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."