Oyster farm dispute roils Marin County


Kevin Lunny is an oysterman, the proprietor of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., the largest oyster farm in California. He operates this and other family businesses from the lush coastal enclave of Point Reyes National Seashore, which means he has the National Park Service as a landlord.

His might otherwise be a familiar tale: a tenant engaged in an acrimonious battle to avoid eviction. But that’s where this story veers into a complex web of alleged conspiracies and politicking worthy of a Cold War spy novel.

Lunny, who portrays himself as the local “little guy” in the saga, alleges that Park Service officials have engaged in scientific misconduct to portray his oyster operation as harmful to federally protected harbor seals. He says they are in cahoots with the California Coastal Commission and environmentalists to run him out of business and boot him out of the national seashore.

The flawed-science charge was affirmed by the National Academies of Science. The rest, however, remains in dispute and has stirred up western Marin County, which prides itself on its pastoral history and which fears that the federal government aims to end that tradition on its lands.

By the federal law that founded the national seashore, Lunny’s permit area, which includes the tidal area where explorer Sir Francis Drake is believed to have made landfall 430 years ago, will be designated as wilderness in 2012.

But Lunny doesn’t want to go. The personable 52-year-old has enlisted powerful friends to aid his cause, including lawyers, a Washington lobbyist and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has repeatedly interceded on his behalf.

Feinstein wrote legislation that passed this fall to allow Lunny’s business to continue at Point Reyes for 10 years beyond the permit’s sunset.

Correspondence and telephone logs obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Feinstein contacted officials at the National Park Service and at the Interior Department in Washington numerous times, seeking redress for Lunny.

Laura Wilkinson, Feinstein’s press secretary, said the senator’s only motivation in helping Lunny was to assist a constituent who “has been treated unfairly by the National Park Service, which has used flawed or incomplete science with the purpose of driving the historic oyster operation out of the area.”

For the last two years, Lunny and his allies here have run a potent campaign to discredit Park Service officials and scientists and attempted to derail the Senate confirmation of the new Park Service director, who once oversaw the region.

The tumult prompted investigations by Interior’s inspector general, the National Academies of Science and the Marine Mammal Commission that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Lunny’s oyster operation, in the meantime, has a four-year record of violating state and federal agreements and permits. This month, the California Coastal Commission levied $61,000 in fines against the oyster farm for operating outside Lunny’s permit and in a protected harbor seal area. Lunny says the legal trouble is part of a campaign to single him out and shut him down.

Peter Douglas, the commission’s executive director, characterized Lunny’s history of infractions as “pathetic” and dismissed the notion of a witch hunt. Lunny, he said, still does not have a required coastal development permit. And federal officials note that he never signed the lease agreement, as required.

Lunny grew up on a ranch in the seashore. In 2005 he and his brothers bought the oyster farm in Drakes Estero, taking over its failing operation and an existing agreement with the Park Service that the business would cease operations in 2012, as Congress intended.

Almost from the start, Lunny said, park managers looked for ways to force him out of the seashore. Tension grew as Lunny sought ways to extend his permit.

Federal reviews of the Park Service treatment of Lunny have yielded a mixed bag.

The most damaging finding came last May from the National Academies of Science, which concluded that a report prepared by Sarah Allen, the national seashore’s senior scientist, “selectively presented, over-interpreted or misrepresented the available scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation.”

The Park Service apologized and removed the flawed analysis from its website.

But some say there’s more going on. Corey Goodman, a neurobiologist who has spent two years reviewing the science issues, claims that a massive coverup is underway and the actions of some Park Service officials are “criminal.”

“This fits the definition of scientific misconduct,” said Goodman, who has filed federal ethics complaints against a handful of Park Service officials. In another federal investigation, a scientist said Allen told him she compiled the report to stymie Lunny’s attempts to extend his lease.

Allen and Don Neubacher, the Point Reyes superintendent, deny there was an agenda behind the report. In an interview, Neubacher repeatedly said the park had no intention of asking Lunny to close his business before 2012. He said the oyster farm’s permit would be honored.

The Interior Department’s inspector general found no evidence that Neubacher intended to shut down the oyster operation before 2012.

Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggest Lunny has been tardy, at best, in meeting the obligations of his park permit.

The Coastal Commission likewise portrays Lunny as recalcitrant.

“He certainly is not the innocent that he makes himself out to be,” said Douglas, the commission’s executive director.

“From my perspective, when somebody violates the law once and it’s unintentional, OK,” Douglas said. “But the number of times he’s violated the Coastal Act, there comes a point where you say, ‘It’s irresponsible.’ This is not the behavior of someone who wants to comply with the law.”

Lunny recently was fined for placing bags of Manila clams in protected harbor seal areas, outside his lease area. Drakes Estero is the largest rookery of breeding and pupping harbor seals on the North Coast.

Lunny called the incident an “honest mistake” on the part of one of his employees and accused the commission of ganging up on him for “minor errors and minor delays” in operations and paperwork.

Nothing could be further from the truth, said Lisa Haage, the commission’s chief of enforcement.

“We have bent over backward to help him stay in business,” Haage said. “We desperately have been trying not to shut him down. The Coastal Act allows us to have shut him down long ago. We have allowed him to operate without a permit. That is completely unusual.”

Environmental groups say Feinstein’s attempt to extend Lunny’s lease could establish a dangerous precedent of allowing commercial operations in protected public lands. In addition, they say, the oyster farm’s operation undermines the area’s future suitability for conversion to wilderness, as Congress intended in a 1976 law.

The issue has polarized west Marin County, where generations of families have run dairy and cattle operations that predate the establishment of the park in 1962.

Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey shares an apparently widespread belief that Neubacher and the Park Service have as their “end game” the elimination of the historic dairies and ranches that dot the seashore.

“The Park Service has lost all credibility with the ranching community,” said Mike Gale, who raises organic beef, lamb and vegetables in nearby Petaluma.

“What is fair to say is the other ranchers in the park are nervous if Kevin is forced out of business,” Gale said. “If it’s oysters this time around, why isn’t it cows next time around?”

An exasperated Neubacher points out that Congress specifically preserved pastoral areas within the seashore to continue agricultural operations, and only Congress can change how the land is designated.

“The Park Service fully supports the continuation of agriculture at Point Reyes,” Neubacher said, adding that the agency spends half a million dollars a year to repair and restore historic farm buildings.

The oyster permit that the Lunnys took over was originally granted for 40 years. In addition to the right to farm more than 1,000 acres in the tidal area of the estero, Lunny leases about 1 1/2 acres of land for a cannery and other operations, paying about $3,500 a year.

Those conditions are likely to change should Interior Secretary Ken Salazar choose to act on Feinstein’s rider and extend Lunny’s oyster permit. In addition to a new environmental review, the property lease would be reassessed at current market value, according to the Feinstein legislation, which was attached as a rider to an Interior Department appropriations bill.

Given the rancor surrounding the issue, it’s not likely anyone will be satisfied with whatever Salazar decides.

Sally Gale, who runs an organic farm and has spoken in support of Lunny, says she knows and likes all parties in the controversy. She said she doesn’t know what to think anymore.

“It’s all political. Everybody leans on various legal documents. Everyone has his own interpretation of history,” she said. “We’re talking past each other. It’s a miserable situation; people have dug themselves in.

“This is a small community. I want to say, ‘Can’t we all get along?’ It’s been very destructive to our community. I regret it.”