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.