Drakes Bay Oyster Co. worker Jorge Mata carries strings of the shellfish… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
The federal government cleared the way Thursday for waters off the Northern California coast to become the first marine wilderness in the continental United States, ending a contentious political battle that pitted a powerful U.S. senator against the National Park Service.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar settled the dispute by refusing to extend a permit for a commercial oyster farm operating in Point Reyes National Seashore. Congress designated the area as potential wilderness in 1976 but put that on hold until the farm's 40-year federal permit ended.
As the expiration date approached, the farm became the center of a costly and acrimonious fight that dragged on more than four years, spawned federal investigations and cost taxpayers millions of dollars to underwrite scores of scientific reviews.
"I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape," Salazar said Thursday. The area includes Drakes Estero, an environmentally rich tidal region where explorer Sir Francis Drake is believed to have made landfall more than 400 years ago.
Salazar's decision drew a sharp response from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who had championed the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in its fight with the government. Feinstein said in a statement that she was "extremely disappointed" with Salazar's decision.
She had argued that the National Park Service contorted scientific studies to make the case that oyster harvesting operations caused environmental harm to Drakes Estero, a dramatic coastal sweep of five bays in Marin County north of San Francisco.
"The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science," her statement said. "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."
Feinstein had attached a rider to an appropriations bill giving Salazar the unusual prerogative to extend the farm's permit. The company was seeking a 10-year extension of its lease.
Salazar said he gave the matter serious consideration, including taking into account legal advice and park policies. He directed the park service to develop a jobs-training plan for the oyster company's employees and to work with the local community to assist them in finding employment.
The company will have 90 days to remove its racks and other property from park land and waters. When that occurs, the 2,500-acre Drakes Estero will be managed as wilderness, with prohibitions on motorized access to the waterway but allowances for snorkeling, kayaking and other recreation.
The new wilderness will become only the second marine protected area in the national park system and the first in the Lower 48 states. The only current marine wilderness is 46,000 acres in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Environmental groups applauded the decision, which they lobbied for.
"We are ecstatic that this ecological treasure will be forever protected as marine wilderness," said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
The heart of the debate is an agreement that Kevin Lunny and his family inherited when they took over a failing oyster operation in the park in 2004. That lease with the park service stipulated that the business would cease operations in 2012.
Kevin Lunny has from the beginning sought to stay on the property and continue harvesting oysters. His farm has an extensive record of violating state and federal agreements and permits. The California Coastal Commission has fined the farm for various violations, issued two cease and desist orders and repeatedly requested that the Lunnys acquire a coastal development permit.
The state agency initiated another enforcement action against the farm earlier this month.
Lunny could not be reached for comment.
The farm's mariculture operation has found support among west Marin County's advocates for sustainable agriculture, who agreed with Lunny that federal and state agencies were unfairly hounding his operation.
His travails have caused alarm among the historic cattle and dairy ranches that operate within the national seashore in a designated pastoral zone. Park officials have repeatedly said they have no intention of curtailing ranching operations, and Salazar echoed that, adding that he wished to extend the terms of the ranch leases from 10 to 20 years.
The Lunny family also has a cattle operation in the park.