Salazar pays visit to Point Reyes

11/21/2012

Today Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is paying a visit to Drakes Bay Oyster Company and meeting with what his office called “community stakeholders”—representatives of an environmental movement that in recent weeks has been pounding the virtual pavement with petitions and mass emails calling for the closure of the farm in the name of wilderness
protection.

In the countdown to the expiration of the oyster company’s operating permit—and the imminent decision by Secretary Salazar to terminate the permit or renew it for 10 years—a lot is happening. The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is due out any day, according to Rachel Jacobson, acting assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

The 30-day public comment period required by law will not have ended before November 30, the date the permit expires. Secretary Salazar has the option of renewing the permit, however, with or without the EIS. His office said he expects to issue a decision next week.

Critics had called for a complete rewrite of draft EIS for a laundry list of reasons, citing scientific studies concluding the farm does no measurable harm to its natural surroundings and could, through adaptive management, continue to operate within a thriving ecosystem.

Meanwhile environmentalists near and far are circulating petitions encouraging Secretary Salazar to protect what they refer to as the only marine sanctuary on the West Coast. Their letters cast the oyster farm as destructive and its owners as manipulative and greedy.

The conservation director of the Sierra Club, Bruce Hamilton, sent a mass email that began, “Believe it or not, destructive oyster farming is currently allowed in one of America’s most special places: the Point Reyes National Seashore.”

He cited the import of damaging invasive species and destruction of eelgrass as examples. The invasive species in question is a common tunicate that lives on hard substrate like oyster shells—not on the soft bottom of Drakes Estero—and one that scientists have said will do little damage to marine resources; the eelgrass has in fact doubled over the last several years.

An online petition created by Chris Pincetich, a watershed biologist with Turtle Island Restoration Network—the umbrella organization of which the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) is part—features a testimonial by Gordon Bennett, a longtime proponent of closing the oyster farm.

In his plea, Mr. Bennett wrote that the Lunny family has hired a high-profile public relations firm with a shady history and “unleashed a horde of high-priced lawyers... racked up a long list of environmental violations… and shamelessly promotes professional videos of sobbing family members—trying to con the public into supporting his private profits from these public lands.”

Owner Kevin Lunny said he has never had a public relations firm and that any lawyers that have worked for him have done so pro bono.

The multiple federally funded studies conducted in recent years have resoundingly exonerated the oyster farm of environmental harm.

Well over 8,000 people from across the country had signed the petition by Tuesday evening. Some added individualized comments that show a marked unfamiliarity with the controversy over the nearly 100-year-old oyster farm’s presence in Drakes Estero.

“Every last remaining wilderness area must be passionately defended against the forces of corporate greed,” wrote Jean Le Marquand of Laval, Quebec. “Because we keep gobbling up and destroying everything in our sight. It just has to slow down or even stop,” wrote Scott Walker of Canton, Ohio.

Paul Palla of Waynesboro, Pa. wrote in all caps: “Why do we have to keep defending the environment from the greedy, selfish jerks who would destroy it all just for a quick buck?!?!?”

These comments may be unsettling to those who have watched Mr. Lunny since 2005 turn the oyster farm into a clean and sustainable operation and dedicate countless hours and resources for educational and research purposes.

On Tuesday the Tomales Bay Association sent a letter to Secretary Salazar reiterating those points. Noting that the group existed before the creation of the seashore, the authors emphasized that the permit applies to an area that is within the pastoral zone—“created cooperatively by the federal government and ranchers in the 1960s to protect the land from development and also to continue the tradition of ranching”—not a potential wilderness area. “Simply put, the continued operation of the oyster farm will promote the preservation of cultural heritage that has been part of the area for many generations.”

Mr. Lunny, who was rushing to prepare for the half-hour tour with the Cabinet member scheduled for Wednesday morning, said he was both honored by the visit and afraid of how it might unfold.

“We’re just concerned about the way this thing has been framed,” he said of the visit. He had not been notified of the Secretary’s trip until late Friday afternoon, and only learned on Monday of the imminent release of the final EIS.

He said he was asked to invite six individuals for a half-hour private meeting following the tour, and expected those would include Supervisor Steve Kinsey, former Representative Pete McCloskey and rancher Ralph Grossi, among others.

Another half-hour meeting is planned for six other individuals that Ms. Jacobson called “community stakeholders” at seashore headquarters.

Separately, Mr. Lunny was struggling this week to finalize a late state income tax filing that resulted in an automatic suspension of his tax status. The matter was insignificant, he said, as his business did not draw a profit last year and did not owe taxes beyond the minimum he already paid. Still, he is aware that anything can and will be used against him.

On Tuesday Secretary Salazar’s advance team visited the farm to make sure the area was safe and “lay down the ground rules.”