Conflict of Lease and Legacy Provokes Controversy on the Half Shell

The oysters grown and harvested in Drake's Estero -- part of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco -- are the subject of a national controversy that only seems to grow as a plea by an oyster farm to stay in operation gets closer to federal appeals court.

Oysters Harvesting oysters at Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco. Photo by Spencer Michels.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!" -- Lewis Carroll

Not since Lewis Carroll wrote "The Walrus and the Carpenter" have oysters garnered so much attention. The oysters grown and harvested in Drake's Estero -- part of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco -- are the subject of a national controversy that only seems to grow as a plea by an oyster farm to stay in operation gets closer to federal appeals court.

Briefly, the facts: Drakes Bay Oyster Company and its predecessor have existed since the 1930s. Sometime after the area became part of a National Seashore in 1962, the company was told that its lease would run through 2012, and then it would have to close down operations. The land was now owned by the U.S. government, and it was designated as wilderness - or potential wilderness.

Seven years ago the company changed hands, and one of the new owners, Kevin Lunny, decided he would try to extend the lease and stay open. The Department of the Interior studied the case, as did a number of scientists, and last November Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided the operation should cease. In a nutshell, Salazar decided that a commercial enterprise was incompatible with wilderness and with the concept of a National Park. Lunny and his family didn't agree with the decision. They said the science was flawed, the area really wasn't wild, and they went to court.

That's where the controversy stands now. The court will hear arguments in mid-May. It all sounds pretty simple, and pretty local. But it isn't.

I've been working on a story for the PBS NewsHour about the oyster controversy, and I cannot remember a subject I've reported on (with the possible exception of climate change) that has evoked more email and phone calls, even before the story aired.

On the local level, everyone in Marin County (where Pt. Reyes is located) has an opinion. Many of those I've talked with love the oyster company, love the oysters, love the Lunnys, and are opposed to closing down the farm they remember from their youth and that they still visit on weekends. The odd thing is that most of these people are dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists. But they are also sustainable, local food enthusiasts, and even if they see the problem with letting one commercial operation remain in the "pristine" National Seashore, they are willing to make an exception. "What's the big deal?" they ask. These folks have bombarded the local newspaper, the Pulitzer-prize winning Point Reyes Light, with letters in support of the Lunnys.

But they aren't the only activists on the issue. The first time I called the Lunnys to ask about the case, I hadn't been off the phone for 20 minutes when I got a phone call from a Washington, D.C.-based organization called Cause of Action. It's a self-described "government watchdog," headed by a former employee of the conservative Koch Brothers foundation, which has taken on the Lunnys' cause. They are providing pro bono legal services to the oyster farm (not their only attorneys), on the theory that big government shouldn't be trying to close down small business.

"When you have a federal government that in some cases is unchecked, it can lead to certain harms to economic freedom," director Dan Epstein told the NewsHour.

But entry into the fray of a conservative Washington advocacy group has changed the nature and the tenor of the debate. Instead of a simple case of whether a commercial operation belongs in a national park, the issue has become whether government is bullying those on the land. We can't say bullying "property owners" since the land is owned by the government, and the Lunnys' predecessors were paid for it.

On the other side of the issue are local and national environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and Environmental Action of Committee of West Marin County. And their approach is pretty straightforward: A lease is a lease, and a commercial enterprise despoils a gorgeous wilderness area. They don't agree an exception should be made, even if locals personally like the oysters and the Lunnys. The activists fear a bad precedent if Drakes Bay stays open. They envision other "exceptions," and a danger to other wilderness areas and national parks.

But some people you might expect to agree with the strict environmentalist point of view are on the other side. A group of celebrated restaurateurs, including Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Patricia Unterman of San Francisco's Hayes Street Grill, have said the Drakes Bay Oyster needs to stay open since the farm provides local, sustainable and delicious oysters.

And those supportive voices have been joined by the most unlikely of allies: conservative Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana. He has introduced a bill primarily to expedite the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and oil and gas development in Alaska. But added on to the bill is a provision to extend the oyster farm lease for at least another 10 years.

The conservative involvement in the controversy confuses and disappoints some of the longtime environmentalists in the area, who don't feel comfortable with such allies. California's Marin County is one of the country's most liberal areas, so it's tough for old-time activists like Phyllis Faber to admit they're on the same side as Vitter and Cause of Action. Faber says she thinks the hardcore environmentalists are behind the times -- they're longing for a wilderness that never existed.

Meanwhile, both sides have marshaled as much science as they can, to argue that the oyster farm is either cleaning up the environment (they've gathered up plastic tubes previous growers have left behind) or ruining it (harbor seals may be in jeopardy; the area looks messy; "marine vomit" covers the oysters). When the National Academy of Sciences was asked to study the issue, its scientists said there wasn't enough data to rule either way.

I don't know how this controversy will end, but I do know how Lewis Carroll's poem about walking on the beach with a group of oysters concludes:

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run! Shall we be trotting home again?" But answer came there none-- And this was scarcely odd, because They'd eaten every one.

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