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Debate Flares on Limits of Nature and Commerce in Parks

By: Leslie Kaufman
Published: October 31, 2009

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — It seems a perfect marriage of nature and commerce. As boats ferry oysters to the shore, pelicans swoop by and seals pop their heads out of the water.

But this spot on the Point Reyes National Seashore has become a flashpoint for a bitter debate over the limits of wilderness and commercial interest within America’s national parks.

The National Park Service has said it cannot renew the permit to farm oysters in a tidal estuary here, which lapses in 2012, because federal law requires it to return the area to wilderness by eliminating intrusive commercial activity.

Kevin Lunny, the owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, says he feels persecuted by the National Park Service and has sought legislation that could allow him to continue operating.

He argues that the 70-year-old oyster farm, which predates the park, is part of the historical working landscape of the area — and every bit as in need of protection as the harbor seals and eelgrass that share the bay.

Mr. Lunny and his allies also accuse the park service’s regional office of issuing faulty scientific reports exaggerating the threat that the oyster farm poses to baby seals and flora in the estuary — accusations given credence last spring by the National Academy of Sciences.

The furor over the oyster lease has also drawn in partisans across the country because it plays into an old debate: Are the national parks primarily for preserving untouched wilderness, or for preserving the historic human imprint on the land, too?

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has thrown her support behind the oyster farm. A provision she attached to the fiscal year 2010 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, passed by Congress recently, would give Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the option to extend the oyster farm’s lease for 10 more years.

Some environmental groups worry that the provision could set a precedent for hundreds of other private leaseholders in the national parks looking to extend their stay. For example, some owners of fishing cabins and other vacation properties in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin want to stay on in perpetuity for similar historical reasons. And federal legislation has been introduced several times to allow the private herds of a hunting club in the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California to remain on the land.

Ms. Feinstein included language in the provision saying that it should not be seen as a precedent, but the environmentalists say those words could prove meaningless.

“This exception is not just about the slippery slope,” said Jerry Meral, vice chairman of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has helped organize opposition to the lease extension. “It’s the beginning of the end of wilderness.”

Foes of the provision also include the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association here.

By siding with the oyster farm, Ms. Feinstein has symbolically crossed swords with the Obama administration: Jon Jarvis, President Obama’s new director of the National Park Service, supported ending Mr. Lunny’s lease when he oversaw Point Reyes as a regional parks official.

Many people concerned with protecting the commercial tradition in parks see Mr. Jarvis’s desire to end the lease as evidence that he will usher in an era of antagonism.

“Half the parks have farms or working orchards,” said Gary Paul Nabhan, who served on the National Park System Advisory Board in the early 1990s. “This isn’t a side issue — it is fully as important as wilderness.”

Mr. Jarvis declined to be interviewed about Drakes Bay. Aides at the park service said he saw no benefit in discussing the issue with reporters.

The Drakes Bay farm is a collection of low-lying shacks, residential trailers and piles of shucked oyster shells. Like many of the cattle ranches that surround it within the park, it predated by many decades the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962.

In a common arrangement, the federal government bought the land from the owners, who kept the right for occupancy and use until 2012. Unlike the parkland, however, the tidal bay was designated “potential wilderness” — the highest level of protection in a national park — by Congress in 1976. The Interior Department’s solicitor general has interpreted Congress’s action to mean that the park service must get rid of any commercial operations that extract wildlife as soon as it can.

Mr. Lunny, a rancher whose cattle land is in the park just up the hill from the oyster farm, bought the farm’s lease in 2005, although at the time the park service warned him that it intended not to renew.

He contends that the original lease included a clause that allows him to renew and has hired a lobbyist to promote his view in Washington. The park service says that the clause has been superseded by the wilderness legislation. Mr. Lunny also says that he produces roughly 40 percent of the oysters grown in California. Without him, he adds, oysters would be imported from overseas, costing consumers more and taxing the environment through fuel emissions. And he says he is providing environmental services like cleaning the bay of debris and replenishing the native oyster population that filtered the bay before it was overfished by native Indians.

The park service counters that there is no evidence native oysters were ever there in large numbers.

The fight might have been cast as a simple matter of abiding by a wilderness designation, but after the park service worried that Mr. Lunny was beginning to lobby to extend his lease, they moved to counter him.

Managers at Point Reyes produced their own documents saying that the oyster operation’s motorboats were thrashing the eelgrass. The oyster operations, the documents said, were spooking the mother seals off the sandbars and disrupting the birthing season, reducing the number of seals at one site by 80 percent in two years.

The findings were furiously contested by Mr. Lunny, and Ms. Feinstein asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the documents and produce its own report. Issued in May, it found insufficient data to determine whether the seals or other wildlife were being significantly harmed. And it criticized the park service’s reports, saying they had “exaggerated the negative and overlooked potentially beneficial effects of the oyster culture operation.”

Corey Goodman, an academy biologist who studied the science separately for the Marin County Board of Supervisors, said in a letter to Secretary Salazar that “Jon Jarvis participated by steadfastly defending the use of distorted science by his subordinate.”

But Mr. Jarvis, while acknowledging some problems with the science, vigorously stood up for his staff members.

Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks, emphasized that Mr. Jarvis was simply seeking to abide by the law. He said that if Ms. Feinstein’s provision became law, Mr. Salazar would review the issue again.

But many residents of Point Reyes say this will just bring a new round of conflict.

“Rather than heal a rift, this legislation arms everyone with howitzers,” said Mark Bartolini, executive director of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. “It is a lose-lose decision, and this is a fight that can go one for years.”

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