Shell Games

FOR NEARLY A decade, the quiet agricultural communities that border Point Reyes National Seashore have been caught in a battle over the fate of Drakes Bay Oyster Company.

On one side is the National Park Service, along with a slew of environmental organizations, all of whom say Drakes Estero — where the oyster farm is tucked away — should be reserved for wilderness alone. On the other side are the Lunnys, the Point Reyes ranching family who assumed ownership of the company in 2004, and who argue that the farm is both a historic site and an environmental asset within the Seashore. You’ve probably noticed the freckling of “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” signs positioned throughout West Marin. Articles have been written, petitions signed and now the case for lease renewal has gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the Lunnys are requesting a rehearing — an effort the U.S. Department of Interior filed a brief to block in late May.

The oyster farm’s fate was originally placed in the hands of former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who announced in November 2012 that the National Park Service would not renew DBOC’s lease. “Salazar was misled,” says Kevin Lunny, who has become more or less the face of his case. “He made a decision based on erroneous info. We want another shot.” The information the Lunnys and DBOC advocates would like revisited includes much of the evidence that has been presented by oyster farm opponents since the conflict began — from scientific claims made against DBOC to the language of the frequently cited Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976 to Kevin being labeled an “environmental criminal.”

The Lunnys took out a bank loan for around $750,000 to clean up the oyster farm. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to get messy.

The controversy dates back to 2005, a few months after Kevin and his two brothers took over the lease from the late Tom Johnson, whose family had run the oyster farm under the moniker Johnson’s Oyster Co. since 1957 (the oyster farm has been operating commercially since the 1930s and became part of Point Reyes National Seashore when Congress established the area as national parkland in 1962). Encouraged by then– Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher, the local ranching family — renowned throughout the area as an environmentally progressive group, with Kevin producing the first certified organic beef in the county — signed the lease in November 2004, diving headlong into the operation. The Lunnys took out a bank loan for around $750,000 to clean up the oyster farm. Unfortunately, that’s when things started to get messy.

When spring 2005 rolled around, the family began to hear rumblings that the lease would not be renewed after its 2012 expiration, a decision that came as a shock. “I was born and raised out here; we’ve seen all our neighbors’ ranch leases renewed,” says Kevin, though he does concede renewal was never guaranteed. In response to the rumors, he requested a meeting with members of the community who opposed lease renewal. The group included the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC), then headed up by Catherine Caufield, and other likeminded locals, all voicing a desire for the land to be converted to “full wilderness.”

The term “full wilderness” comes from the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, which, like much complex legislation, has at times been loosely interpreted and misquoted. The act designated Drakes Estero as “potential wilderness,” so some people view the oyster farm as an obstacle to the desired total wilderness label. But others claim that DBOC qualifies as a preexisting use, intended by the government and public alike to be preserved. According to a recent brief written by Laura A. Watt, a Sonoma State University professor who became aware of the case while researching a forthcoming book on Point Reyes, the distinction arose from a rights issue: since California retained mineral and fishing rights within the estero, the federal title to the land was incomplete and its designated uses “inconsistent with wilderness” as stated by the National Park Service and agreed upon by Congress. However, Watt notes, “The federal government has published a notice designating Drakes Estero as wilderness, despite the fact that it does not have the full title.

“Nowhere in the legislative history does anyone make a specific objection to the oyster farm or discuss an end to its operation in the future; nor did Congress or the public give any indication that wilderness designation would be hindered by the farm’s continued presence,” argues Watt.

Still, many, like Amy Trainer, current executive director of the EAC, believe the act’s language does by definition call for the oyster farm’s demise. Trainer asserts that the federal courts have been correct in their quest to “honor the 1976 wilderness designation for Drakes Estero as long planned.”

Despite the negative opinions of some of their neighbors, the Lunnys continued oyster farming. Theirs has long been a family of environmental advocates: Kevin is an active member of Marin Organic, and his livestock operation received the first-ever Salmon Safe certification in the state. And more recently the Lunnys have donated numerous tons of excess shells (a by-product of canning) to area environmental efforts, such as snowy plover and least tern habitat restoration and San Francisco Bay’s Native Oyster Restoration Project. (Drakes Bay Oyster Farm is the only oyster cannery in the state, making such amounts of this resource a rarity.)

Which is why, when the park service suddenly began to denounce the oyster farm and the Lunnys for negative environmental impacts — beginning in 2006 with the release of a park-produced pamphlet entitled “Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary,” which outlined the allegedly immense damage the oyster farm was causing in the estero — some members of the Point Reyes community were a bit perplexed. “This is the only place in the world where shellfish are suddenly getting a bad rap,” says Corey Goodman, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and longtime West Marin resident. “Chesapeake Bay Gulf, Venice, the coast of France, the coast of Australia, San Francisco Bay, everywhere else we are putting shellfish back because they clarify the water and help immensely in terms of improving the environment.”

Goodman has become increasingly conscious of the politics at play in this case, even partnering with Sen. Dianne Feinstein in some of his efforts, but he initially became involved for scientific reasons. “I think science is something that the public should come to trust, so it really irks me when I see government or nonprofits misusing it,” says Goodman, who took up consultation for the cause pro bono in 2007 after noticing the park service contradicting even its own data in an effort to vilify the farm. Throughout the case, Goodman has collected enough evidence of what he says is fabricated and falsified science to prompt him to submit a brief on the subject to the Supreme Court on behalf of the oyster farm. The summary includes refutation of a claim that the oyster farm was so disrupting harbor seals in the estero that the population at one of the eight pupping sites had decreased by 80 percent, an accusation that led environmental activists to say suits against Kevin should be criminal. Goodman and others close to the Lunnys’ case claim the environmental impact statement, released by the park service in 2012 and a major factor in Salazar’s move for closure, is riddled with inconsistencies.

Efforts to obtain a statement from the park service were unsuccessful. Says Wyn Hornbuckle,a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Justice, “Because this matter is pending litigation we will decline to comment.”

In the meantime, the immediate ramifications of the case are evident on a human level: the fight has created a significant rift between the park service and a portion of the Point Reyes community. “It’s enough to bring all of us to tears,” says Ginny Lunny, Kevin’s sister. “What it really means is that this whole community will change from what it was for so many years, which was a place where everybody really got along. The ranchers have always had amiable relationships with the park service, and now it’s almost like two separate entities. It’s so sad.”

“It’s not good for any of us; properly coexisting is the right answer,” Kevin says. “Being part of nature and producing sustainable food is a good thing, and the community that is going to be hurt by this decision has no voice. It’s going to take some time to rebuild that trust.”

The shift in support of the oyster farm — a site that in 1998 the park service discussed upgrading to an educational center for visitors while maintaining oyster production — has those involved questioning not only the park service’s motives, but the future of agriculture in Point Reyes National Seashore as a whole. “Most people do feel, and the park’s actions have shown, that the oyster farm is the first domino and the ranches and dairies will go next,” says Loretta Murphy, who co-manages DBOC with Ginny. “That’s why they’ve reintroduced the tule elk into areas in the pastoral zone; that’s why they’re making things very difficult for ranchers. Although they say how much they love their ranches in the public forum, it seems as if they are on a divide-and-conquer mission.”

Gordon Bennett, a park service advocate formerly employed by the Sierra Club and Audubon Society who’s now president of Save Our Seashore, says this is a paranoid notion: the pastoral zone serves as a buffer between East and West Marin, he asserts. “If those agricultural lands weren’t viable, if the seashore was entirely wilderness, East Marin would come right up to the border,” he adds. “Most who support the park want to keep these ranches going and alive. Keeping them sustainable and ecologically friendly is the goal, but none of us wants to get rid of ranches — as we’re people who like wilderness, that would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

As the campus of Drakes Bay Oyster Company continues to decay around the family (the Lunnys are not allowed to fix or upgrade anything on the property and have even received fines for replacing old picnic tables from which pieces of sharp metal were protruding), Ginny and Murphy voice concern for future generations and the potential loss of a valuable low-impact foodstuff.

“We’re in a world where we have to feed people and we can’t,” says Murphy. “We’re looking at a food source that creates a protein without any freshwater in a state where water is gold, uses no fertilizers or chemicals and only benefits the environment and the flora and fauna of that environment.”

“For conventional beef, around 12,000 gallons of water is used per pound of meat; we use less on our ranch, but that’s conventional,” Kevin says. “That’s around 6 billion gallons of water to produce the same amount of beef as we produce in oysters using no fresh water.” From that standpoint, “our nation is in desperate need of oysters.”

The convoluted discussion surrounding Drakes Bay Oyster Company spans past, present and future: the legislation already passed, a family now struggling to avoid bankruptcy and above all, a growing concern for the welfare of Point Reyes National Seashore, the future of which both sides claim to be protecting. If the Supreme Court takes the case, judgment could come as early as tomorrow or as late as June 2015, but whatever the outcome, history will be made.