A federal judge, saying the owner of an oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore failed to accept the National Park Service's long-stated intention not to renew his lease, has refused to block the company's removal from the seashore.
In a 31-page ruling (attached below) handed down Monday, District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers held that Kevin Lunny knew as long ago as 2005 that the Park Service intended to let the lease lapse.
"The Lunnys' refusal to hear the message weighs against them," the judge noted in her ruling.
The judge's decision not to issue a temporary restraining order keeps the clock ticking on the removal of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.'s operations within Drakes Estero in the national seashore. The company, which has sued the Interior Department over the matter, has until mid-March to move out of the national seashore's waters.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar late in November refused to extend the lease the company held to cultivate oysters in the waters of Drakes Estero. At the time he ordered the operation to end operations on November 30, and gave the owners 90 days to remove its facilities from the seashore so the estero could be managed as official wilderness.
In seeking a TRO to prevent the farm's eviction, the company's lawyers argued that Secretary Salazar broke the Administrative Procedures Act and violated the National Environmental Policy Act when he decided not to extend the lease for 10 years. In denying the lease extension, the Interior secretary cited the value of wilderness and congressional intent. On the very next day, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis declared the estero part of the Philip Burton Wilderness at the Seashore, effective December 4.
In her ruling, Judge Rogers held that she had no jurisdiction to rule on whether the Interior secretary broke the APA, and even if she did, the Lunnys did not prove that he acted arbitrary or capricious, or abused his discretion, in his decision.
In tracking the history of the oyster operation in the estero, the federal judge noted that:
* the original lease given to the Johnson Oyster Co. carried a November 2012 expiration;
* that when the Lunnys moved to purchase the company in 2005 the Park Service provided him with a legal opinion from the Interior Department's that “the Park Service is mandated by the Wilderness Act, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act and its Management Policies to convert potential wilderness, i.e., the Johnson Oyster Company tract and the adjoining Estero, to wilderness status as soon as the non[-]conforming use can be eliminated," and that,
* the Park Service followed that up two months later with a letter to the Lunnys “'to reiterate our guidance to you regarding the transfer of the Johnson Oyster Company site to your family [and] . . . to ensure clarity and to avoid any misunderstanding.' Among other things, the letter stated that “[r]egarding the 2012 expiration date and the potential wilderness designation, based on our legal review, no new permits will be issued after that date."
Judge Rogers also noted that it clearly was Congress's intent to see the waters of the estero designated as official wilderness.
Given the content in the Secretary’s Decision, the Court would have to find that his consideration of the goals of the Wilderness Act was not legally proper or was in contravention to the law. Further, the Court would be forced to ignore Congress’ statement that “those lands and waters designated as potential wilderness additions [were to] 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.” Even a plain meaning interpretation of the phrase “potential wilderness” suggests on its face the appropriateness of full wilderness as the ultimate goal.
"The court rightly decided that Secretary Salazar had full discretion to let the oyster operation permit expire on its own terms and honor the 1976 wilderness designation for Drakes Estero," said Amy Trainer, executive director for the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. "We are very grateful for this decision, which supports the estero's full wilderness protection, and we urge the company to fulfill its long-standing responsibility to its workers by assisting them during this time of transition."
At the National Parks Conservation Association, Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director, said the ruling "affirms that our national parks will be safe from privatization schemes, and that special places like Drakes Estero will rise above attempts to hijack Americans' wilderness. Taxpayers can rejoice that the land they bought and own in Point Reyes National Seashore will now be protected as planned after 40 years of waiting."
At Cause of Action, the law firm that represented the Lunnys in their bid for the TRO, Amber Abbasi said the Lunnys were mulling their options.
"Without this injunction, not only will a small business close, but families will be forced out of their homes, and the community will lose a sustainable farming resource," she said in prepared comments. "The Lunnys are weighing their options for next steps and will make their decision known in the coming days."