Coalition Calls for Sen. Feinstein's Rider Extending Life of Oyster Farm at Point Reyes National Seashore To Be Stripped

Sen. Feinstein's efforts to see an oyster company continue operations at Point Reyes National Seashore for another decade are being opposed. Photo of Drakes Estero by Susan Van Der Wal via NPS.

Some push-back has surfaced against U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein's efforts to see oyster farming continue in an area of Point Reyes National Seashore that has been destined for official wilderness designation.

A group calling itself the Save Drakes Bay Coalition is urging U.S. Representative Norm Dicks, D-Washington, to strip a rider Sen. Feinstein placed on an Interior appropriations bill (attached below) that would allow the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to continue operations in the national seashore's Drakes Estero. Commercial oyster farming was well under way in Drakes Estero in 1976 when Congress designated the estuary as potential wilderness. Interior Department officials, noting that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. operation would run counter to official wilderness designation, directed the National Park Service to push for that designation in 2012 when the oyster farm's lease expires.

But that didn't sit well with Sen. Feinstein, D-California, who earlier this year wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to urge him to see that oyster company's lease be extended by a decade. Apparently concerned that the secretary wouldn't honor her request, Sen. Feinstein resorted to the rider to extend the company's lease. In explaining her move, the Democrat said 30 jobs would be preserved by allowing the oyster farm to stay in business.

But that carries little sway with the coalition, which represents the Point Reyes National Seashore Association, National Parks Conservation Association, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Marin Conservation League and the Marin Audubon Society.

"We oppose the legislative rider that strips Wilderness Act and National Park laws in order to provide exclusive operating rights for a commercial oyster company within the Point Reyes National Seashore. The revisions made to the rider fail to protect the park," the coalition said in a prepared statement. "Additionally, the rider continues to serve as an example to hundreds of other private right owners in the park system who may seek extensions and exemptions from their own expiring rights. We urge the House Appropriations Committee to strike the rider in the upcoming negotiations with the Senate."

In an op-ed piece that appeared last week in the San Francisco Chronicle, Martin Griffin, co-founder of Audubon Canyon Ranch and the Environmental Forum of Marin, and author of Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, wrote that the senator needs to remove her rider because it "wrongly benefits Kevin Lunny's private Drakes Bay Oyster Company."

She's extending his lease for 10 years in Drakes Estero, the public wilderness heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore. The removal will force the end of Lunny's lease in 2012 as intended by Congress in 1976, returning the public trust tidelands to wilderness status. Private inholdings of this sort are a grave threat to the integrity of our beloved national parks. Her rider sets a dangerous precedent opening the seashore to private opportunists. Lunny's lease extension may be as risky as allowing citizens to carry guns in the national parks.

Magnificent Drakes Estero shelters the largest rookery of breeding and pupping harbor seals on the North Coast. It is a refuge for thousands of migratory ocean birds, its mud shoals home to hundreds of species of invertebrates, nourished by cold tidal water from the ocean beyond. This remote paradise is spoiled by the traffic trying to reach Lunny's misplaced oyster bar.

I strongly support family farms within the seashore but oppose shellfish farms in the wildlife-rich tidelands of Drakes Estero. While oysters may be a moneymaker, there are other waters - Tomales Bay - where oysters may be grown and sold just as profitably. Lunny's is the only private tidelands-based industry in the park.

In a letter (attached below) to Rep. Dicks, the executive director of the California Coastal Commission pointed out that the oyster company had not received all the required permits for its operation.

"This operation has a history of State regulatory compliance problems under both the prior owner/operator as well as the current lessee-permittee. I have enclosed a November 29, 2007, Commission staff report prepared in connection with an enforcement action taken pursuant to the California Coastal Act that sets forth the background and then current legal status of various uses DBOC (Drakes Bay Oyster Co.) had undertaken without benefit of required State permits," wrote Peter Douglas. "I also enclose a copy of a recent letter sent to DBOC notifying the Company that it is not in compliance with some of the provisions of the Commission's Cease and Desist Order approved pursuant to its staff recommendation on December 12, 2007. Such failure to comply has now necessitated additional enforcement action by the Commission.

"In addition to our concerns about ongoing non-compliance with the Commission's previous law enforcement order, we note that the DBOC currently does not have a required coastal development permit for the facility, in its entirety, notwithstanding the fact we have been diligent and accommodating in an effort to bring this operation into compliance with State law," continued Mr. Douglas. "It seems to us that before the Congress bestows a valuable benefit on the DBOC by extending its right to continue its commercial operation for ten years beyond the current required expiration date of 2012, it would be prudent to ensure that the beneficiary of such special treatment be required to comply with all State regulatory requirements."

According to the National Park Service, Drakes Estero is a unique coastal setting at the national seashore:

Drakes Estero was created as a drowned river valley, submerged by an ancient river on a small block of granitic-based crust of the Pacific Plate. The most recent sea level rise following the Late Pleistocene glacial formed the contemporary estuary 6,000 years ago. The sediments near the mouth of the estuary consist of sand deposited by strong longshore currents in Drakes Bay.

The protected and largely undeveloped lands of the Drakes Estero watershed provide high quality water. Freshwater inputs are largely from the small watersheds surrounding the estuary which encompass an area of 7,847 acres. The estuary proper encompasses around 2,000 acres.

The eastern portion of the estero (Estero de Limantour) is congressionally designated Wilderness Area and the rest of the estuary is designated potential wilderness and reverts to full wilderness in 2012. Special designation to Estero de Limantour was given by the California Department of Fish and Game as a state ecological reserve. The US Shorebird Conservation Plan recognizes Drakes/Limantour Esteros as one of the most significant areas to migratory shorebirds and waterfowl of the southern California coastal sub-region.

Seagrass beds and tidal mud flats are the most widespread habitat types in the estuary, followed by salt marsh and rocky intertidal areas. The large mudflats and extensive eelgrass beds in Drakes Estero are home to numerous invertebrates and serve as foraging and breeding grounds for many birds, fish, and pinnipeds. Drakes Estero is one of the most ecologically pristine estuaries in California and the only coastal waters in the California that are in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Biotically, the estuary is exceptional:

• Extensive eelgrass beds support rare and specially protected species

• Reduced presence of non-native species: recent surveys show that many invasive species are only found where mariculture and oyster racks occur, but not in Limantour Estero.

• One of the largest harbor seal populations in California with numbers surpassing 1800

• Identified as significant area for the US Shorebird Conservation Plan: 86 Species of birds recorded in 2004, including Osprey and Black Brant.

• USFWS recognizes 18 species of concern, including Red-legged frog, Western Snowy Plover, Brown Pelican, Peregrine Falcon, and Marbled Murrelet.

• Recent fish survey identified over 30 species of fish, including rare and endangered species such as coho salmon, steelhead trout and three-spined stickleback.

• Rare plants occur along the shoreline of the estuary.

PORE-Feinstein_Rider.pdf61.46 KB
PORE-Rep._Dicks_Letter.pdf168.48 KB


Did you know that this bill just got passed on Thursday? The rider was approved by the full Senate. I'm not much of a government buff... what happens now? Is there a process of appeals and further lobbying? I'm very interested in this; please let me know!

i am truly saddened, if it is true , that this legistation has been passed. have visited the area and i know with our economic downturn we do not want lost jobs. feel that the loss of 30 jobs is worth preserving this area. we have to stop raping our natural resources so that congress people can get reelected. this truly makes me angry. it is so beautiful there and we need to protect our environment

Has anyone checked the campaign donations of the oyster company and its owners to Ms. Feinstein. There must be financial incentive or some other conflict of interest for her to go to bat for such an un-Democrat cause. In response to Miranda, the House will pass their own appropriations bill, the bills will go to conference and any of the riders can be eliminated there.

The opposition, Mr. Griffin, undercuts his own concerns when he pronounces it "....may be as risky as allowing citizens to carry guns in the national parks. "

Not everyone is riding on that same bandwagon.

As noted above, while the Senate has passed its version of the Interior appropriations bill, a conference committee between House and Senate is needed to resolve differences between the two chambers' versions, and that's where Rep. Dicks could perhaps hold some sway in negotiations.

Anonymous #1:

While I'm not a fan of Diane Feinstein and I'm strongly opposed to this giveaway to someone who bought the Oyster operation a couple of years ago knowing that the lease and nonconforming landuse expires in 2012, the last report I saw had no political donations from DBOC, Lunny, Lunny's family, or anyone else obviously connected to DBOC to Diane Feinstein, and a trivial amount of political donations to anyone.

Perhaps she thinks that DBOC is the greatest best use of Drakes Estero in PORE, not the seals or birds. Perhaps she wants a reputation for bashing "Washington bureaucrats" for local constituents, even though the locals are pretty evenly divided. Perhaps she just likes oysters. She's not saying.

Personally, I'd like to see both the removal of commercial (exotic) oyster racks and sacks in 2012 and the reestablishment of wild native oyster beds (effectively extirpated by overharvesting ~150 years ago), but reestablishing native oyster beds would require funding. Then again, I'm also in favor of keeping the terrestrial leases in grazing, which provides some wildlife habitat, and not let the leaseholders convert to new row crops (which provide no wildlife habitat) so that they can make more money.

I don't see why there's such strong belief that the oyster farm is negatively impacting the seal and bird population. Whether or not the land reverts to a wilderness designation isn't as important as good management practices.

If you really want to reduce impacts to the seal and bird population, that would require keeping out people as well as aircraft from flying overhead. I remember reports on the seal pupping, which noted that the #1 reason for seal pups being disturbed were the kayakers and hikers. I'm sure that banning hikers and kayakers would be met with strong disapproval.

As for the CCC's cease and desist letter, I've heard that part of what they're asking for may have been an honest mistake as to where the manila clams were allowed to be farmed, and the owners are making good faith efforts to correct the deficiencies. It even mentions that in the letter:

"Please send us a written response to this letter by October 5, 2009. We appreciate the progress that you have made so far toward compliance with the Consent Order."

Senator Feinstein has taken this personally and has been involved in this for years. I recall previous efforts where she literally set up meetings with Kevin Lunny, Superintendent Neubacher, and Regional director Jon Jarvis in the same room where they discussed this for hours. She's spent time being interviewed on this very matter. It's been pretty clear that the Superintendent did have the authority to extend the reservation of use, as the current lease does have a renewal clause. In the past Senator Feinstein expended quite a bit of her time trying to persuade the NPS to extend the lease with no results. It's within her power to place this rider in the appropriations legislation.

I don't see how anyone really sees this as a threat to other NPS sites where leases are expiring. Point Reyes is a very unique place where continuing agriculture and mariculture was specific in its creation. The oyster farm lease itself was designed with a renewal option. This rider is so unique that I don't really see a similar law being used for anything else.

"Private inholdings of this sort are a grave threat to the integrity of our beloved national parks. Her rider sets a dangerous precedent opening the seashore to private opportunists"

What kind of rhetoric is that? Private opportunists? I never trust arguments that smack of FUD (Fear, uncertainty and doubt).


To simplify things a bit, in theory, letting the oyster farm remain within the boundaries of the national park beyond its stated lease would set a precedent that could be repeated throughout the park system.

After reviewing nemerous media reports on this issue, I believe another view might help. Those of you who oppose the continued culture of oysters in Drakes Estero need to review the situation in Chesapeake Bay where the loss of the oysters has added to the ecological problems of that bay. The oyster therein filtered sediment from the water and deposited those sediments on and around the oyster beds, thus promoting water cleanliness and clarity that permitted the submerged grassbeds to thrive. They also removed microalgae and plant detritus (their food items) thereby further cleaning the bay's waters. Without plentiful oysters the bay's waters are now turbid, the grassbeds die for lack of sufficient solar radiation, and the animals that depended on those oyster beds and grassbeds are dying off. Is that what you all really want to happen in Drakes Estero?

Natural and cultured oysters in Drakes Estero do the same same thing---they promote clean bay waters! They also promote vertebrate and invertebrate abundance, and hence, aid the bay's overall productivity.

As a result of the bayside dairy farms that obviously drain waste products into the bay via land runoff (which promote algal growth), any and all oysters that can grow in the bay are important for maintaining good water quality. You all need to be promoting all forms of oyster growth---natural and mariculture! The opponents of Drakes Bay Oyster Company need to stop and appreciate what water-cleansing value their oysters provide for the Drakes Estero ecosystem.

As a former commissioner of Gulf Island National Seashore in Flroida and Mississippi, one of our goals was to promote oyster production on Horn Island, MS,---a designated wilderness area---for the consuming public and for water cleansing. That should be a goal in the Point Reyes National Seashore also.

Finally, when National Park Service personnel falsify scientific studies and results therefrom to promote their preconceived ideals, someone has to stand up to them and change their inappropriate ways. That, my dear Californai friends, requires Congressional action in this case! Please find a more appropriate environmental battle---such as removing dairy farms from the Drakes Estero drainage basin.

Ed, just to clarify, the situation in Chesapeake Bay was not entirely human-caused. True, increased oystering down through the years greatly depleted the stocks, but of late warmer ocean water, diseases, and pollutants washing into the bay are greatly responsible for the decrease in oysters.

You're absolutely right about the job they collectively do as mini-filtration systems. Of course, one question to explore at Drakes Bay would be whether managing for natural oyster beds could provide the same benefits you outline without a need for cultured beds.

This is only for the park to get wilderness designation of that area. It will not make any significant change for the better if the Johnson Oyster Co. leaves. The area will not be pristine, as nearby in Tomales Bay, there was a recent article on an invasive Atlantic snail that eats the native oysters, and they don't know how to get rid of them. It would be a wilderess with too many people, planes overhead, and ships going by. Not untrammeled by man.

Richard Smith:
It would be a wilderess with too many people, planes overhead, and ships going by. Not untrammeled by man.

Not to mention a heavily used road (which sits right against the edge of Drakes Estero) with cars, motorcycles, etc taking visitors to/from the lighthouse, Chimney Rock, and beaches. There's also lots of commercial traffic to/from the dairy farms and cattle ranches.

Once I went to the Chimney Rock area for a scheduled ranger guided hike. We had to take the shuttle ($5) from the Patrick Visitor Center because it was peak whale watching season near the lighthouse. They nice enough people, but there was a large group riding at least 15 Harley-Davidson motorcycles. As that group passed by Drakes Estero, I'm thinking the noise must have carried at least 2 miles. If there's any negative impacts on wildlife, that kind of noise would be it and not the relatively quiet 4-cycle boat motors that Kevin Lunny uses for the oyster farm.

bull's eye !

It's been reported (several days ago) that Sen Feinstein modified her amendment to the DOI appropriations bill. Supposedly the pressure to change it didn't come from Norm Dicks, but from New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman. It doesn't set a mandate but does change the dynamic. I looked up the history and this amendment was passed on Sept 24, which was even before the Traveler posted this article I'm commenting to.

You can look it up yourself from the Library of Congress database. It's always changing, so I can't really link the bill directly. Just enter H.R.2996 into the search field.

I'd also note something. The copy of the rider attached to this article does appear to be the latest modified version. Note that it mentions only an "authorization" for the Secretary of the Interior to renew the lease. The original rider was inserted last June, and not Sept 23 as it says in the PDF.

I'm not sure how to find any full text of previous versions, but I understand that the previous version set a mandate. I saw a summary of the previous version of the amendment, which strictly extended the lease by 10 years. The amendment also gives the Secretary of Interior the final decision. That may have been very much intentional knowing that Jonathan Jarvis was the new NPS director.

Let me just clarify. Anyone who has been following this has noted a timeline, and it's unclear on first reading whether or not the author here is fully aware of the details. The letter to the California Coastal Commission was sent on Sept 17 and the latest rider is dated Sept 23. The reporting is that the Sept 23 version was a direct response after pressure from members of Congress who received copies of that letter. Most of the reporting on this story seem to be several days later. An article in the Marin Independent-Journal was dated Oct 5 but was referencing the amendment sent on Sept 23.

Bear with me. I don't understand all the working details of Congress - so I'm having difficulty trying to figure out the paper trail of the original text and the various amendments.

When the original Senate version of the bill came into being last June, Sen Feinstein inserted language to it that mandated a 10 year extension to the lease. The rider attached to this article is the latest version of that amendment - toned down from a mandate to a mere "authorization" for the Secretary of the Interior to extend the lease. I was unsure about whether the author made that distinction, although I looked up an article by Kurt from last June that mentioned the original language (I'd also note that the search engine isn't working very well when I tried to search for it).

Perhaps this is a minor distinction. Many have felt that the original terms of the original 1972 lease were clear that the NPS had authorization to extend it as there was a renewal clause. Perhaps the newer language makes a distinction (for the lawyers to sort out perhaps) that there is authorization to extend the lease and that the NAS report should form a basis for considering the pros and cons of extension. Perhaps Sen Feinstein is hoping that this sends a stronger message (short of forcing his signature on a lease) to Secretary Salazar than her letters and phone calls urging him to extend the lease.

I would stress again that the law as written now does not call for an automatic extension of the lease.

Thanks for the update y.p.w.--

Given that authorization, if I were in charge, I'd negotiate a lease extension, with requirements that the oyster farm monitor their impacts (hire a consultant to monitor the impacts), and at least some funding going to NPS or outside studies of what it would take to restore native oyster beds.

Then, in 5 or 10 years, we'd actually have good data to make a solid decision. The current complaints are that only partial data exist, as PORE doesn't have funding to collect comprehensive data on impacts (positive & negative) of DBOC in PORE. I read the NAS report (all of it!), and the major complaint was that NPS didn't consider the potential positive effects of the oyster racks & bags, and didn't have data on the magnitude of the filtering effect.

I imagine that almost everyone is thankful I'm not in charge, and never will be in charge.


First of all, apologies for the search engine. We know it's a decrepit animal that sleeps more than functions, and we're working on a solution. In the meantime, the best way to search is to use the "Browse By Content" application and go to the park of your choice. It's not perfect, but it's better than the search engine.

As to your concerns: I don't think I said or implied that Sen. Feinstein's rider was in response to the letter sent by the Coastal Commission.

As to the timing of the story and what goes on in Washington, with only three bodies at the Traveler and 391 units of the Park System, we are not always johnny-on-the-spot, but we're trying.

Oh no. Your reporting on this seems to have been before other sources.

What I'm implying here is that the Sept 23 rider was a modification spurred as a result of pressure on Senator Feinstein by members of Congress who had received the Sept 17 letter from the California Coastal Commission.

What I'm trying to figure out (and there hasn't been that much reporting on it recently in the Bay Area press) is whether or not the current Save Drakes Bay campaign is to remove the rider that was inserted in June in the original Senate version of the bill - or to the latest modification of the rider that doesn't contain a mandate.

Here's the original article you wrote as a reference. I tried entering "Feinstein" or "Point Reyes" and couldn't find it. I had to go back manually through the archives to locate it.

I would note that it isn't clear whether or not Drakes Estero can be declared as designated wilderness. I've heard some opinions that the State of California still maintains rights to all waters including bays and can't cede it to the federal government. I finally saw the map, and the "proposed wilderness" is simply the water and none of the land around Drakes Estero. It's rather an interesting situation, as none of the shore operations are on "potential wilderness" as I had thought until I saw the map. As it is right now, I've never heard of any saltwater body of water that's been grated designated wilderness status. Apparently the analysis by the Secretary of the Interior at the time of the 1976 PRWA was that the reasons for declaring Drakes Estero as potential wilderness were the use by the oyster farm along with the rights of the State of California.

As was stated in a more recent article, the full appropriations bill (with the latest language on the oyster farm) passed the House and Senate and is now waiting for a signature from President Obama.

Despite all the cantankerous debate, it's not a certainty that the Secretary of the Interior is going to approve the extension of the "Reservation of Use". I consider Point Reyes a special place, including the oyster farm. In the end it's going to be more than just "wilderness" status that keeps Drakes Estero as a healthy ecosystem. And if Secretary Salazar extends the RUO, the farm has a financial incentive to take care of the issues brought up by the California Coastal Commission.