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Shuck and Jive: Drakes Bay Oyster Company Forces a Redefinition of Environmentalism 

Wednesday, May 15 2013
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Lunny says he was shocked by the report when it first came out. "Frankly I looked at it and believed it. I thought, 'Are we doing this?'" he says. But as he started look deeper, he wondered if something was amiss. He asked Supervisor Steve Kinsey to help him loop in the Marin County Board of Supervisors to ask California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to step in on the farm's behalf.

Kinsey tapped Corey Goodman to review the science. A former UC Berkeley neuroscience professor and member of the National Academy of Sciences who now works in the private sector from his family ranch in Marin, Goodman says he had never met the Lunnys and was doing the review essentially as a favor to Kinsey and for the public good. But as he started digging, he found what he believed to be inaccurate conclusions made by the Park Service that weren't supported in the data. "Policymakers should be making decisions based on good science and not pseudoscience," he says. "There is no scientific evidence of environmental harm, and I'll put my reputation on the line for it."

He presented his findings at the Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting in May 2007; the Park Service presented its side. The board unanimously agreed to request that Feinstein step in. She facilitated a meeting between the Park Service and the Lunnys in which both sides agreed to let the impartial National Academy of Sciences review the report. In findings presented in May 2009, the academy found that the Park Service had "selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation." Another study from the Marine Mammal Commission found that there was some evidence that the mariculture and movement of harbor seals were related, but there was not enough data to prove a causal relationship one way or another.

The National Park Service eventually apologized for the 2007 report, but the damage had been done. Those who had reason to mistrust the Park Service — and there is no shortage in the ranching community — now thought that the report had been deliberately deceptive, and the whole affair took on the air of an Us vs. Them government conspiracy. Ranchers were worried they were next.

The environmentalists felt under siege, too. In 2009, Feinstein attached a rider to a bill which said the oyster company's lease could be continued for another decade if the Secretary of the Interior, then Ken Salazar, decided to keep the farm open. Though there was specific language in the rider that said this was a special case without precedent, environmental groups went on the offensive, accusing Feinstein of being in bed with private interests. Op-eds were traded in local newspapers like the Point Reyes Light and the West Marin Citizen.

Feinstein's legislation passed, and an Environmental Impact Statement was commissioned by Salazar summarizing the oyster company's operations in the estuary. It was released in 2012, just before Salazar's final decision, and touches on disturbances to harbor seals and eelgrass, the proliferation of an invasive species colloquially nicknamed "marine vomit," and other environmental harms. Goodman, Feinstein, and others said that it, like the 2007 report, was full of holes and riddled with inaccuracies. In a letter to the California Fish and Game Commission, Feinstein expressed her concern.

"The Park Service's repeated misrepresentations of the scientific record have damaged its trust with the local community, and stained its reputation for even-handed treatment of competing uses of public resources," she wrote in the May 2012 letter.

In the end, Salazar's decision didn't have to do with whether Drakes Bay Oyster Company was a good steward of the land or not. The farm was in a potential wilderness, and had to get out. In his decision memo, he acknowledged that "there is a level of debate with respect to the scientific analyses of the impacts of DBOC's commercial mariculture operations on the natural environment within Drakes Estero," but says that regardless of it, Congress specifically designated this land "potential wilderness" and thus it would become one. Drakes Bay Oyster Company was to cease operations by Nov. 20, 2012, following which it had 90 days to vacate the premises.

Lunny is now working with four legal firms, all working pro bono, suing the federal government to allow his permit to be extended and the farm to stay open, on the grounds that the science Salazar based his decision on was faulty. Though on Feb. 4 a judge in Oakland sided with the eviction, saying that the decision to keep the farm open was the "complete discretion" of Salazar, later that month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in San Francisco ruled that Drakes could stay open until the court decided whether the company's lawsuit was viable or not. That hearing is scheduled for May 14 in San Francisco.


Salazar's wording in his decision was clear, but less so is the exact goal of setting aside the land for preservation. The very idea of returning the estuary back to "wilderness" is uncertain, because humans have shaped the land for millennia. Commercial oyster farming predates the park by about 30 years, and before that, there's evidence in midden piles that coastal Miwok tribes had cultivated their own oyster beds in the estuary.

In fact, the sweeping coastal plain of Point Reyes that looked like paradise to the first Marin dairymen was itself a byproduct of Native American tribes burning and pruning the land.

"'Wilderness' as everybody knows it is not some perfectly preserved pristine landscape. It's a jurisdictional category that the Park Service and others will administer," says Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford who often uses the park as a case study for his students. "Every part of this continent has been affected by human land use. The question is, what kind of land use are you going to permit?"

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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