NATIONAL PARKS:

Ag interests, enviros spar over Calif. wilderness plan

SAN FRANCISCO -- A Bay Area oyster cannery in an estuary slated to become a federal wilderness area is at the heart of a battle pitting proponents of fishing and local food production against environmental advocates.

Both sides are claiming victory after a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel released a report this week finding the federal government lacked scientific evidence to back assertions that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is harming the Marin County estuary (E&ENews PM, May 5).

At issue is California's last oyster cannery, which has continued operations under a provision in the 1962 law that established the Point Reyes National Seashore. When the 1.5-acre oyster farm closes, the estuary, Drakes Estero, will become a 2,250-acre federal wilderness under the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act.

The NAS report was the second to cast doubt on the National Park Service's treatment of the oyster cannery. Last July, the Interior Department's inspector general found service employees had intentionally stacked scientific data to hurt the oyster company's case. In some instances, the Interior report said, the service overstated evidence of harbor seal disturbance and sediment formation.

The Park Service did not return phone calls for comments on the case yesterday, but the agency's Pacific West regional director, Jon Jarvis, defended the service's work on the case in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

"They didn't say our research was wrong. They just said it was incomplete," he told the newspaper. "What there really is here is a disagreement among scientists about the level of impact on the environment. That does not mean that one side is guilty of misconduct."

Environmental groups that support the planned 2012 closure of Drakes Bay Oyster echoed Jarvis' assertions.

"Just because someone with a financial interest in the outcome of the decision accuses someone of scientific misconduct doesn't mean there was misconduct," said Gordon Bennett, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club's Marin County Chapter. "Was there sloppiness? Yeah, absolutely. Were Park Service staff underfunded and overworked? Yeah. Does that lead to sloppy work? Yes."

The oyster company's owner, Kevin Lunny, and his backers say Interior should take the farm's commitment to local, sustainable mariculture and environmentally responsible operations into account.

"The report makes it just very, very clear that the oyster farm's really been given a clean environmental bill of health," Lunny said. "It's never been said by us that there are zero impacts. There are impacts to produce food. Boats have to go out there, just like we were farming fields or raising cattle."

But environmentalists say such arguments are irrelevant. They say the 1974 agreement granting the farm an operating permit was superseded by the 1976 wilderness law, which says the area would become wilderness after the farm's residency permit expired. The question of the farm's effects on the estuary should be moot after 2012, they say.

"There were public hearings in 1976 and congressional action," Bennett said. "This is basically on automatic pilot now, and the Park Service has no authority to change that. The majority of both houses of Congress would have to decide for the first time ever that they would overturn the Wilderness Act."

Appeal to Interior secretary

Lunny said he hopes to take his case to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

"Mr. Salazar, he's a great environmentalist and conservationist, a wilderness supporter, and he's also sensible," Lunny said. "We are farming in farmland. Drakes Estero is surrounded by commercial livestock production. These also are cultural resources that the Park Service is mandated to protect."

Other area businesses, he said, are "fearful that if they're successful in driving out one of the most sustainable and important farms in the seashore, this is just the first domino."

To which Bennett responds: "There are lots of wilderness areas that had logging operations going on before becoming wilderness. They all had cultural attributes, people that had jobs. The whole point of having wilderness area was to have some small portion of U.S. land designated wilderness so every time you came into conflict, it wouldn't always be decided in the favor of commercial operations."

The NAS report says any decision about extending the farm's lease past 2012 needs to go beyond the realm of science. "Like other zoning and land use questions, this issue will be resolved by policymakers charged with weighing the conflicting views and priorities of society as part of the decision-making process," it says.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tried to broker a compromise between Drakes Bay and environmental groups late last year. The effort ended after Lunny and the American Land Conservancy failed to reach an agreement. Lunny said the group offered him between $300,000 and $500,000, but not enough land in nearby Tomales Bay to accommodate his operations.

Feinstein sent a letter to Salazar on Tuesday defending the oyster company.

"If the Park Service forces the cessation of the mariculture operations, it may well be eliminating conditions that were an important part of the ecosystem as it existed long before the park was established," she wrote. "The National Academy of Sciences report does not present any compelling ecological reason for refusing to renew the Drakes Bay Oyster Company lease in 2012."

For his part, Lunny says the buyout effort was not serious.

"It wasn't a proposal, it was a guaranteed bankruptcy proposal," he said. "This doesn't include keeping a food source for our community, keeping the last oyster cannery in the state."

Looking to Capitol Hill

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups sent 10 lawmakers a letter late last month asking them to support the deal between the American Land Conservancy and the oyster company.

"Because of this legitimate and serious effort being made to resolve the issue in a consensus manner, through a buyout, we urge the Congress to support the buyout effort and to oppose any efforts to reduce wilderness protections at Drakes Estero and Point Reyes," they wrote.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D), whose congressional district includes the oyster company, has not taken a position on its fate. She did oppose a provision that Feinstein tried to add to the fiscal 2009 Interior appropriations bill that would have extended the farm's lease, but she said in a December 2008 letter that she was waiting for the NAS report to determine the effects of oyster farming on the bay.

"The issue has sharply divided my district," she wrote to Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. "Some support the oyster farm as an example of clean sustainable agriculture that is good for the local economy, while others oppose an extension, saying it would seriously undermine the Wilderness Act."

Click here to read the environmentalists' letter.