Salazar visit provokes old and new arguments

David Briggs
An imminent decision on the fate of Drakes Bay Oyster Company brought Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Point Reyes last Wednesday on a mission to hear from advocates and opponents of the 10-year lease renewal that he will either grant or deny by the end of this week.
11/29/2012

The debate over whether an oyster farm at the end of its lease should remain in a national seashore reached a crescendo last week, when supporters and opponents made final appeals to a Cabinet member who is hours away from announcing the fate of one of the state’s largest oyster suppliers and its only remaining cannery.

The high-profile visit on Wednesday came as disagreements between environmentalists and proponents of sustainable agriculture over the future of Drakes Bay Oyster Company have escalated to a national stage, drawing letters and spurring petitions from across the country. Now, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who said he visited Point Reyes in order to “feel the place and hear the people,” will decide before the end of the week whether to renew the operating permit for 10 more years or shutter the farm immediately.

“This is not going to be an easy decision for me,” he said to supporters and wilderness advocates during two separate meetings, the first held at the oyster farm and the second at seashore headquarters.

He said the issue carries “profound” implications both on local lives and as a precedent for managing nonconforming uses in wilderness areas.

More than a dozen oyster farm supporters and at least a dozen TV, radio, print and online journalists turned out to watch Mr. Salazar tour the oyster farm under clear skies Wednesday morning. The Cabinet member, who descends from Colorado ranchers, appeared relaxed as he engaged employees, some accompanied by family members, in conversations he conducted in Spanish.

A sense of fellowship was apparent among supporters as they huddled tightly around Mr. Salazar at a picnic table where he sat with owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny and a half-dozen others, including Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and local ranchers Ralph and Dominic Grossi.

Former United States Representative Pete McCloskey told Mr. Salazar that the oyster farm was never meant to be shut down at the end of its 40-year Reservation of Use and Occupancy. Rather, it was intended to remain as non-conforming use, said Mr. McCloskey, who has worked with former Congressman

John Burton—who authored the Point Reyes Wilderness Act—and former state Assemblyman Bill Bagley to correct what they see as attempts to rewrite history.

Among the qualities legislators and other authorities have seen in the oyster farm is its educational value. Former seashore superintendent Don Neubacher sought to build an educational center in the late 1990’s to offer agriculture and other programs on its premises. The seashore approved its design and completed an environmental assessment, but plans never materialized.

Ellie Rilla, community development advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin, said the center was meant to “show and demonstrate that agriculture and conservation are not mutually exclusive.”

“Here,” she said by phone, “we have this beautiful working landscape.”

The possible closure of the farm has brought anxiety to people like Tod Friend, who told Mr. Salazar that he relies on the company. The owner of Tomales Bay Oyster Company, Mr. Friend said shutting down the farm would bring an “immediate” and “immense” impact to his business, which depends on sales of oysters purchased from Drakes Bay. A decline in supply “will go right to my bottom line,” he said.

Drakes Bay provides an estimated 35 to 40 percent of oysters supplied across the state. It draws about 50,000 visitors every year to its operation site in Drakes Estero, a number Mr. Friend and only a couple of other oyster growers on neighboring Tomales Bay will likely struggle to serve if the company closes down.

Mr. Friend said he and other growers are now operating at full capacity, often drawing hordes of visitors on weekends that slow traffic along the eastern side of the bay.

Many of those visitors, he said, request shellfish specifically from Drakes Bay.

“They say, ‘Do you have any Drake’s?’ I say, ‘You bet.’”

But to environmentalists like Sylvia Earle, an internationally renowned oceanographer who attended the second meeting with Mr. Salazar, oysters are a “luxury” rather than an essential part of the local culture and economy.

“There are plenty of places you can grow oysters,” she told Mr. Salazar at a table she shared with nine others at seashore headquarters. “There is only one Drake’s Estero.”

The second meeting was not open to the public, though press was allowed to observe. Mr. Salazar’s aides billed it as a chance for community stakeholders to voice their concerns.

That chance was not given to Phyllis Faber, who was among a small group of people who asked to attend the meeting but were denied entrance. Ms. Faber, well-known conservationist, wetlands biologist, co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and former member of the California Coastal Commission, was “saddened” at the sight of uniformed officials guarding the doorway.

“I want the park to hear me,” she said by phone. “I thought I was a stakeholder.”

In the closed-door meeting, the excitement that characterized the first meeting was replaced with a somber and at times frustrated tone. Statements were carefully scripted and speakers made refrains, such as “A deal is a deal.”  

Neil Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association said he was “dismayed” that Drakes Bay Oyster Company was “hijacking” an estuary that had been declared a “potential wilderness” by Congress in the 1970’s.

“If we stay the course, if we honor the agreement that was made here at Point Reyes, we do have the ability to achieve a potential position to preserve this national park,” he said. “The pubic has been waiting for more than three decades for this agreement to be fulfilled.”

Carlos Porrata, a former state park ranger whom some see as an advocate on behalf of the local Latino community, said the Lunnys have “exploited” their employees—most of whom are Latino—by using their endangered livelihoods as a tool to sway public opinion in their favor.

He said the company provides its 30-plus workers with shoddy living and working conditions, adding that many of those workers do not live locally, anyway.

“Everyone of us is concerned about their welfare,” he said in a prepared statement in which he criticized the Lunnys for not slowing operations in light of possible closure.

The oyster farm offers some housing, which seashore and federal health officials inspect annually.

Mr. Porrata said he and other advocates have begun consulting with local agencies, including the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, to arrange job training and find “better work” for laid-off employees, some of whom have supported their families by working for more than 30 years at the farm.  

“Planning for the welfare of these employees is the responsible thing to do, regardless of the decision,” he said.

Tom Baty, a longtime Inverness resident, presented a portfolio detailing nearly 5,000 pieces of plastic and other debris he said he has gathered in the past year and a half in the farm’s vicinity. He attributed the waste to the Lunnys, whose operations he said threaten the “value and purpose of this park.”

But those claims, farm supporters contend, are meant to mislead.  

Tom Moore, a former California Fish and Game official who managed the state’s mariculture operations, told Mr. Salazar that the Lunnys had been diligent in cleaning up debris left by the Johnson family, whose harvesting techniques left residual waste that is often exposed after storms. He said none of the debris originates from the Lunnys.

The expiration of the Reservation of Use and Occupancy, Mr. Lunny argued, does not oblige the park to shutter the farm. Rather, a renewal clause in the agreement allows for an extension. 

“It really does work… you keep screaming it loud enough and often enough, people start to believe it,” Mr. Lunny said by phone, referring to what he called “dishonest” claims made for years to
media.  

“This is not an environmental issue; this is an ideological issue,” Supervisor Kinsey, who is also vice chair of the California Coastal Commission, said as he called on Mr. Salazar to uphold what he described as a “working relationship” between the seashore and ranchers.

“We’re the ones who protected this land for the past 150 years,” Dominic Grossi, a fourth generation rancher and president of the county’s farm bureau, said. The threat of closure has compounded what he described as a “general fear” among many ranchers who are concerned the seashore may eventually shut down ranches as well.

Though Mr. Salazar on Wednesday repeatedly drew a distinction between the oyster farm and the historic ranches—and emphasized that he will support the latter’s longevity despite his decision on the oyster farm—locals made it clear that they see the two as interdependent. 

“In the minds of the ranchers,” longtime rancher Ralph Grossi said, “it’s all connected.”

“People come here to see the birds. They come here to see the ranches. They come here to see the oysters,” he added.

Mr. Salazar said he has given a “tremendous amount of thought” to the issue, which he compared to others across the country, such as in the Flint Hills of Kansas and the grasslands of South Dakota, where he helped preserve agriculture in federal lands. He said agriculture will “play a very key effort” in shaping environmental and economic policies in coming years.

“I’m confident that Secretary Salazar does know the right thing to do here,” Mr. Lunny said.