In Battle Over Bivavles, Salazar Sides With Environmental Groups

Bags of oysters. Photo: Orin Zebest

It's been a year of important milestones in Marin County, California. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes the Marin Headlands, turned 40. The Golden Gate Bridge hit 75 years. Further north, the Point Reyes National Seashore is 50. Now, an oyster farm's lease to operate on National Park Service land inside the National Seashore has expired. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar rejected pleas to extend and renew the lease, ending a highly charged battle between Drakes Oyster Company, the National Park Service, and environmental groups.

During the 1960s, both the headlands and the beaches along the Point Reyes Peninsula were under threat by developers who wanted to build up and subdivide those landscapes, so locals pushed for protection, fought hard, and won. It's difficult to imagine what Point Reyes would look like today if it had been developed and a planned major freeway cut through West Marine—let alone a proposed nuclear power plant.

But recently, the Drakes Oyster Company has been at the center of a storm over the Drakes Estero, a 2,000-acre, ecologically important estuary in which it operates. In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was added to the National Park System and sections of it were later deemed to become wilderness areas. In 1972, the National Park Service bought out the Johnson Oyster Company and granted it a lease to continue operating for 40 years. When Kevin Lunny purchased the company in 2004, his lawyers told him they could likely get the lease extended, according to the Mercury News.

The accusations on both sides have been fierce. In a polished, 20-minute video on its website, Drakes Bay Oyster Company accuses the government of looking for environmental harm where it does not exist and says the National Park Service has hid information that would have exonerated the company from claims that its operations hurt the estero and its federally protected harbor seals. In the video, Corey Goodman, a neuroscientist and biotech entrepreneur who Drakes Bay called in to fact-check the Park Service's findings, accuses the NPS of scientific misconduct.

But the Sierra Club, the Marin Audubon Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are among the groups who applaud Salazar's decision, saying that moving forward with a marine wilderness designation for the estero—making it the first such area on the West Coast—is the right thing to do.

"The Lunny's have been fabulous with all of the kayak companies and we never had any disturbances from them," says Pamalah MacNeily, co-owner of Blue Waters Kayaking, which guides sea kayak trips into the estero and surrounding coastal areas, such as Tomales Bay. She says a claim in the environmental impact report (produced as part of the lease renewal request) stating that noise from Drakes Oyster Co.'s motor boats were disruptive to kayakers in the estero is unfounded. "We never had any disturbances from [the boats], and we're there more than anybody," she says.

Coming to the company's defense only invited threats from a local environmental group. "I've heard people say they will boycott our business because I was saying that we got along with the Lunny's," MacNeily says.

That said, Blue Waters Kayaking has a somewhat symbiotic relationship with Drakes Bay Oyster Co. MacNeily says many of the hundreds of clients her company brings into the estero each year "love to go to the oyster farm after kayaking." She says they like to know oysters are locally farmed.

MacNeily also says she's not sure whether the National Park Service will place any restrictions on her operation once the estero is converted to a marine wilderness area. Given the many other areas in which she operates, restrictions wouldn't kill her business, but she'd rather see guided trips into the estuary than solo boaters. "Drakes is an advanced paddle and it tends to be windier in the afternoon," MacNeily says. "If you've gone to the mouth you've already done four or five miles and you need to go back into a headwind that can reach 20 or 30 miles an hour. It's safer to have commercial companies."

MacNeily also feels professional guides are better prepared than many recreational boaters to avoid scaring the resident harbor seals, one of the sensitive species in the estero. The California Coastal Commission has accused Drakes Bay Oyster Co. of operating its motorboats too close to the creatures.

While the direct impact of the decision is localized—and felt most by the farm employees and the local seafood industry, as Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is said to have produced 40 percent of the local oyster market—it does set a precedent that pro-wilderness advocates will likely point to in future land use debates.

President Obama's nomination of Salazar to lead the Department of the Interior was met with mixed reactions among environmentalists. In a December 2008 interview with Democracy Now, Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said "he’s got a very mixed record on the environment, at best," and pointed to Salazar's weakness on endanger species protection and his earlier support of Gale Norton for Secretary of Interior, whose term is better known for corruption than environmental protection.

Under Salazar's watch, the Department of Interior has been criticized for its handling of the Deepwater Horizon spill, but Salazar has also rolled back some of the allowances that oil and gas developers enjoyed on public land during the Bush era. And he approved the highly contentious Cape Wind energy project.

Salazar's decision over the Drakes Estero lease could end up being minor compared to the bigger issues he faces over oil and gas exploration, water use in the increasingly arid West, and wild horse and wolf conservation. But aquaculture producers and environmental groups will not soon forget it.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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