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Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep California Oyster Farm in Operation

May 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Department of the Interior says the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, located north of San Francisco, must shut down according to an expired lease agreement that protects the surrounding national park. But NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports that the owners, along with some interesting allies, are fighting back.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In Northern California, there’s an unusual battle brewing over a renowned oyster farm that’s located in a national seashore. The fight is playing out among business, government and some environmentalists. But it’s one that’s creating strange bedfellows concerned about the outcome.

Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Drakes Bay Oyster Company at Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco may be producing its last crop.

When its long-term lease expired last year, the Department of the Interior said the lease was terminated, and ordered the family-owned company to stop planting and harvesting oysters, as the farm has done since the 1930s. And that has provoked a battle with an unlikely cast of characters.

The repercussions extend far beyond this spectacular Pacific Coast enclave, to the restaurants of the Bay Area and all the way to Washington, D.C., where politicians of both parties are joining in the fight. Much of the area in the National Seashore has been designated wilderness, and the then secretary of the interior has said the oyster farm doesn’t fit in a wilderness area, since it’s a commercial operation.

So he ordered it closed in March. The company sued to stop its eviction, and a federal court has allowed operations to continue while it considers the case.

KEVIN LUNNY, Drakes Bay Oyster Company: This lease has an explicit renewal clause. It was always anticipated that it could be renewed by special use permit. It says it right in the original document.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kevin Lunny is the principal player, a longtime rancher, one of the owners of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Its 30 employees plant and harvest six to eight million oysters a year from the waters of Drakes Estero, an inlet from the ocean. He bought the oyster operation seven years ago, knowing that his lease would expire in 2012. But he tried to change that.

KEVIN LUNNY: This is exactly what was planned for the seashore. And the oyster farm is part of the working landscape. It’s part of the agriculture. It’s really part of the fabric, part of the history, part of the culture that was always expected to be preserved.

SPENCER MICHELS: Local and national environmental groups have joined the fray. They say a lease is a lease and that a larger principle is involved.

Amy Trainer is heads one organization.

AMY TRAINER, Environmental Action Committee: Under the 1964 Wilderness Act, commercial operations and motorboats are not allowed. They’re expressly prohibited. So this operation is wholly incompatible with this national park wilderness area.

This is a very dangerous precedent. Drakes Estero is considered the ecological heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore, and it absolutely should be protected for future generations without commercial uses.

SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, all the players agree. Point Reyes is a unique and gorgeous land of tule elk, hiking trails, elephant and harbor seals, wildflowers, grass-covered hills, and a few cattle ranches that predate the Seashore and remain in place under the law.

This sparsely populated area became part of the national park system in 1962, and today two-and-a-half million people visit a year. What appeared to be primarily a local dispute has become a conservative cause 3,000 miles away in Washington.

Critics see government as trampling on economic freedom. A national advocacy group called Cause of Action, a government watchdog, has taken on Lunny’s case.

Dan Epstein, an attorney who once worked for a foundation run by one of the conservative activist Koch brothers, is the group’s executive director.

DAN EPSTEIN, Cause of Action: What we’re doing with cases like the Drakes Bay Oyster Company is to educate the public that when you have a federal government that in some cases is unchecked, it can lead to certain harms to economic freedom.

SPENCER MICHELS: Epstein says the Secretary of the Interior’s decision to close the operation should be reviewed by the courts.

DAN EPSTEIN: If agencies are able to effectively shut down a business, just in the discretion of their policy authority, without following certain legal procedures and the Constitution, that’s going to have an impact upon small business owners and individuals in terms of their economic rights.

TOM STRICKLAND, Former Department of the Interior Official: I think this situation has been hijacked by interest groups with different agendas, who have spun out narratives that have no relationship to the facts.

SPENCER MICHELS: Another Washington attorney, former Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland, has joined the battle. He says shutting down the oyster farm will clear the way for establishing an underwater marine wilderness area at Point Reyes, and he defends former Secretary Ken Salazar’s actions.

TOM STRICKLAND: He determined that the people of the United States had in fact bought and paid for that oyster farm, had given the then owner a 40-year term. When that term expired, then that land and that right was to return to the people. And then that area will become our first marine wilderness area in the Lower 48.

SPENCER MICHELS: The controversy has split the environmental community and made strange bedfellows.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked that Lunny’s lease be extended 10 years, claiming the Park Service acted unfairly and with bias. A group of restaurant owners and sustainable food advocates, including Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, are supporting Lunny and his oysters; 85-year-old environmental activist Phyllis Faber is now fighting against the Interior Department and its allies.

PHYLLIS FABER, Environmental Activist: They yearn for wilderness, but do you know there hasn’t been wilderness in this park area, in the Point Reyes Seashore area for probably 200 years? So I look at them as being sort of backward-looking, yearning for something that can’t possibly exist. It’s almost like a religion.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yet, she’s not happy to be on the same side as Cause of Action.

PHYLLIS FABER: I am very disturbed by that, and I don’t agree with it at all. I think what they’re headed for is trying to use a commercial operation in a park. They want to establish that in other public — on other public lands. And I think that’s terribly unfortunate.

SPENCER MICHELS: All of this controversy has overwhelmed the little Marin County town of Point Reyes Station, where Lunny and his oysters are popular.

The controversy is so intense that many residents wouldn’t comment, for fear of alienating their neighbors. But a few did risk it.

DORIS OBER, Point Reyes Station: I don’t care for oysters personally to eat, but I think the oyster farm is a wonderful thing for our area.

CATHY DAVIS, Point Reyes Station: They’re very good for the environment. They create a lot of jobs. They’re wonderful people. And it’s sustainable.

SUSAN PRINCE, Point Reyes Station: The precedent will be that it will be OK then to go into other parks, and we will have less and less wilderness.

SPENCER MICHELS: The battle intensified recently, when Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana included a provision to extend to oyster farm’s lease for at least 10 years in a bill primarily designed to expedite the Keystone XL pipeline and oil and gas development in Alaska.

In Marin County, the Environmental Action Committee is leading the charge to get rid of the oyster operation.

AMY TRAINER: You can see all these outflow tubes. They just had a cease and desist order placed on them by the California Coastal Commission.

SPENCER MICHELS: Amy Trainer, the committee’s executive director, is working with Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association to convince the courts and the public that the oyster farm doesn’t belong in a wilderness area. They say Drakes Bay oyster Company has despoiled the estuary.

AMY TRAINER: They grow non-native species. They grow invasive species. They have dumped thousands of pieces of plastic into our marine waters, which can potentially harm seabirds and marine mammals. It’s polluted our National Seashore beaches. You see the invasive species called marine vomit growing all over their oysters. You see their motorboats zooming by.

SPENCER MICHELS: Lunny and his defenders say the operation has not hurt the environment. Both sides quote studies supporting their points of view.

KEVIN LUNNY: It’s been studied by the National Academy of Sciences; they have found no serious effect at all; we are not losing marine debris; we’re actually cleaning it up.

SPENCER MICHELS: In fact, the National Academy of Sciences complained there wasn’t enough data to determine whether the oyster operation was harming the waterway. But that’s only part of the issue, says former interior official Strickland.

TOM STRICKLAND: I think the question now is, who’s looking out for the American taxpayer? And who gets to profit from a favorable lease arrangement with the United States? One family? What’s the particular equities in that?

SPENCER MICHELS: A hearing in federal appeals court on whether Drakes Bay Oysters should close is scheduled for mid-May.