National Park Service, a US citizen, and living at a great distance from Pt. Reyes, Chicago, IL, I find this discussion bizarre. Kids die in the streets, wars are waged, famines rage and you talk about oysters. It's very strange.
Sarah Rolph - April 3, 2014
For more facts and information about the oyster farm, readers may wish to visit To support the oyster farm, visit its crowdfunding page at Indiegogo:
Tom - April 3, 2014
If the oysters and oyster farming were so damaging, why does the area continue to look so beautifully pristine and unspoiled after 100 years (at least) of oyster activity? It is likely, Point Reyes residents have the oysters to thank, at least in part, for the beauty they enjoy daily. 200 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay was one of the most environmentally beautiful and productive bodies of water in North America. Today, we have "dead zones", high phosphorus and nitrogen counts, vanishing species of wildlife and less than a tenth of 1% of the oyster population that once occupied the Bay and filtered its waters. Because of their water filtering capabilities we are trying to re-populate the Chesapeake Bay with oysters and restore an American treasure. By the way, the Federal Government is supporting these efforts. When I read the stories about the National Park Services attempts to smear the Lunny family, the NPS looks less and less like our friend Smokey the Bear and more like the Big Bad Wolf! It is a travesty the NPS can't recognize the valuable stewardship already in place and instead compels California residents to experience catastrophic damage and then, learn the lessons Virginians know well.
Catherine Rucker - April 9, 2014
In 1976, Congress granted the Secretary the agency discretion for when and how to remove non-conforming uses, such as the oyster company, from potential wilderness areas. The National Park System Act, Pub. L. No 94-567, Section 3. Once Congress designates an area as potential wilderness, then it delegates the power to the Secretary to perform the final conversion - to a wilderness area. In 1976 Congress designated Drakes Estero as a potential wilderness area. Pub. L. No. 94-544 & Pub. L. No. 94-567. According to the Federal Register, the Secretary has done these conversions at least 13 times since 1976. The true test for whether the oyster company's existence is against public policy is whether its actions violate the 1964 Wilderness Act. And the company violates this Act in three ways. First, the oyster company violates the Act by using motorboats. See Final Environmental Impact Statement and the National Academies of Science Report on Mariculture in Drakes Estero (stating that "boats" are used). Both reports describe how when the company grows oysters in mesh bags, then the bags must be turned every two to three weeks. thus, the use of this method has caused many more motorboat trips into the Estero. The oyster company also violates the 1964 Wilderness Act by being a commercial enterprise and by relying on the floating racks because they are manmade structures. The Secretary has had the agency discretion to convert Drake's Estero since 1976, and his November 2012 decision to remove the oyster company was according to the public policy in both the 1964 Wilderness Act and the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act.
Les Barclay - May 7, 2014
I can't believe how many of the comments to this article are in support of the Oyster farm. Have these people even read the article? So many claims of the big bad government "taking away" a wonderful family owned business. So many statements referring to "heavy handed" government dealings which victimize poor struggling families. What nonsense! The facts are that this is national park service land, and the primary mission of the park service is " promote and regulate the use of the national parks, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." In addition, Congress intended Drake's Estero to be a marine wilderness back in the early 1970's and was more than generous with the Johnson Oyster Company by giving it a 40-year lease. As for the comments about valuing a few seals over the well-being of people...get your heads out of your backsides and figure out what our national parks are all about. These few tiny pieces of our nation are the last bastions of natural ecosystems. Do you think we should bring back dairy cows and sheep farms to Yosemite Valley if they're "organic" and provide work for local people? We've waited over 40 years for this area to become de-commercialized and restored as wilderness. Enough is enough. The phony mental gymnastics over Salazar's decision are lame and more than disingenuous. He had the discretion to extend the lease, but decided not to. End of story....simple as that.
Dean - September 29, 2014
This whole fiasco is not about the oysters. It's about the surrounding diary operations. The oyster farm kept the bay clean of pollutants from the run off of those farms. Because of cattle's current unfavorable environmental status, NPS wanted the cows gone. Salazar could not just evict that many 'historic' ranching operation at one time without huge negative political blowback to him and the park service. Remove the oysters, in time the coast will show measurable cattle effluent, declare them polluters, and finally force them all out because they won't be able to financially comply with NPS environmental requirements. What is maddening about this situation is the overt lying at all levels that characterized th NPS throughout the battle. Imagine, everyday for 10 years people working for NPS woke up and went to work thinking about the best way to screw up an honest working man and his family.That is what has become of the relationship of a citizen to the government in the US.

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