House Oversight Committee Looking Into Point Reyes National Seashore's Handling Of Oyster Farm Future

Questionable actions the staff of Point Reyes National Seashore has taken towards the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. have drawn the attention of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is launching an investigation into the fate of the oyster company.

"Since 2007, the NPS has been advocating that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. cease operations at Point Reyes National Seashore because -- according to NPS -- the oyster farm is harming the local harbor seal population," the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on October 20.

"Allegations that NPS knowingly relied on flawed science to support that conclusion as part of an effort to remove DBOC have come from a wide range of stakeholders and disinterested parties. If true, the NPS, a bureau of the Department of Interior, will have closed the doors on a family-owned small business without a valid scientific basis."

The battle over the future of the oyster company has been ongoing for a number of years. When the company's owner, Kevin Lunny, bought the operation from the Johnson Oyster Co. in 2005, it came with a 40-year lease that expires in November 2012. And since the oyster farm is located in an area of the seashore, Drakes Estero, that has been targeted for official wilderness designation, his ability to gain a lease extension has been impeded.

At issue is whether the oyster farm is adversely impacting Drakes Estero and its marinelife, particularly harbor seals. The estero long has been viewed for designation as official wilderness -- the 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres that would be "essentially managed as wilderness, to the extent possible, with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status" -- and the oyster operation is seen as being incompatible with such a designation.

But the Park Service's handling of the oyster company's future has been both contentious and embarassing for the agency. While a Park Service report on the oyster operation concluded that it was impacting harbor seals, the report at times has withered under scrutiny. In 2009 the National Research Council said the NPS report was skewed, "selectively" manipulated in several areas, and inconclusive overall.

A year later, the Interior's Solicitor's Office conducted an investigation into whether the staff at Point Reyes had intentionally mishandled research data it collected to determine the oyster farm's impacts, if any, on harbor seals during pupping season. That probe cleared the staff of any criminal behavior or criminal misconduct in the matter, a finding that itself has drawn criticism.

Part of the investigation centered around charges that Park Service staff "suppressed" more than 250,000 photographs the Point Reyes staff captured with a secret camera from 2007 to 2010 to determine whether farm operations were disturbing harbor seals during the pupping season. Those photos, proponents of the oyster farm say, failed to show any disturbance of harbor seals by farm employees. Interviews conducted by the Solicitor's Office, however, indicated that on at least five occasions the farm's workers caused disturbances of seals during pupping season.

Now Rep. Issa, R-California, wants his committee to look into the matter, and has asked Secretary Salazar to order the Park Service to turn over reams of documents -- correspondence, reports, drafts of reports, emails -- and to make staff, including Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, available for "transcribed interviews" set to begin the week of November 7.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein intervened on behalf of Mr. Lunny, asking Interior Secretary Salazar to extend the oyster company's lease. That request led the seashore staff to prepare a draft environmental impact statement examining the oyster farm's impacts on the estero.

Earlier this fall the seashore released a draft environmental impact statement. It offered four alternatives -- a no action option, which would uphold the lease retirement next year, and three other options that would allow the oyster farm to remain, albeit at three different levels of operation. The document currently is open to public comment through November 29.

Rep. Issa's letter to Secretary Salazar is attached below.

2011-10-20 DEI to Salazar-DOI - oysters due 11-4 11-7.pdf351.03 KB


The oyster farm smear campaign against the Park Service has backing from wise-use anti-environmental groups and commercial interests who want to further commercialize our public lands and seek to overturn the Wilderness Act. This is federally designated wilderness. Period.

This in not some poor local farmer versus big government – this is an army of corporate lobbyist, lawyers, monied interests and ... politicians (Feinstein is in bed with right-wing Darrell Issa on this issue) working to oppose the public interest and privatize public lands.

Three federal investigations by the Inspector General and Department of Interior have cleared the Park Service of any wrongdoing and rejected the ... accusations of Goodman. Now ... right-wing poltician Darrell Issa has taken up the attacks. It is very revealing that the anti-wilderness camp thinks Issa and Feinstein bullying and persecuting the Park Service and is a good thing.

... Feinstein has a record of attacking good science to help her wealthy campaign supporters – witness her manipulation of the NAS review process to try to destroy salmon runs in the Delta for the Resnicks.

The National Park Service has relied on peer-reviewed science; the very standard Goodman and Gleick professes to want, to show significant impacts from the oyster farm on wildlife and how it spreads invasive species. It is a lie to say the Park Service science has been “debunked.” It has been attacked by those with no data, science or logic on their side to serve the cause of profit over public interest and wilderness protection.
This is a Halloween witch hunt of the most shameful kind.

This comment was edited to remove gratuitous remarks. The message was not altered. -- Ed.

Check your dates, Kurt. Lunny bought Johnson's Oyster Co. some years before 2007, perhaps as many as five (i.e., 2002). I don't have the exact date that Lunny took over, but I know it was quite a bit earlier than '07.
I also can't help but react to the "anonymous" comment of 11:23am -- there is no "army of corporate lobbyist, lawyers, monied interests..." at Drakes Bay Oysters. It's just Kevin Lunny and his family, supported by truly grass-roots efforts of his neighbors. The vast majority of local residents supports the oyster farm, which has gotten the attention of politicians, as it should.
It is interesting to watch this strange-bedfellows alignment, putting Issa and Feinstein in league with each other. Who'd have guessed? It's also quite odd to see environmentalists misusing, distorting and ignoring science in the pursuit of their goals -- that's usually the province of right wingers and conservatives (making Issa's involvement doubly ironic). But true believers have always been willing to allow the ends to justify the means.

Good catch, Hayseed. You're right, it should be 2005. I've made the fix in the copy.

Environmental groups across the country continue to point the wealth of peer-reviewed science that exists on adverse ecological impacts from mariculture operations. What is amusing about the rabid pro-oyster cult of Point Reyes is their singular dismissal of it all and immediate damning of the draft EIS. They also ignore that this is the same science relied upon by the 2009 National Academy Study.
The peer-reviewed science environmental organizations point to includes significant impacts to Drakes Estero from invasive species like Didendum vexillum, motor boats operating 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, propeller cuts to eelgrass, and real disturbances to shorebirds while they try to feed and rest.
Far from ignoring science, in this case science is the third prong, along with law and policy, of the trifecta requiring wilderness in 2012.

Those who love wilderness don't want to it commercialized. The Drakes Bay Oyster Company has had a sweet deal, paying almost nothing to take over remaining 7 years on a 40 lease granted to the previous owners of the operation with terms stating the the land would be restored as wilderness thereafter. Rather than scale back operations as the expiration date approached, Drakes Bay Oyster Company expanded--without permits--into protected areas of the park. They've been fined thousands of dollars by the state Coastal Commission for these and other violations of the Coastal Act, which they have yet to pay. The Lunny's frame themselves as small family farmers, but they and their supporters hired Washington lobbyists and media experts to attack the National Park Service for enforcing the terms of the lease. The Lunny's act the victims of "big government." But apparently don't mind having their operations--including oystering and cattle ranching in the national park--subsidized by us taxpayers. The disingenuous "little guy versus Big Government" campaign isn't based on science, rather it's based on character assassination and disinformation. The Issa "investigation," is another manifestation of this years-long effort. Someone should remind Lunny, and Feinstein, and Issa, that Pt Reyes National Seashore belongs to all of us, not to a "small" private businessman, however big his sense of entitlement.

Can I apply for an oil search permit in Point Reyes?? Miss Feinstein I'd like a 40 yr lease pleaseLOL

A thread that runs through so much of the conversation here and on the national level is an assault on the private sector. Bad, bad people that have nothing but the most evil intent. I've been watching it for years creep into peoples psyche. Those that don't stick their own skin in the game and somehow are better people while their own incomes originate from the successes of the private sector. It is an underlying tenet of the Pseudo-Environmental movement. Many in NPS attach themselves "protect the resource" as if they were divine saviors. The resource IS God and not of God if that's okay to say in this crappy PC environment. Maybe someone can tell me what NPS scientific study was done to run a 100+ year old private family business that predates the Grand Canyon National Park and has a huge cultural historical presence but somehow offends the then Superintendent Steve Martin's sensitivities. Of course I'm referring to Verkamp's which is now more museum than living history with less significance obvious.
The Drake's Bay Oyster issue is driven by the same motivation and forget the legal and PR campaign that points to the "Preferred Alternative!" Boy, have I heard that before!
Let the Oyster operation at Drake's Bay continue to operate allowing those visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore to watch them grow and enjoy them (with a little cocktail sauce)! Something that actually could be purchased in a NPS managed area that was Made In The USA or better yet Grown in National Recreational Area. Something that can't be said of the NPS uniforms and USA Flags that are flown there.

Kurt, The incrimination you speak of sounds like it came directly from the commercial fishing lobbyist propaganda. This is not mom and pop being picked on by big government. It is an individual who considers himself above the terms of the original agreement. For over 30 years we have been patiently awaiting the closing of this commercial operation so the inconsistent uses could be dismantled and move into a full Wilderness status. There are other locations within 3 miles (outside of the park) as the crow flys that he can relocate his operation. He was offered 1 million dollars by a nonprofit environmental group and was encouraged to take the deal by Feinstein. Mr. Lunny has was unimpressed with an attempt to compromise, has violated law after law (claiming the victim again for the volume of laws one has to abide by), and seems bent on dividing what historically were groups that worked together - environmentalists and sustainable, organic farming. On top of all that he, and the lobbyist are demonizing individuals that are respected across the country for their contributions to protection of resources. The permit was written to expire in 2012. Mr. Lunnys scheming to pummel the community with misinformation - to bully Point Reyes NS into extending his lease is a dream come true for all those exploiters of national parks. Commerce in national parks is not the issue. Commerce trumping long term Wilderness plans and clear leases is - and is fuel for all others wishing to exploit the parks for personal gain. And - since when did continuity of short-term commercial companies become a policy directive of the National Park service. I though it was in the business of protecting landscapes?

I believe there is something in the founding mission statement about enjoyment. If not there should be. I do recollect something about celebrating "individual rights and freedom" in documents dating back to the late 1700's. Many in the protection business have drifted over the line a bit and continually mis-characterize private enterprise as a whole to further the agenda. The absence of a working relationship between the two factions has not served the country well, I don't believe. NPS underpinnings do not like private enterprise. They deal with it in their concessions (whether good or otherwise) but the Parks just aren't pure enough for them as long as they aren't the sole operator it would seem. An effort to truly engage and get to know these individuals and their work would go far in having a fair and workable relationship than the constant battles with agenda turf wars that does not serve the "enjoyment of the public."

As a reply to the comment that the Park service allow for public enjoyment.

Perhaps Wilderness doesn't appeal to you; that is ok. Wilderness appeals to many others. There are (at least) two oyster companies within a 10 miles as the crow flies. This operation had a lease that is scheduled to expire next year. I see this as duplicating (and competing with) services already available within the vicinity. Why has this business been allowed to derail the Wilderness planning when the lease and intentions of the NPS were well articulated? Seems pretty clear to me. And I believe the NPS "agenda" is consistent with the lease Mr. Lunny signed. The park service "agenda" that I've witnessed over the years has been articulated since the '70's/80's (and prior to Mr. Lunny's purchase of the cheap lease he was well informed). They have a website that has reams of information, apparently the Foia'ed documents, the EIS etc, for us to see. With the money the government has had to dedicate to this, it seems only fair that the litigants be asked to show their accounting, list of contributors, and who is funding Mr. Lunny's operation. Their insistence on telling the NPS that despite their planning, they must change their 30 years of planning, and respond to attack after attack - sounds all too familiar in this political climate. I for one consider it to be toxic.

In response, perhaps because I have accepted both worlds and spend pretty much equal amounts of time in both and respect what it takes for individuals to face the constant assault on the type of character needed to be a "producer" by some. The culture change so evident likes to demonize in judgmental ways that always seems to portray the excesses or perceived bias's in a battle ground that does not serve the public and the future. Some of the arguments don't even allow for someone to actually work connected to the resource while importing everything from Pinon Nuts to American Flags. Paradigm change is needed to make the Parks and the economy better. Just saying...

So many comments from Anonymous, all claiming to know the truth. Personally I find it more credible when someone is willing to use his or her real name.

The first Anonymous has many facts wrong. For example:

"This in not some poor local farmer versus big government – this is an army of corporate lobbyist, lawyers, monied interests and ... politicians (Feinstein is in bed with right-wing Darrell Issa on this issue) working to oppose the public interest and privatize public lands."

Actually, all of the lobbyists are on the side of the Park Service and its cronies, NPCA and EAC. NPCA spends roughly $30 million a year lobbying. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but these activists are the only "monied interests" here. The Lunnys spend exactly zero dollars lobbying. The only "army" working for the Lunnys is the army of informed, interested citizens who care about the truth and are willing to put their own time into this. (Whereas the NPCA, the EAC, and the NPS are all paid. That is one of the outrages here--the Lunnys must spend their own time and money defending themselves from false charges while the Park Service gets paid for making those charges. The Park Service doesn't have to pay for its lawyers or its studies--the taxpayers pay. Tell me again about how this is not about a local farmer versus big government?)

Nobody is trying to "privatize public lands." The oyster farm was there long before this was a National Seashore. There is no rational reason to remove it.

Senator Feinstein got involved in this issue at the request of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and is properly standing up for what is right. That was years ago, when the Park Service first started spreading misinformation. She is simply doing her job.

"Three federal investigations by the Inspector General and Department of Interior have cleared the Park Service of any wrongdoing and rejected the ... accusations of Goodman."

This is completely untrue, as has been reported right here on NP Traveler. All of the investigations, including the scientific review by the National Academy of Sciences, have found the Park Service guilty of misrepresenting the facts. No investigation--yet--has found them guilty of *scientific misconduct* (a specific legal term) but *no* investigation has cleared them of wrongdoing. Look it up.

As to the accusation that Dr. Goodman is "politically motivated," that is a falsehood that doesn't even make sense.

"The National Park Service has relied on peer-reviewed science; the very standard Goodman and Gleick professes to want, to show significant impacts from the oyster farm on wildlife and how it spreads invasive species."

Peer-review is not the key issue. What matters is whether the facts are true or false. There is no valid data showing harm to wildlife from the oyster farm. The only peer-reviewed data about harm to wildlife from the oyster farm in Drakes Bay is the Becker 2009 paper which was indeed thoroughly debunked both by Dr. Goodman and by the National Academy of Sciences (look it up--the link to that report is elsewhere in these pages), and the Becker 2011 paper which is the same poor science in new bottles. Becker 2011 was published in some very obscure British journal; its data set does not even stand up to informal review, much less serious scrutiny. "Peer review" is a red herring here.

"It is a lie to say the Park Service science has been “debunked.” It has been attacked by those with no data, science or logic on their side to serve the cause of profit over public interest and wilderness protection."

This is not true. The science in the "Sheltered Wilderness" paper has been debunked over and over again. Read the NAS report, you will find that the Park Service science is definitely debunked (although being the National Academy, it is a very polite debunking). Read anything you can find online by Dr. Corey Goodman, an esteemed scientist whose only interest here is in the truth. Or contact him directly, he'll send you the data and the analysis. Dr. Goodman has all of the data on his side. I challenge Anonymous to cite something that shows otherwise.

This is not about profit vs public interest or wilderness protection. Pete McCloskey is one of the people who wrote the Wilderness Act in question, and he has gone public recently with his support for the oyster farm, which was always meant to stay.

As recently as 1998, the Park Service itself was interested in expanding the oyster farm's onshore operations, and issued a Finding of No Significant Impact for that major construction project (which didn't happen, beyond the necessary cleanup of the septic system, because then-owners the Johnson family ran out of money). It is not logical to imagine that a bunch of new special-status species have emerged in the past 13 years, or that wildlife has all of a sudden started being harmed, or that the wilderness legislation means something different now.

The Park Service and its activist enablers have done an excellent job with the PR effort making it sound as if they are in the right, but that narrative is simply not true.

The oyster farm helps the environment by cleaning the water. That's what the NAS found, and that's what all of the serious science has found.

There is no harm to seals or any other wildlife. The Park Service has photographic evidence of that--they took photos of the oyster-farm boats every minute of every day and found zero disturbances of seals by oyster-farm workers (but quite a few by misguided kayakers). These photographs were kept out of the draft EIS on the flimsy excuse that they were not collected according to protocol. But the data is clear: no harm.

A big paved road, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, goes through the Seashore and runs right across the tip of Drakes Estero. This is not a place that will ever be wilderness. It gets over three million visitors per year.

The oyster farm is entirely compatible with a wilderness-like experience. It is the main place people park to go on kayaking tours of Drakes Bay, and it is also a major site for serious birding. If the oyster farm were driving away wildlife, this would not be the case. There has been an oyster farm here for decades. If the wildlife were diminishing, I'm sure the paddlers and birders would have let someone know. It doesn't take peer-reviewed science to notice a problem like that. Instead, the opposite is the case--more and more seals, more and more birds.

There is no rational reason we can't continue to have the best of both worlds in Drakes Bay: a thriving oyster farm that aids the environment and the local economy, and a thriving National Seashore that provides a near-wilderness experience.

It would be irresponsible to shut down the oyster farm to provide the illusion of wilderness.

I've read the DOI report. It never cleared PRNS staff of wrongdoing. In fact it seems almost scathing to some degree about the conduct by PRNS staff.

What it did say was essentially that they wouldn't recommend criminal charges be pursued and wouldn't recommend that staff be fired for their misconduct. That's a far cry from being cleared.

It's just not anything new to contrive a case against or make it impossible for something like Drake's Bay Oyster Co. or any number of historic inholdings that somehow after a 100 years (in some cases) seems incompatible with modern NPS culture and the pseudo environmental industries alliances. In many cases (DBOC excepted) the in-holders were led to believe that their positions were secure. With legal or administrative actions it's common to reduce the ability to continue being profitable as an avenue to acquire what was once a thriving, compatible operation. Much is good, a great deal is good about NPS but this shady side does not compliment that good. So you can focus on the legalities but it's the underlying motivations that are really the issue.