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Updated: Interior Secretary Rules Oyster Farm Must Vacate Drakes Estero At Point Reyes National Seashore


Editor's note: This updates with comment from Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Kevin Lunny.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, citing the value of wilderness and congressional intent, on Thursday ruled that an oyster farm at Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore must end its operations.

“I’ve taken this matter very seriously. We’ve undertaken a robust public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the park to meet with the company and members of the community,” said Secretary Salazar. “After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to expire at the end of its current term and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976. I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape.”

That decision, said oyster company owner Kevin Lunny, was a "devastating" one, one that he maintains was built on misconduct in the way the National Park Service handled the matter.

"I feel like the arguments that he's been giving by the Park Service haven't all been correct," said Mr. Lunny, referring to Park Service studies into the oyster farm's operations that have drawn questions from outside reviewers. "The Park Service hasn’t been straight with the public. And the Park Service is an agency that Secretary Salazar is in charge of. I can only assume that’s where he’s getting most of his information. I don’t think he learned everything he needed to know in a half-hour visit to the farm” last week.

The fate of an oyster company that employs roughly 30 workers who produce between 450,000-500,000 pounds of Pacific oyster meat a year for Bay Area outlets has been fanned in recently years by both U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an ardent supporter of the oyster company and its small workforce, and environmentalists and conservationists who wanted to see the estero granted official wilderness designation.

The oyster company's 40-year lease runs out this Friday, and Congress long ago said the estero should be designated as official wilderness once all non-conforming uses are removed from it. The 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the national seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres encompassing the estero that would be "essentially managed as wilderness, to the extent possible, with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status" -- and the oyster operation is seen as being incompatible with such a designation.

Secretary Salazar's decision, which was applauded in some corners and derided in others, came nine days after the Seashore staff quietly released its final environmental impact statement that assessed the oyster company's impacts on the estero. That document did not state a preference by the Seashore on whether the oyster company's lease should be extended, but cited the authority Congress gave the Interior secretary to extend the lease if he so desired.

In a release from Washington, D.C., U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, spoke out in support of the secretary's decision to allow the oyster farm's permit to expire on November 30.

“We applaud the decision to follow the clear intent of Congress, as well as an agreement signed almost four decades ago to establish the nation's first marine wilderness on the West Coast at Point Reyes National Seashore,” the four said in a joint statement. “This decision will protect the ecological heart of the national seashore.”

The decision also was cheered by the National Parks Conservation Association, where President Tom Kiernan said the secretary's ruling allows "(T)his legendary place, long planned and paid for, (to be) returned to the public for an unprecedented marine wilderness visitor experience unmatched on the West Coast.”

Syliva Earle, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, saluted "Secretary Salazar for his wisdom and statesmanship in choosing long-term public good over short-term private interests. Protecting Drakes Estero, America's only West Coast marine wilderness park, will restore health -- and hope -- for the ocean and for the interests of all of the people of this country.”

"Extremely disappointed" by the Secretary's decision was Sen. Feinstein, who said the "National Park Service’s review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement."

"The Secretary’s decision effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs.”

Though Mr. Lunny said he always knew there was a possibility that the farm's permit wouldn't be renewed, he held out hope that it would be. Whether the oysterman would try to seek a way to challenge the decision legally or otherwise, such as through legislation that could perhaps reverse Secretary Salazar's decision in some fashion, wasn't immediately clear.

“We don’t know," he replied when asked if he saw any options. "We just don’t know. We do have advisors, we do have lawyers. Of course, it’s the National Park Service against our family. And they have been in a single word very hostile. I don’t see us having any chance going toe to toe with them.”

Secretary Salazar said his finding "honors Congress's direction to 'steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status' and thus ensures that these precious resources are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations of the American public, for whom Point Reyes National Seashore was created."

"As President Johnson said on signing the Wilderness Act in 1964, '(I)f future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them with something more than the miracles of technology," the secretary continued. "We must leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."

Secretary Salazar gave the oyster company 90 days to remove "its personal property, including shellfish and racks, from the land and waters covered by the Reservation of Use and Occupancy and Special Use Permit," and said no commercial activities at the farm would be allowed after Friday. He also directed National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to "use all existing legal authorizations at your disposal to help DBOC workers who might be affected by this decision, including assistance with relocation, employment opportunties, and training."


What are the chances there might be lawyers standing by?

Any guesses on how long it will really be before this operation vacates the park?

Jim Burnett:

What are the chances there might be lawyers standing by?

Any guesses on how long it will really be before this operation vacates the park?

I can almost guarantee it.

Recently the California Fish and Game Commission asserted that California still maintains the right to issue water bottom allocations (and these are specifically mentioned in the RUO) for mariculture in Drakes Estero. The water bottom leases supposedly come with a requirement that they still operate from their current facility, but I could imagine they could modify the terms. The authority for NPS to mandate that the oyster racks be removed and oyster harvesting cease isn't certain. The reservation of use itself only covered the shore operations, which are only a few acres. Salazar may be overstepping his authority by asserting domain over what happens within Drakes Estero.

Now I suppose they can force out the buildings and docks. It probably wouldn't be practical to operate without those facilities, since Tomales Bay or Bolinas are too far away.

It would be understandable for people, reacting to the unfairness of the result, to rail against Secretary Salazar's decision. I can't be one of those people, however. The decision is backed by the text of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and Salazar can't be faulted for interpreting and applying the law as he did.

The problem is with the law itself and its amenability to selective application by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture. The Wilderness Act hasn't been meaningfully amended in its 48 years of existence, and time has turned it into a Medusa's head of writhing contradictions. One of them is evident in the decision itself. Commercial cattle grazing will continue to be allowed at Point Reyes for another 10 to 20 years, and if such grazing has the effects that it has elsewhere in coastal California, it likely causes much environmental degredation. Salazar is allowing the extension because "[r]anching operations have a long and important history on the Point Reyes peninsula . . . ." But isn't that also true of the oyster farm? A cynic could be forgiven for thinking that cattle provide cheap fire-suppression management and the oyster farm doesn't confer any similar benefit on the federal bureaucracy.

The Congress that passed the Wilderness Act in 1964 would not be pleased that the agencies have since applied it to disallow hitching posts, footbridges, primitive lean-tos, baby strollers, hunters' game carts, bicycles, and agency chainsaws and wheelbarrows in Wilderness. Morris Udall and Frank Church were telling the executive branch this in the mid-1970s, but the agency horses had already bolted from the barn, and they've run farther and farther toward more and more restrictions ever since. Under the law's plain text, removing the oyster farm is defensible. But the law requires amendment.

P.S.: For a list of things that are allowed in one or more Wilderness areas, including jet boats, military bomb ranges, roads, motor vehicles, and other counterintuitive activities, see this page on the Wilderness Bicycling website:

You can argue over whether dairy ranches and oyster farms should be allowed in a national seashore or park—different people will have different, valid perspectives, based on the importance they place on preserving historical uses, habitat protection, and recreation opportunities, among other values. Decision-makers need to strike a balance among them, and there will always be someone who is not completely satisfied with any decision.

Wilderness designation, however, is an extra and separate layer of protection on top of whatever the category of land and management scheme in question is—national park, monument, forest, BLM land, or wildlife refuge.

At Pt. Reyes National Seashore, the dairy ranches are not included in the designated wilderness area, nor were they designated "potential" wilderness, as the oyster company area was. Their continued operation is a completely separate issue as far as the Wilderness Act is concerned; they are not examples of inconsistencies in the 1964 Wilderness Act or its application. The dairy ranches there cannot be used as poster children for amending the Wilderness Act.

Mike, I wouldn't have made that point if I hadn't heard that grazing is allowed in the Wilderness portion of Point Reyes National Seashore. I could be wrong, but that's what I heard.

I just looked on the Internet to see if I could find out about this, and I wasn't able to in the time I set aside for it. (I do see that horse grazing is prohibited in the Wilderness portion.) While looking, I managed to discover this rant about the damaging effects of cattle grazing at Point Reyes generally. I have no idea whether it's accurate or not. In the Bay Area, though, cattle grazing in some local parks and preserves has been nothing short of an environmental disaster, so I'm inclined to sympathize with these views, however heatedly expressed.

Mike Painter:

Wilderness designation, however, is an extra and separate layer of protection on top of whatever the category of land and management scheme in question is—national park, monument, forest, BLM land, or wildlife refuge.

The reservation of use that expires today only refers to a few acres of dry land where the processing takes place. The land itself is not in the wilderness plan. Feel free to read it, although it's a scan without optical character recognition.

It's unclear whether or not NPS has the authority to compel the oyster farm to remove the oyster racks. Those tidelands are leased from the State of California and apparently the California Fish and Game Commission is going to address that at their next meeting on the 12th of Dec. It's currently agenda item 7 (B):

Besides that, there have been many, many exceptions including dams, preexisting motorized recreation, etc. The fact is that many commercial uses have been allowed to continue as long as the rights had been assigned or reassigned to new ownership.

I think cows are restricted to the dairy ranches, and none of those is in the designated wildereness areas of the seashore.

Don't like! Comparing Oysters and perhaps the most naturally compatible operation to oil? Any clues to the driving mindset on this? Unnatural in itself.

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