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Scrutiny On National Park Service and Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Ramps Up


While Congressional Republicans are investigating alleged misconduct of the National Park Service in its handling of an oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, California officials are pushing the company to explain why it is out of compliance with its operating permit.

The inquires come as the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. nears the end of its 40-year lease, which expires in November, and while seashore officials are finishing an environmental impact statement examining impacts of the oyster farm on Drakes Estero.

In Washington, U.S. Sens. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, and James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, this week wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (see attachment) with a request that he "explain why he consistently ignored serious complaints regarding the scientific integrity of the Director of the National Park Service Jon Jarvis, and why these allegations were not addressed during Mr. Jarvis' nomination process."

"We've seen facts manipulated and science ignored across the administration while they've developed policies with huge negative effects on the economy," said Sen. Vitter in announcing his probe. "We want the public to be aware of the administration's scientific gimmickry, because important policy decisions by the EPA and Interior shouldn't be based on guesswork or manipulated facts - and we want the agencies to be transparent and explain their methods."

The Park Service director is being pursued because he was the agency's Pacific Region director with oversight of Point Reyes before being appointed director. He has declined to comment publicly on the Point Reyes matter.

Over in the House, meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, also is looking into the Park Service's handling of the oyster company.

While the congressional investigations seem centered on possible misconduct within the Park Service, the California Coastal Commission is losing patience over its requests that Drakes Bay Oyster Co. explain why it seems to be out of compliance not only with where it is operating in the estero but also with a "Consent Cease and Desist Order" that company owner Kevin Lunny helped draft.

Specifically, the commission was referring to the company's use of a lateral channel in the estero that was specifically off-limits to its boats at certain times of the year (March 1-June 30) because of the harbor seal pupping season, and debris from oyster farm operations that washes up in the estero and nearby beaches. (Mr. Lunny has maintained that the debris is from operations under the company's previous owner and that his workers go out at least once a month to pick up the plastic apparatus used in oyster farming.)

In a February 1 letter (see attachment) to Mr. Lunny, the commission stressed that "you have known of our concerns on these two issues for more than four months, and we have yet to receive any written response. We feel that we have been very patient concerning resolution of these most recently alleged violations, especially in light of the many alleged violations we have brought to your attenion over the years," wrote Jo Ginsberg, the commission's enforcement analyst. "We are concerned that you have not responded to our letters, and we hope this failure to respond is not indicative of a lack of willingess on your part to resolve the outstanding alleged violations of the Coastal Act and the Order, and to comply with the Order in the future.

"Should this prove to be the case, we may have little choice but to seek such remedies as assessment of stipulated penalities and/or filing a lawsuit..."

On Tuesday, Mr. Lunny said he and his attorneys were working on a response to the commission, and that it had been held up while he awaited a response from Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon over the Park Service's regulations concerning boats in the lateral channel. There long had been an understanding with the Park Service, he said, that the company's boats could enter a portion of the lateral channel on the western end.

The company's boats have "always shown there during pupping season, OK, so it’s not a new thing, and it’s not a thing we’ve ever have a concern about because it’s nowhere near the seals."

On January 23, a week before the commission's letter to Mr. Lunny, Superintendent Muldoon wrote him (see attachment) and stated that under the Special Use Permit granted Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in 2008, "During the breeding season, March 1 through June 30, the 'Main Channel' and 'Lateral Channel' of Drakes Estero will be closed to boat traffic. During the remainder of the year, the Lateral Channel and the Main Channel are open to boat traffic outside the (seal) protection zone."

"The plain meaning of this provision is that the entirety of the Lateral Channel is closed during the harbor seal breeding season (March 1-June 30)."

Those restrictions date to 1992, when protocols were established to protect harbor seals in the estero, and were recognized by the oyster company itself as recently as February 2009, according to California Coastal Commission records.

The interest in the fate of an oyster company that produces between 450,000-500,000 pounds of Pacific oyster meat a year for Bay Area outlets has been fanned by both U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an ardent supporter of the oyster company and its small workforce, and environmentalists and conservationists who want to see the estero granted official wilderness designation.

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 encompassing the estero 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.

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.

Last November, the federal Marine Mammal Commission weighed in with its own report, which found that that seal behavior at Drakes Estero was "at least correlated" with operations of the oyster company. The commission also  said more research was needed to determine a "cause and effect."

All the reports and investigations haven't seemed, though, to alter the fact that Congress in 1976 intended for the estero to become official wilderness, that the oyster company's lease is set to expire in November, something Mr. Lunny knew when he took over the operation in 2005.

Indeed, at various times Mr. Lunny publicly acknowledged the November 2012 expiration date. But he also hoped that by improving the operation that perhaps the Park Service would be willing to extend the lease beyond that date

"We know the plan is to shut us down in 2012," Mr. Lunny told the Pacific Sun in 2007. "We went into this knowing that that was a chance. We also knew that (oyster farming) could be done right. (Johnson's Oyster Co.) was a black eye for the park. The environmental community was up in arms about the way it was being operated.... We thought, well, if we could prove that we could do it right, maybe we could get a new look in 2012."


NPS actions at Drake's Bay is not an isolated incident, I believe.  I've witnessed the same misuse of data, procedures and outrages personal bullying by the highest ranking individual in a park which resulted in his "preferred alternative."  With all due respect for the daily faithful working inside NPS, sometimes they have no choice in administering their bosses or agency's ideology.  Something that Roadranger posted to another NPT article I believe holds true in this matter and many others accross the NPS spectrum:

"Regarding the environmental movement. When it began in the early '60s the movement had about it an altruistic core that was embraced pretty much across the board by the political spectrum. Today, the movement has been captured by the anti-capitalist, unhinged left that has been adrift since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although the NPS seems to have avoided open identification with the current movement, many of its employees are proud to identify themselves as part of the leftist elite and poised to ridicule those who are not in lockstep with their beliefs. This group needs to understand that there are millions of centrists and conservative environmental advocates - individual and corporate - who have supported the NPS mission in the past and will continue to do so. Such an acknowledgement would be good for the health of the NPS and help it survive the political swings from left to right and back again that are likely in our future."

Regarding the MMC study, it is important to read Appendix F, which includes the reports from the panelists, that is, the actual marine mammal scientists who were asked to study the Becker paper (the highly flawed Park Service report that claims to find a correlation between oyster farm activity and harbor seal disturbances).  The Appendix is here:

Not one of these scientists agrees with the conclusions presented in the "Report" part of the report. 

I urge people to read it for themselves; the disparity is shocking.  Some examples of what the scientists said:

"The population of harbor seals in Drakes Estero is currently healthy
and likely to be resilient to moderate variations in disturbance regimes along
the lines of what has been experienced under the current protective
measures."<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

"There is no reason why harbor seals, DBOC oyster growing activities
and other uses cannot coexist in a healthy and productive Drake's Estero

"After review, it is my personal opinion that any discussion of
individual data points is irrelevant given the larger issues within the study
design, data analyses and proxies used for effort."

"My first concern is that using annual oyster production levels by DBOC
is not a reasonable proxy for boat activity and disturbances of seals on
haulout sites adjacent to oyster growing lease areas."

"The data are not sufficient to support the conclusion that a decline
was caused by the oyster activities. The period of comparison is too short, and
the bulk of the decline seems to have preceded the increase of oyster
activities on the sand bars."

Congressional intent is a strange thing. The primary authors of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act are still alive, and they claim there was never an intent to force the oyster farm out.   C'mon Kurt - you even had an article on their support for a renewal of the lease.

I went there about a week ago. The drive was spectacular as usual. My cooler got well stocked in a hurry. Drakes Estero was absolutely beautiful as I grabbed one oyster and my trusty oyster knife, and it enjoyed while watching the sun shine across the water. It was a beautiful day, and I can't think of a more perfect blend of nature and commerce.

If they have any issues, I hope they really iron them out. I know they try, but sometimes signals are crossed.

There have been a number of situations widely reported in the media about questionable behavior by NPS and the GGNRA units it operates in the Bay area. Specifally, there was an incident that involved a Law Enforcement Ranger using a Taser gun on a  man walking his dogs off leash at the Rancho Corral de Tierra unit that was transfered to GGNRA in December 2011. According to GGNRA, the man was stopped for an off leash violation but tased for providing a false name and not complying with the officer's orders. A Congresswoman has asked for an independent investigation about excessive use of force. It's worth noting the incident because NPS has treated the incident just like the problems with Drake's Estero science abuse, by going into total defense mode with complete denial that the ranger may have overeacted or acted improperly. This incident added togeher with Sen. Feinstein's request for an investigation of Drake's Bay, as well as the separate request by Sen. Inhofe, and the preceding one by Rep. Issa makes for four separate congressional requests for investigation of GGNRA/NPS west region. Granted Congressional members grandstand all the time in such matters it's quite revealing adn rather troubling that there are management problems at the very least somewhere in the mix. All corporations and entities have there share of flare up but the examples I've cited here have a common thread and there needs to be some accountbility and, at very least, acknolwdgement there are matteres of breach of public trust at stake. Sorry to blather on, but these lands and wilderness areas belong to everyone and there are enough many groups calling foul on NPS not to give pause to their perspectives. 

I was there three weeks ago.  Usually I take Sir Francis Drake Blvd. all the way out--it's nice the way you go through the redwoods at Lagunitas and then when you come out and wind to the top of the next hill, there's Inverness Ridge in all its glory.  This time I took the Fairfax-Bolinas road just for a change.  Wow, what a ride!  You take switchbacks up the mountain, then plunge down into a mossy glen, and you do it three times in a row!
y_p_w, if you are interested in comparing notes on DBOC, I would be happy to hear from you.  Email me if you wish, sarah at

Mike R.:
There have been a number of situations widely reported in the media about questionable behavior by NPS and the GGNRA units it operates in the Bay area. Specifally, there was an incident that involved a Law Enforcement Ranger using a Taser gun on a man walking his dogs off leash at the Rancho Corral de Tierra unit that was transfered to GGNRA in December 2011. According to GGNRA, the man was stopped for an off leash violation but tased for providing a false name and not complying with the officer's orders. A Congresswoman has asked for an independent investigation about excessive use of force. It's worth noting the incident because NPS has treated the incident just like the problems with Drake's Estero science abuse, by going into total defense mode with complete denial that the ranger may have overeacted or acted improperly.

   By all accounts, the intent was not to ticket. They've been trying to have some educational outreach efforts about the new dog leash requirements. They've been going to people and, asking that they leash their dogs without tickets. He apparently leashed the dog almost immediately when requested. I also heard the name he gave. It might not have been a real name, but it wasn't some off the wall totally fake name that he knew would raise eyebrows. Apparently an NPS spokesman says that they routinely ask for people's names, and not for any law enforcement reasons.

Whether or not he illegally gave a peace officer a false name is also questionable. Federal law enforcement are not considered California peace officers, although they can exercise peace officer authority on federal property if they are directly making an arrest or conducting an investigation. She apparently got suspicious at a name he gave when he wasn't being cited/arrested and there was no indication that it was an investigation. She also repeatedly refused to tell him if he was being cited/arrested/detained, and she shot him in the back. Personally - I'm thinking she could be held personally liable, as there is a court precedent that even with qualified immunity for the agency, there may not be immunity from lawsuit for the officer.

There were witness accounts too. Most of the witnesses were appalled that a non-violent person would be shot in the back with a Taser.

Didn't the NPS also have a payout in the case where a couple of people in Point Reyes Station (well off NPS land) were pepper sprayed for asking a couple of LE rangers what they were doing with a couple of friends they had busted (also well off NPS land) for pot possession. From what I understand, the NPS did eventually pay out a settlement, but didn't admit to any wrongdoing. What I remember about the incident was that the Marin County Sheriff's Department was adamant that they only deputized NPS LE rangers so that they could enforce state and county laws on NPS property, save something like a mutual aid request.

Actually, over the past couple of weeks, I keep on going back to the area. I've probably taken all the different roads, including combinations of Sir Francis Drake, Lucas Valley Road, Point-Reyes Petaluma Road, CA-1, Tomales-Petaluma Road, and Nicasio Valley Road.

I'm also an equal opportunity oyster consumer. I tried Hog Island (they've got a broad selection including Atlantics, Kumamotos, and occasionally French) and Tomales Bay Oyster, but DBOC has a nicer location, better prices, and the best tasting product. Not that I don't mind some variety.

I'll do on the email.

One of these days I'm going to go there and do a taste test of Pacifics from all three. I look forward to seeing my kid's first raw oyster consumed there - hopefully with DBOC still around.

Great life you have going YPW!   Wished there were more opportunities for citizens to interact in real ways like this throughout the Park System.  Interp presentations have there most powerful effects with visitors when they connect in real ways.  I believe that's the best value to our citizens than the "look but don't touch" approach.  I sense that in some/many cases the insular/opaque side of NPS the visitors of these parks are an inconvenience and shouldn't interfere with their plans because they just know better.  Not a blanket inditement but definitely a factor.  Just bring back Mather and Albright and weed out the ....

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