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After Long, Losing Battle, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Prepares to Shut Down

| July 14, 2014
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By Cy Musiker, Dan Brekke, and Jon Brooks

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. workers harvest strings of oysters on Schooner Bay at Point Reyes. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. workers harvest strings of oysters on Schooner Bay at Point Reyes. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After nearly two years of legal battles, the federal government has given the owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company until the end of July to shut down its retail and canning operation.

Owner Kevin Lunny has been fighting to keep the Marin county oyster farm open after the government chose not to renew the lease in 2012. The U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear the case.

“We can’t stop  the federal government,” Lunny told the Marin Independent Journal last week. “That’s the way it is.”

Peter Prows, Lunny’s attorney, said the farm is beginning the process of removing its property, “both on shore and that in the water.”

Prows says the two sides are in talks about details of the shutdown, including the fate of equipment like the wooden oyster racks embedded in Drake’s Estero. One open question, says Prows, is whether the extensive racks in Drakes Estero are Lunny’s responsibility.

“The federal government says that it owns Drake’s Estero. So if the the federal government is right … it’s the owner of the racks,” Prows said.

The U.S Department of the Interior plans to return the area to wilderness.

The shutdown will affect a dozen workers living on the property, who will have to find new jobs and homes for their families. Paul Cohen, executive director of Legal Aid of Marin, says there’s a federal act that should provide financial help for the workers.

“These are innocent parties who are going to be displaced, and they are going to be able to seek benefits under the act,” Cohen said.

Cohen worked on a similar case years ago when BART expanded into Millbrae, displacing 200 families.

Lunny told the Journal he will have to dump thousands of oysters in Drakes Estero into a landfill. “This is all pretty tragic for West Marin,” he said.

The farm’s closure should prove to be the end of a long-running dispute that for some became a proxy battle pitting the federal government and environmentalists against those defending property rights.

At issue in the case was the conflict between Lunny’s decade-old campaign to win an extension to the oyster company’s lease and National Park Service plans to designate Drakes Estero, the operation’s site, as wilderness. Lunny long maintained that the park service not only could but should extend the 40-year “reservation of use and occupancy” first granted in 1972 when the government bought the property from the operation’s previous owner. The National Park Service, operating under provisions of the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, informed Lunny in 2005 of its intention not to extend the lease beyond its expiration date in 2012.

One of Lunny’s chief allies, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, lobbied for an extension of the lease and in 2009 managed to win approval of legislation authorizing the secretary of the Interior to grant a 10-year extension to the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. After a long review process marked by charges that the National Park Service had manipulated data to show the oyster farm was harmful to the environment, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declined to extend the lease.

Among the reasons: Salazar cited the government’s original agreement to purchase the oyster farm’s property, Park Service policy limiting commercial operations in national parks and wilderness areas and the requirements of the 1976 Point Reyes law. He also acknowledged the scientific uncertainty over the oyster operation’s environmental and recreational impacts, but said he believed studies backed the view that letting the lease expire “would result in long-term beneficial impacts to the Estero’s natural environment.”

The case caused a split between environmental groups that support wilderness restoration at Point Reyes and leaders of the sustainable food movement, who praised Drakes Bay as a model operation. Both sides submitted “friend of the court” briefs during the Drakes Bay appeal.

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