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Public Comments Run Against Extension of Oyster Company Lease at Point Reyes National Seashore


Due to pressure from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the National Park Service is performing an exhaustive environmental impact statement on an oyster farm that operates in Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore. NPS photo of the estero.

Spurred by a U.S. senator determined to reverse congressional action from four decades ago, Point Reyes National Seashore officials are compiling a voluminous environmental impact statement on whether an oyster farm or official wilderness should occupy Drakes Estero.

The costly undertaking isn't without public appeal. While fewer than 200 comments were received on Grand Canyon National Park's mule rides, more than 4,000 comments were fielded by Point Reyes officials on whether Drakes Bay Oyster Co. should have its lease expire in 2012, as Congress directed in 1976, with the estero then being designated official wilderness.

That would have been the case if not for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who in 2009 attached a rider to an appropriations bill giving Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the authority, but not a mandate, to extend the operation's lease another 10 years. With that nudging from the California Democrat, the Interior secretary saw that the Park Service conduct a full-blown EIS on the question of extending the lease, something it did not have to do.

An opinion from the Interior Department's solicitor in 2004 made it clear that the oyster farm would be incompatible with a wilderness designation. In that opinion, the solicitor's staff said "the Park Service clearly has the authority to terminate the Reservation and to direct (the oyster company) to vacate the property on which it operates," and that "(R)emoval of (the oyster company) from the Point Reyes National Seashore property and its oyster farming from the Estero, would allow the Service to begin the conversion of the area to wilderness status, which directive Congress charged the Park Service to accomplish."

Sen. Feinstein's pressure, however, gave the Interior Department and the Park Service the opportunity to officially examine the impacts of the oyster farm and hear what the public thought of it.

“It’s been debated in the press, it’s been debated in many forums, but this is actually the first time the public’s had an opportunity to weigh-in in a formal compliance process," said Brannon Ketcham, the park's hydrologist.

Along with examining water quality issues and biological impacts on the estero by the oyster operation, part of the environmental review, Mr. Ketcham said, will include revisiting the history behind the oyster farm's lease.

That history dates to November 1972 when Charles Johnson, owner of the Johnson Oyster Co., sold the 5 acres on the shores of Drakes Estero on which his processing facility sat, to the Interior Department for $79,200, with the understanding that he, or any successors to his company, could maintain operations for 40 years, or until November 30, 2012.

Four years later Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which directed the Park Service to manage the estero as official wilderness once the 40-year period was up. Since then, the oyster operation was purchased by the Lunny family, which has lived in the area for three generations.

The estero is a biologically rich and important landscape for wildlife, according to a Park Service fact sheet on the estero.

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 (on the eastern end of the 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.

But controversy has dogged the Park Service's handling of the oyster company operations. The National Research Council was highly critical of a Park Service report that outlined the oyster operation's impacts to the estero. That report, the research council said in May 2009, was "selectively" manipulated in several areas, and inconclusive overall.

"...the adverse or beneficial effects of oyster farming cannot be fully understood given the existing data and analyses," stated a news release from the council, which is an arm of the National Academies that also includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. "Furthermore, the National Park Service report, 'Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary,' in some instances selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on DBOC (Drakes Bay Oyster Co.) operations by exaggerating the negative and overlooking potentially beneficial effects."

A study of shellfish mariculture in Drakes Estero compiled by the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences pointed to both benefits and impacts of the oyster farm. That 2009 study pointed out that the native Olympia oysters were lost to over-harvesting in the mid-1800s and that while the Pacific oyster now being farmed "is not a direct replacement of the native populations of the Olympia oyster, it may be viewed as providing similar biogeochemical functions and ecological resilience."

But the study also noted that the lack of eelgrass below the suspended racks of oysters "represents a small-scale and localized impact on the biogenic habitat." Additionally, "(N)umerous boat propeller scars in the eelgrass beds, partially affecting a total area of about 50 acres, are also evident and attributable to oyster culturists because they are the only ones allowed to use motorized vessels in the estero.

"Nevertheless, the total percentage of eelgrass area lost (1%) or partially degraded by propeller scars (7%) and thus attributable to oyster mariculture represents about 8% of all eelgrass habitat in Drakes Estero as of 2007."

The estero is important habitat for harbor seals, according to the study, which notes that it supports "about 20 percent of the mainland California population."

Along with considering the findings of those studies, Mr. Ketcham said the seashore staff also would look into a wide-range of issues raised during the public comment period, including the socio-economic impacts of the oyster operation.

Park Service officials system-wide state that public comments should not be construed as votes that they have to follow. Nevertheless, according to an analysis of the public comments by the National Parks Conservation Association, a 3-1 majority opposes an extension of the oyster company's lease.

Point Reyes officials hope to have a draft EIS ready for public review late this summer, with a final EIS in the spring of 2012 with a record of decision signed before the current lease expires.


I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana and own the oldest continually operating oyster company in America. My mother and a number of Aunts, Uncles, and cousins are from there and live there. So my comments are made for the love of the State of California and the citizens who utilize Drakes Estero. Anyone who opposes extending Drakes Bay Oyster Company's lease to operate their oyster farm and processing facility on the shores and in Drakes Estero do not know the importance of the filtering capabilities of oysters. The Lunny's have, through no expense to the citzens of California or the USA, have spent millions of dollars planting and growing oysters in Drakes Estero cleansing the Bay system while making a habitat for all other marine life thrive. Ask the citizens who live along the Chesapeake Bay who has seen the decline in the water quality of the what used to be most productive Bay system in the United States. The citizens of the USA have spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money trying to reestablish oysters in the Chesapeake Bay in hopes of bringing it back to the days when you could walk accross the bay on oyster reefs.Everyone in northern California should do whatever than can to keep the Lunny's in business at Drakes Bay Oyster Company because without them, oysters do not grow there naturally which will cause a deterioration of the water quality of Drakes Estero. REMEMBER THIS COMMENT BECAUSE IF THE LUNNY"S LEASE IS NOT RENEWED YOU CAN COUNT ON THE DEMISE OF THAT IMPORTANT ESTUARY IN CALIFORNIA.

This is a terribly dishonest post.

It is not true that the oyster farm is or was slated to be removed when its lease expires in 2012. The lease is renewable.

It is not true that Senator Feinstein’s legislation was undertaken to “reverse congressional action from four decades ago” or that this legislation gave Interior the authority to extend the lease another 10 years. They already had that authority, but were pretending not to, so the Senator was trying to call their bluff.

While it may be true that the Interior’s lawyer “made it clear in 2004 that the oyster farm would be incompatible with a wilderness designation,” that is entirely irrelevant. The area in question is in a National Seashore that gets about three million visitors a year. The estero gets pedestrian traffic from birdwatchers and is a prime spot for kayaking. These activities, like the oystering, are strictly limited during seal-pup season. The rest of the time, all of these activities take place in harmony with nature. Nobody is talking about restricting the area to pure, actual wilderness. So there is no earthly reason to worry about “wilderness designation.”

It is not true that the Point Reyes Wilderness Act “directed the Park Service to manage the estero as official wilderness once the 40-year period was up.” The intent—as you should know by now, since several of those closest to the story have corrected you on this point several times—was that the estero would be managed as it is now, as official “potential wilderness,” in other words, as close to wilderness as you can get for a recreational and commercial area.

Your recounting of the National Academy of Sciences report is a confusing mishmash that seems designed to hide the fact that the Park Service’s claims of harm to the estero were all found to be wrong. The Park Service exaggerated the negatives and overlooked the positives—it’s right there in your quote from the report in your paragraph 12, and yet you continue in your subsequent paragraphs to imply that there is some truth to these discredited claims. You selectively cite tiny amounts of damage so you can use the words “boat propeller scars” and “eelgrass area lost” in an apparent attempt to obscure the real findings. The eelgrass is FINE here. It has DOUBLED.

After trying to confuse people about the eelgrass, you add the obligatory reference to seals. “The estero is important habitat for harbor seals, according to the study, which notes that it supports ‘about 20 percent of the mainland California population’.” That’s all you say, but the implication is that there is some impact on the seals.

The truth is that the seals are in great shape. There is a mammal study of Drakes Estero under way right now, and the preliminary finding is that the estero is about at its carrying capacity for seals. That’s right, there is a danger that soon there will be TOO MANY seals there. Harbor seals are well known to get along just fine near human activities. This is a non-issue.

You end your dishonest story—and headline it—with a dishonest statistic. “A 3-1 majority opposes an extension of the oyster company’s lease.” That is absolutely false. Majority of what? Not people, for sure. Not independently held opinions. That statistic is extremely misleading because it lumps together all types of comments, which range from thoughtful letters and emails written by experts in the field to off-the-cuff comments provided anonymously to flip-chart holders at the public meetings. People were allowed to supply as many comments as they wanted, with no guidelines whatsoever. The comments were not even required to make sense, much less be true. I attended these public meetings, and I saw with my own eyes that the usual suspects were out in force making as many negative comments as possible, over and over. The process is a sham, there is no accountability to the truth here.

Al Sunseri is correct. The estero will suffer if the oyster farm is removed. Why do you think they are replanting oysters in San Francisco Bay? Yes, to clean the water. Yes, it is working. Fun fact: Kevin Lunny is the one who made that project possible by donating oyster shells for substrate. He even donates the trucking—the Lunny family cares a lot about the environment.

You are on the wrong side of this issue, Kurt. If you really care about the health of Drakes Estero, you should support the oyster farm. And if you really care about the vibrancy of our National Park system, you should consider the benefits of mixed use. We’re not talking about snowmobiles here, this is a local food source that enhances both the environment and the economy.

You clearly have a bias in favor of the Park Service. That’s not surprising, given the focus on the blog, and given the many positive aspects of that venerable organization. And of course it is your right to be biased, since this is your blog.

But since you seem to be blogging for the public, and not simply as a house organ of NPS, I challenge you to seek out new sources. Kevin Lunny is a very patient and reasonable person. He is always willing to go more than halfway to correct misunderstandings. I know he would take your phone call if you reached out to him in good faith.

Since you claim your blog is about news, not just commentary, I believe you have an obligation to get your facts right.


I admire your moxie, but I respectfully disagree with your points.

* As you note, without Sen. Feinstein's amendment, the NPS would not be doing an EIS on this issue. Indeed, as the solicitor's opinion notes, the NPS was within its rights to simply close the door on the oyster operation in November 2012.

* The lease signed by Charles Johnson in November 1972 cleared showed it would expire in November 2012.

* The solicitor's opinion, along with clearly pointing out that the oyster farm is a non-conforming use in a wilderness area, also pointed out that the NPS could terminate the lease at any time, and clearly noted congressional intent when it stated "that "(R)emoval of (the oyster company) from the Point Reyes National Seashore property and its oyster farming from the Estero, would allow the Service to begin the conversion of the area to wilderness status, which directive Congress charged the Park Service to accomplish.

* The article above clearly points out the faults the National Academy of Science's Research Council found in the Park Service's report on the oyster farm's impacts to the estero.

* As for the mariculture study on the estero, the article above quite matter-of-factly points out both the positives and negatives of the oyster operation.

* Finally, as to the 3-1 margin, the article clearly points out that that was the NPCA's conclusion from an analysis it made of the comments.

Now, as far as obligations, perhaps you should identify yourself as a PR consultant? As such, you have an obligation to say whether you're being paid by the oyster company to search the Internet for stories on Drakes Bay, or whether you're doing it pro bono.

Didn't the least (actually a reservation of use I think) clearly have a renewal clause in it? That's been a subject of contention as to whether subsequent law would allow it, but it was definitely there in 1972.

I'd just point out that I have no financial or other considerations other than being a fan/customer of DBOC and a semi-frequent Point Reyes visitor.

Kurt Repanshek:
Now, as far as obligations, perhaps you should identify yourself as a PR consultant? As such, you have an obligation to say whether you're being paid by the oyster company to search the Internet for stories on Drakes Bay, or whether you're doing it pro bono.

Sarah’s narrative nonfiction interest is in cultural and culinary history. Her current book, published in 2006 by Tilbury House, is A1 Diner: Real Food, Recipes, and Recollections, a history with recipes. She is currently working on a book about Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm in Point Reyes, California, her favorite place. Together with a noted historian, she is also researching a Point Reyes culinary history for a future book. Looking for a publishing home is The Pine Cone Diner Cookbook. The Pine Cone Diner, in Point Reyes Station, serves New American Diner cuisine.

Could this be yet another jobs killing action that always seems to be aimed at the private sector?
Those that live and work in concrete jungles pointing fingers at people who live and work out in it. Thought we're in a national effort to create, sustain and in the words of President Obama,"Jobs Saved." How does any of this, the way it's going, help the country ?
Maybe that's not the point. With the massive population base that surrounds the SF Bay that is so detached and disconnected to how the food chain works, I'm surprised that the ratio isn't 100-1 against. That minority that does know where and how to support (and educate) those that don't see how the food chain works past the Von's, Safeway or Albertson's (I know I'm leaving many out:) are the ones looked down upon for getting their hands dirty and working WITH nature. Only the elitist (there's that word again:) would feel it was their duty to take down a perfectly good enterprise that visitors support with their stomachs and the education they might gain from actually having interp tours of the operation showing how the NATURAL process works. That would be something that everyone would benefit from. What IS natural is that we ARE part of the food chain and can't be separated from it in the REAL world no matter how much some try. Good dose of REAL would be appreciated:).

So WHAT is the message that is being sent across the country with the MANY examples of slanted or absent factual informations put out by NPS. It really IS an epidemic everywhere you look (NPS is but one example here). Those people and their aquaculture are the ones grounded here and you'll know it by visiting with them, coming away the better for it, really.

Yes, it would be better to acknowledge if one was a PR Specialist in this case. How many PR Specialists are on the NPS payroll? I'd guess just the officially designated salaried Public Relations Specialists that NPS has on staff number in the many hundreds then add on all those associated employees that further the message, has to be in the MANY thousands. So what's the point about pushing for Sarah to acknowledge if she is one or not (I don't know).

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