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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.


"McCloskey believes that the Park Service "secretly feels very uncomfortable about administering privately leased lands." But he believes that that discomfort — or the beliefs of those who would like to see the entire seashore become "pure" wilderness — do not justify a misreading of the laws he authored."
So many of these expressed thoughts and impressions of NPS secretly held thoughts and actions are applicable here at Grand Canyon (and others) with the forced acquisition of the VerKamps Family store after 100+ years,  preceding park status.   Those beliefs (secretly held) are not the ideal that, I believe, was intended.  Well, unless NPS properties and governors are seeking to become a country of it's own separate from the US (and apply for foreign aid) lol!
Thank you, Kurt!; Your site is interesting, thoughtful and fun for those seeking the light of transparency on the important issues of our beloved parks. Thank you for your efforts.

And one more:

Marin Voice: History sides with oyster farm

Pete McCloskey served as a Republican member of the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983. He now lives in Rumsey in Yolo County.


I would also add that former Rep. McCloskey was a well-known environmentalist, was one of the founders of Earth Day, and was a co-author of the Endangered Species Act.

Kurt Repanshek:
Spurred by a U.S. senator determined to reverse congressional action from four decades ago......

    Couldn't let this stand after recent reporting indicates that was clearly not correct.

Former legislators back Point Reyes oyster company's claims

And Burton, who helped designate the largest portion of the national seashore as "wilderness" in 1974, said the notion of preserving the oyster farm was not even considered controversial at the time.

"The issue of what to do with the oyster farm wasn't even under contention," Burton said. "Several things were grandfathered in, and aquaculture — oyster culture — was one of them. If this had been a big issue, then trust me, I would have remembered it."

McCloskey, who co-authored the Endangered Species Act and helped pass the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act during his years in Congress, said he was asked by publishing heiress Nan McEvoy to investigate the oyster company controversy — and that he was reluctant to do so at first.

"Nobody has ever accused us of not being environmentalists," he said, referring to himself, Bagley and Burton. "If we had found there was any threat to (harbor) seals from the farm, we would not have made our recommendation. We eventually got into it because we thought (opponents of the oyster farm) were misinterpreting the intent of Congress."

McCloskey believes that the Park Service "secretly feels very uncomfortable about administering privately leased lands." But he believes that that discomfort — or the beliefs of those who would like to see the entire seashore become "pure" wilderness — do not justify a misreading of the laws he authored.

"We wanted to correct the history," McCloskey said.


And just in case the Marin IJ article expires, the following article probably won't:
3 ex-Calif lawmakers wade into oyster farm dispute

There have been several opinion pieces (pro and con Re: DBOC) in the Marin Independent-Journal and this one was posted today:

Excellent background!
It seems like the overall tone that NPS pervades is that to separate people from our natural resources as much as they can and are only limited by those efforts by cumbersome public outrage and the occasional Congressman that values the hands on connection to our natural world. It really is an assault on the "grounding that people need and seek." I would hope that there would be a welcome change and have respect for the "deep" needs for growth and grounding by the individuals that make up the public sector.
NPS on display here is not an isolated event, apparently.

There was an interesting discussion on this back in 2009, featuring a lot of the principals in this fight, including Sen Feinstein, Kevin Lunny, Corey Goodman, Gordon Bennett (representing the local chapter of the Sierra Club), and Tess Elliott of the Point Reyes Light:

There's some well written opinion pieces in the Point Reyes Light, including this one:

I don't necessarily agree with the entirely of her comment about John Muir. In his later years he had the financial means to keep his rambles going because his in-laws' fruit orchards were extremely profitable.

Also - I'd just comment about the Pine Cone Diner. Once my wife and I arrived there very hungry and eager to get eating. We were seated outside (it was a very nice day) and had menus and water. We were looking over the menu (and waiting for service) for almost a half hour when another couple sat down, got their menus, and ordered with the server heading back in without even looking at us. That was just unacceptable, so we got up and high-tailed it to the market where we got a couple of hot sandwiches and ate them outside the Bear Valley Visitor Center. To this day I would talk people out of going there because of the service that day.

These points are largely non-responsive, Kurt.

No, I don’t work for the Lunnys. As has been pointed out by another commenter here, I’m a freelance writer working on a book about this story.

You raise a good point, though. It does make sense to pay attention to the nature of the source when evaluating information. I know quite a few people who, like me, take the time to try to counter misinformation about the oyster farm when they see it, and they are all doing it on their own initiative and on their own dime. Most of the people I know about who take the time to weigh in against the oyster farm are paid to do so. Neal Desai at NPCA, for example, and Amy Trainer at the so-called “grassroots” organization EAC, are both paid PR professionals, although that context is often dropped.

I do have the privilege of knowing the Lunnys. Have you ever communicated with Kevin Lunny directly? Or with Dr. Corey Goodman, who is the whistleblower here? They are both really great to interview. I guarantee that if you contact them you will get much better information than you are getting from the NPCA press releases.

Yes, most of those dollars did go to unions, retirements and am not sure whether the in-park construction was union or not but the point is that an appreciation for private sectors and those attitudes that create jobs (not Gov't), wealth and strength is needed if not required to regain our footing. There are so many examples of priorities run astray even the contempt of the courts as if the constitution is something of a hindrance. You know, Kurt, you have me thinking of branding time and those great Mt. Oyster oerdoerves/horsedovers! Thanks for the imaging!

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