Editor's note: This updates with comment from Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Kevin Lunny.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, citing the value of wilderness and congressional intent, on Thursday ruled that an oyster farm at Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore must end its operations.
“I’ve taken this matter very seriously. We’ve undertaken a robust public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the park to meet with the company and members of the community,” said Secretary Salazar. “After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to expire at the end of its current term and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976. I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape.”
That decision, said oyster company owner Kevin Lunny, was a "devastating" one, one that he maintains was built on misconduct in the way the National Park Service handled the matter.
"I feel like the arguments that he's been giving by the Park Service haven't all been correct," said Mr. Lunny, referring to Park Service studies into the oyster farm's operations that have drawn questions from outside reviewers. "The Park Service hasn’t been straight with the public. And the Park Service is an agency that Secretary Salazar is in charge of. I can only assume that’s where he’s getting most of his information. I don’t think he learned everything he needed to know in a half-hour visit to the farm” last week.
The fate of an oyster company that employs roughly 30 workers who produce between 450,000-500,000 pounds of Pacific oyster meat a year for Bay Area outlets has been fanned in recently years by both U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an ardent supporter of the oyster company and its small workforce, and environmentalists and conservationists who wanted to see the estero granted official wilderness designation.
The oyster company's 40-year lease runs out this Friday, and Congress long ago said the estero should be designated as official wilderness once all non-conforming uses are removed from it. The 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the national 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.
Secretary Salazar's decision, which was applauded in some corners and derided in others, came nine days after the Seashore staff quietly released its final environmental impact statement that assessed the oyster company's impacts on the estero. That document did not state a preference by the Seashore on whether the oyster company's lease should be extended, but cited the authority Congress gave the Interior secretary to extend the lease if he so desired.
In a release from Washington, D.C., U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Mark Udall, D-Colorado, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, spoke out in support of the secretary's decision to allow the oyster farm's permit to expire on November 30.
“We applaud the decision to follow the clear intent of Congress, as well as an agreement signed almost four decades ago to establish the nation's first marine wilderness on the West Coast at Point Reyes National Seashore,” the four said in a joint statement. “This decision will protect the ecological heart of the national seashore.”
The decision also was cheered by the National Parks Conservation Association, where President Tom Kiernan said the secretary's ruling allows "(T)his legendary place, long planned and paid for, (to be) returned to the public for an unprecedented marine wilderness visitor experience unmatched on the West Coast.”
Syliva Earle, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, saluted "Secretary Salazar for his wisdom and statesmanship in choosing long-term public good over short-term private interests. Protecting Drakes Estero, America's only West Coast marine wilderness park, will restore health -- and hope -- for the ocean and for the interests of all of the people of this country.”
"Extremely disappointed" by the Secretary's decision was Sen. Feinstein, who said the "National Park Service’s review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement."
"The Secretary’s decision effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs.”
Though Mr. Lunny said he always knew there was a possibility that the farm's permit wouldn't be renewed, he held out hope that it would be. Whether the oysterman would try to seek a way to challenge the decision legally or otherwise, such as through legislation that could perhaps reverse Secretary Salazar's decision in some fashion, wasn't immediately clear.
“We don’t know," he replied when asked if he saw any options. "We just don’t know. We do have advisors, we do have lawyers. Of course, it’s the National Park Service against our family. And they have been in a single word very hostile. I don’t see us having any chance going toe to toe with them.”
Secretary Salazar said his finding "honors Congress's direction to 'steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status' and thus ensures that these precious resources are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations of the American public, for whom Point Reyes National Seashore was created."
"As President Johnson said on signing the Wilderness Act in 1964, '(I)f future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them with something more than the miracles of technology," the secretary continued. "We must leave them with a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it."
Secretary Salazar gave the oyster company 90 days to remove "its personal property, including shellfish and racks, from the land and waters covered by the Reservation of Use and Occupancy and Special Use Permit," and said no commercial activities at the farm would be allowed after Friday. He also directed National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to "use all existing legal authorizations at your disposal to help DBOC workers who might be affected by this decision, including assistance with relocation, employment opportunties, and training."