Keep on shucking

07/10/2014

Our family almost didn’t buy the oyster farm. Like all the ranches on Point Reyes, the farm can’t succeed without the seashore’s support, so we called then-Superintendent Don Neubacher before buying it to ask him what he thought. He said it would be a “bad idea” to buy the farm. The problem wasn’t that Drakes Estero was a “potential wilderness” area; wilderness status, he had told Charlie Johnson’s lawyer, was “more symbolic than anything else.” The problem was that the farm was falling apart, and the National Park Service wouldn’t support an operation that was in shambles. After the call, we agreed to walk away.

But Don called us back the next day. “I’d feel like I’d died and gone to heaven if you bought the oyster farm,” he said. He understood that our family had a great relationship with the park, that we were good stewards of our ranch and that we would take care of Drakes Estero. The park service had long supported the continuation of agriculture in the seashore, and had routinely renewed ranchers’ leases. We thought that if we fixed up the farm, as Don wanted, that the park would renew that lease, too—and that an important part of the agricultural fabric of our community would be saved.

After the call, our family decided to go ahead with the purchase. We took over operations on January 1, 2005, and quickly invested close to a million dollars in borrowed money for cleanup and upgrades. We truly believed the park would be relieved.

Instead, things went downhill. A few months later, the park sent us a letter from their lawyers concluding that the wilderness laws prohibited the renewal of the lease. (The people who drafted the legislation, like Congressman John Burton and the Environmental Action Committee’s founder, Jerry Friedman, thought Congress always intended the farm to stay.) We quickly became the target of an ugly attempt by the park to paint our family as “environmental felons.” (In fact, the environment in Drakes Estero is thriving.) Then-Secretary Ken Salazar, in denying our renewal, relied on much of the same wrong reasons.  

If the park service can rewrite history and make false accusations of environmental harm against our family and the oyster farm, it can do it to any of the ranching families. So we sued. The federal district court and two judges on the Ninth Circuit held that the courts don’t have jurisdiction over our main claims. The only judge to review our claims on the merits—Judge Paul Watford—agreed with us that the decision was an abuse of discretion.

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review our case, we are out of legal options to keep the farm open while we continue litigation. The oyster shack and cannery will close at the end of this month. We look forward to seeing and greeting our cherished friends and supporters in the coming days.

The park’s decision to close us down will hurt our employees. Many of them have grown up and put their children through school here, and have specialized skills that will be tough to put to use elsewhere in West Marin. We are grateful that California Rural Legal Assistance and Marin Legal Aid will be meeting with our employees and their families to try to find ways to help.

The decision will also hurt our community. The park service says it supports the ranchers and that the oyster farm issue is unrelated. We’re skeptical. If the park truly supports agriculture in West Marin, it would have honored Congress’s intent and renewed our farm’s permit. It would not have put a bull’s eye on the ranchers’ backs by identifying them in the farm’s recent environmental impact statement as the primary source of nonpoint-source pollution in an oyster-free Drakes Estero. It would be removing elk from the pastoral zone and issuing long-term leases today. And it would be thinking creatively about reusing the oyster shack as a place to sell the ranchers’ wares, rather than gearing up to send in the bulldozers. The park’s actions, and inactions, speak louder than words.

Our family will get through this. And there’s still a chance for us to get a new permit, either through the courts or Congress. (Though we don’t think civil disobedience is a good idea here, those of you still looking for ways to help should speak your mind to park officials and elected representatives.)

We owe so many people our deep and abiding gratitude; to name them all would overflow the pages of this newspaper. Thank you Senator Feinstein and Supervisor Kinsey, who have each proven willing to fight for their constituents and for sustainable agriculture in West Marin. Thank you Corey Goodman, who spent thousands of hours debunking the false claims of environmental harm and standing up for scientific integrity in government. Thank you Phyllis Faber, the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture, Laura Watt, Jeff Creque, Dave Weiman, Sarah Rolph, Barbara Garfien, Judy Teichman, Bill Bagley, Michael Greenberg and Donna Yamagata, Jane Gyorgy and our lawyers. Thanks to the Light and the Citizen, which have covered this issue courageously over the years. And thanks to the countless volunteers who contributed their time and talent to make those wonderful “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” signs, which we hope will stay up as a reminder that 85 percent of this community has supported us in this fight. Keep on shucking and believing.