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Bay Area oyster farm has a friend on Capitol Hill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Tuesday attached a rider to a spending bill that would allow California’s largest commercial shellfish farm to continue operating in a Bay Area national park.

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has been battling the National Park Service to extend its business operation beyond a 2012 federal deadline. The 1,100-acre farm property inside the Point Reyes National Seashore was slated to become protected wilderness in three years.

Feinstein’s bill would prolong oysterman Kevin Lunny’s lease for 10 years, even though an Interior Department attorney concluded that any extension of the operation would violate the federal Wilderness Act.

Lunny said he was thrilled at the prospect of the lease extension. “We feel fortunate to have an elected official who is really willing to dig down and understand these issues that we may see as small local issues,” Lunny said. Feinstein “understands how important this resource is to our community and to our region,” he added.

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Feinstein has met with Lunny and Park Service officials in an effort to resolve a debate that has raged since Lunny bought the property four years ago. In addition to extending his right to operate, the bill would require Lunny to pay rent for use of the land.

“The 10-year extension of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s lease will preserve 30 jobs at the last remaining oyster farm cannery on the West Coast while making sure that the ecology of the estuary is protected,” Feinstein said in a written statement. “This is a family-owned oyster farm that has been in operation for more than 70 years, and it is a facility that predates the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore in 1960. This is an area with 15 historic dairy farms and cattle ranches, along with many roads running through it. It is not a remote wilderness.”

The majority of the property surrounding the farm is federally designated wilderness.

“This would be unprecedented,” said Gordon Bennett of the Sierra Club, who is a neighbor of Lunny in the West Marin town of Inverness. “This has never happened -- that a person with prior rights in a national park wilderness gets those extended and delays the onset of the wilderness designation.”

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Frederick Smith, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, said the issue should be settled through public hearings. “It’s not something that should be attached to a rider,” Smith said.

The eastern stretch of Drakes Estero, where the farm sits, is home to 90 species of birds and one of the nation’s largest harbor seal populations, according to the Park Service.

Lunny said his operation is responsible for about 40% of oysters produced in California. He purchased the farm in 2005 from the Johnson family, which had owned it for almost 50 years.

The ecological impact of the oyster farm has been the subject of scientific debate. A National Park Service report found that the farm negatively affected wildlife and plants in the area, but a National Academy of Sciences study issued in May found inaccuracies in the report.

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amy.littlefield@latimes.com


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