A Raw Deal? Federal Gov't Targets Oyster Farm

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POINT REYES STATION, Calif. -- The federal government stands accused of trying to close a popular California business to make way for a wilderness area and making false claims to do so.
Now it's a life or death struggle for the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.

Wild Water Wonderland

Point Reyes National Seashore, located a few dozen miles north of San Francisco, presents vast vistas of crashing Pacific waves and rolling hills as green as Ireland. Inside sits Drake Estero, an estuary that's a wild water wonderland for birds, harbor seals, and oysters.  

The water flowing through Drakes Estero makes for such tasty oysters, it's the main reason the oyster farm has been operating on the estuary for some 80 years.

Many environmentalists applaud Drakes Bay Oyster Farm as green, sustainable agriculture -- or "aquaculture."

But wilderness advocates say Congress has wanted to make Drakes Estero a full wilderness for 40 years. According to them, all that's standing in the way is this commercial oyster business. Its 40-year lease has run out and those advocates insist it must go.

"We don't have another opportunity for a marine wilderness in the continental U.S.," said Neal Desai, Pacific region associate director at the National Parks Conservation Association. "There are plenty of places that you can grow oysters."

"One of the things that can't take place in a wilderness is a commercial enterprise, a business," leading San Francisco conservationist Amy Meyer told CBN News.

She insisted Drakes Estero can't legally go from its present status of potential wilderness to fully protected wilderness until the oyster farm shuts down.

Meyer served on the commission in the 1970s that advised Congress to make much of Point Reyes official wilderness, advice Congress followed.

"There you can be totally away from it all," Meyer said, explaining the wonder of wilderness. "And the creatures that depend on that area are away from it all. It's the idea of going someplace where the hand of man is not felt."

Death Sentence

CBN News visited the oyster farm on a foggy, clammy day that was supposed to be its last legal day to harvest oysters. The farm had been under a death sentence since Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had refused to renew it's lease at the end of 2012.

One of owner Kevin Lunny's biggest worries is the jobs of his 30 employees may soon disappear.  Many of them are trained only in the extremely specialized work of harvesting oysters.

"A lot of these people who've been here for 25 or 30 years are going to have to go start over somewhere," Lunny said.

Some of the wilderness advocates insist Lunny knew full well from the day he bought the oyster farm in 2004 that the federal government wouldn't renew the lease in 2012.

"This is fundamentally about a contract, a promise to American taxpayers who bought this property in 1972 with the full expectation that it would be included and protected in this national park," Desai said. "And everything was on track until 2004 when Kevin Lunny took over and formed the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, and at that point this dream, this vision, was hijacked."

Amy Meyer said of Lunny, "He had a contract with the American people that he would get out in 2012. And unfortunately he didn't believe it."

Lunny and his advocates dispute that, saying the paperwork he read and the advice he received when he purchased the farm all led him to believe the lease would be renewed.

So he said he was shocked when the federal government informed his family later, after they'd already sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into improving the farm, "Oh, by the way, we're not going to renew in 2012."

Then the fight was on between those saying Lunny's business had to go and those who said the government could make an exception and let it stay.

But another blow soon landed on Lunny. The National Park Service announced it had research showing the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm was doing real damage to Drakes Estero -- in fact, catastrophic harm.

Desai believes the charge was accurate, saying "There are significant ecological problems here."

The National Park Service research shocked even Lunny, who considers himself an environmentalist. 

"'Are we doing this to the environment?'" Lunny recalled asking. "I actually believed them."

Bogus Research?

But Dr. Corey Goodman, a respected elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, found much of the research wasn't true.

Suspicious Marin County officials asked Goodman, who lives near the Point Reyes National Seashore, to investigate the National Park Service research. He told CBN News he was shocked at what he discovered.

Over and over again, Goodman said the Park Service would publicly say its research showed one thing, but "when you look at the data, it would be completely the opposite.  In fact, in some cases, they were just simply making things up."

Goodman pointed to the charge the Park Service made that the noise from the small engines on the oyster farm's boats was registering at near rock concert levels, disturbing harbor seals and the general peace of Drakes Estero.

But Park Service officials weren't measuring the actual noise of Lunny's boats.

"They took a measurement from a large 750cc Kawasaki jet ski measured in 1995 in New Jersey, imported that and claimed that was the number that represented the oyster skiffs in Drakes Estero," Goodman charged.

He said others have measured the actual noise from the oyster skiffs since.

"What that number tells you is that the boat is much less noisy than the National Park Service said," Goodman said.

A 'Pre-determined Agenda'

Why the deception?

"You've got a pattern of a pre-determined agenda," Goodman said. "The Park Service has been like having blinders on. They have been absolutely determined that 'We're going to get rid of this oyster farm, and we're going to show that Kevin Lunny is an environmental criminal.'"

Peter Prows, a young San Francisco attorney representing the Lunnys and their oyster farm, said, "Our government should behave better than this."

That abuse of science by the National Park Service infuriated him. Prows said he jumped to the legal defense of the oyster farm "when I heard about the pattern of bias and misconduct in the science that the government was using to try to justify shutting the farm down."

"You can't just make up data," Goodman said. "You can't just make up false claims."

"There would be claims made about harm to harbor seals," Prows added, "harm to eelgrass, harm from boat noise."

None of those claims could be proved by the research.  

"I can't find any environmental harm," Goodman said. "But don't take my word for it. The National Academy of Sciences in a report I had nothing to do with came out and said there was no evidence of any major significant environmental harm. That's the world's top scientific organization."

But National Parks advocate Desai insists the oyster farm is harming the environment. He said the California Coastal Commission keeps citing the farm and its workers for the harm they do.

"They have plastic tubes that they use that are being spread all over the estuary," Desai said. "They're taking their motorboats into sensitive harbor seal protection areas, conducting illegal development. Any other oyster company in the state, they don't have these problems."

Others say the oyster farm does much more good than harm. For instance, Drakes Estero is surrounded by historical cattle farms, with the cows creating some of the waste flowing into the estuary.

Lunny and many experts say oysters can actually consume that waste.

Government's 'Artificial Wilderness'

One of the biggest fans of the farm's oysters, Cindy French of Redwood City, wondered why the oysters have to go while the cows stay.

"They're doing a lot more damage than these guys are," she said, looking at her plate of oysters. "I guarantee you this is some of the cleanest water out here."

Oyster fanatics like French showed up all day during what was supposed to be the last day Lunny and his workers could harvest oysters.

The fans came expecting to enjoy their last serving of what some insist are the tastiest oysters in the world. French drove two hours.

"This is all there is," she said of her meal. "There is no other oyster."

What many customers didn't know until they arrived is that a federal appeals court had just delayed the closure of the oyster farm until May.

So instead of a sad goodbye, they had a chance to congratulate Lunny on his last second reprieve, and spend some time complaining that the U.S. Department of Interior seems set on nothing less than the 80-year-old farm's destruction.

"What the federal government is trying to do here is impose an artificial wilderness in the middle of an historic farming community," Prows said.

Setting a Bad Precedent?

Wilderness advocates disagree. They insist letting Drakes Bay Oyster Farm survive would set a precedent that threatens the promise of more truly wild lands in America.

"When there's an effort by private industry to take that away from the public, from all the taxpayers, that's simply the breaking of a promise," Desai said. "And that can happen elsewhere."

Amy Meyer fought alongside other conservationists for decades to preserve coastline above and below San Francisco for the public and turn it into a national recreation area. She wrote about the struggle in her book New Guardians for the Golden Gate.

She worries if the oyster farm stays, other industries will use that precedent to stake a claim in what she believes should be wilderness.

"People are always pressing the edges of this," Meyer said. "But it's very important that those edges not be breached."

Meyer has labeled Lunny's efforts to keep the oyster farm running "selfish." She and her allies have stated he makes more than $1million a year and hardly needs the oyster operation.

Lunny insists he's borrowed so much money to improve the place, if he loses it, that will bankrupt his family and threaten others.

"There's a chance my parents will lose their home," Lunny said. "And my brother will lose his home because that's the collateral for that loan."

Then there are the 30 workers on the farm, many living in homes on the property. Not only will they lose their jobs, but their homes will likely be destroyed right along with the farm if the National Park Service has its way.

Wilderness advocates say Lunny knew that day could come before he ever bought the business. His allies insist it's a tragedy that doesn't have to happen.

Related Link:

Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.