INVERNESS, Calif.—It is coming up on planting season at Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a tiny family-owned oyster farm located on a inlet nestled within the lush grassy cliffs that run along the Pacific Ocean here just north of San Francisco.
For more than 50 years, the modest farm, which looks like nothing more than a cluster of shacks, has been one of California’s leading producers of shellfish. Grown in the clear blue waters of what is known as Drakes Estero, Drakes Bay oysters make up a third of California’s annual shellfish production and are on the menu at some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants.
But the Lunny family, which purchased the farm in 2004, has been reluctant to begin planning cultivation for future seasons because they aren’t sure they will be here for much longer. For months, the Lunnys have been locked in an intense legal fight to keep the Interior Department from closing their farm—a closely watched case that heads before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Tuesday.
At issue is a decision made last November by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who declined to extend Drakes Bay’s 40-year-lease, which allowed it to operate on public land within the Point Reyes National Seashore that was created decades after the oyster farm’s inception.
The Lunnys, who had been pressing for an extension of their lease for years, sued—arguing Salazar based his decision on flawed environmental impact studies produced by the National Park Service, which oversees the land. They also contend he ignored a 2009 bill championed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and approved by Congress that would allow the farm’s lease to be extended by another 10 years.
Kevin Lunny, who owns the farm with his brothers, casts the fight as a battle between his family and an overzealous federal agency that is bowing to pressure from a powerful lobby of environmentalists who refuse to see benefits of farming on federal land. He says the government is ignoring the concerns from local residents who see his farm an important local sustainable food source.
“We are a part of a working landscape, the agriculture which is a key part of the fabric, the history and the culture that was always expected to be preserved here on the seashore,” Lunny said in an interview with Yahoo News. “What we are doing is fighting for our business, our employees and our community against a federal bureaucracy that seems to want to ignore the will of the people.”
But his opponents argue it’s more important to restore the land to protected wilderness and that extending the Drakes Bay oyster lease would set a dangerous national precedent that would allow commercial operations on other federal park lands.
“It’s a contract issue, a deal’s a deal,” said Amy Trainer, head of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, one of the farm’s most outspoken opponents. “If (Lunny) is allowed to stay, then we think that hurts the integrity of all our national parks and wilderness areas.”
Both Lunny and his opponents insist they are each trying to be the best stewards of the land along the Pacific seacoast—and both claim to have science on their side to prove they are doing just that. At the same time, both claim to be speaking for the majority of residents in the region.
The case has become something of a local soap opera in Marin County, where the farm is located—dividing local residents and elected officials, many of whom refused to be interviewed because of fear of retribution. The local newspapers in recent weeks have been full of warring op-eds from interested parties on both sides of the debate, which has split people who have traditionally been allies like Feinstein and the environmental lobby. There have been rallies and petitions circulated by both sides--and even snarky bumper stickers issued, including one that read, “Shuck you, Secretary Salazar.”
More recently, the fight has gone national. Last summer, Lunny’s cause was picked up by Cause of Action, a Washington-based government watchdog group, that has been handling his case pro bono.
The farm’s opponents quickly seized on that development, pointing out that the group’s executive director, Dan Epstein, once worked for a foundation financed by Charles Koch, who, along with his brother David, has spent tens of millions of dollars to boost conservative candidates and causes. But Cause of Action has said it has not taken any money directly or indirectly from the Koch Brothers.
Reed Rubinstein, a spokesman for the group, said they were drawn to the case because of flawed science in a Park Service impact study on Drakes Bay—including a claim that the farm’s operations were hurting harbor seals. The Park Service later retracted the claim after criticism from outside scientists who said their study was inaccurate.
“When you get an agency that is playing really very fast and loose with the science, that is engaging in a whole variety of very questionable practices, where it is going to astounding lengths… to prove there is some sort of disturbance with seals, from a policy standpoint, this is tremendously worrisome because we depend on agencies to do things in a transparent manner (and) a professional manner,” Rubinstein told Yahoo News.
The case also has gotten attention from Republican members of Congress, including Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who included a provision to extend Drakes Bay’s lease another decade in a GOP energy bill that primarily aimed to speed up production of the Keystone XL pipeline—an anathema to environmental groups. That attracted the attention of other national environmental lobby, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, that has mentioned the oyster farm fight in fundraising emails to their members and pumped funds into the region to lobby the debate.
In a situation that created even more strange bedfellows in the case, a group of well-known chefs recently submitted a legal brief in support of keeping Drakes Bay Oysters open. Among the signers was Alice Waters, the famed chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse who is one of the nation’s best known proponents for using locally sourced food.
For his part, Lunny insists he’s stunned to be in the middle of a debate that he said increasingly seems to be “less and less about a little oyster farm and more about issues that have nothing to do with us.”
“All we are trying to do is stay open, to keep our way of life,” said Lunny, who has lived on the coast near the Point Reyes seashore his entire life.
His family first came to the coast in the 1940s, when his grandparents opened a cattle ranch in the hills near the oyster farm. His family still owns the ranch, but Lunny says if the oyster farm closes, the cattle operation could be at risk, as well, because they would still be obligated to pay back bank loans they took out on the oyster farm.
“We are facing bankruptcy,” Lunny said.
But he quickly added that it’s more than just about his family, pointing to his farm’s 30 employees and their families—about half of whom live on site. He said the workers would not only be out of jobs, but would be homeless and with a skill set that would likely force them to start all over with new careers or to move to other areas where oyster operations are flourishing, like Washington State.
Yet the irony in Lunny’s legal battle is that even if he succeeds in court, the farm may still be forced out of business. At issue Tuesday is whether Drakes Bay can stay open while the Lunny family’s case against the Interior Department and the Park Service is being litigated. If the panel says no, the farm could be evicted within weeks—and Lunny would be forced to remove and destroy in upwards of 20 million oysters growing in the water. That would effectively kill his business, Lunny said.
But even if Lunny can get a reprieve and wins his case in court forcing the Interior Department to reconsider its decision not to extend his lease, it doesn’t mean he will win that battle either.
“We could go through this whole process and still not get another lease,” Lunny said. “It all very nerve-wracking and depressing to not know what your future is going to be. You try to hope for the best, but you can’t help but feel anxious.”
But Lunny’s opponents have shown him no sympathy. In an interview, Trainer accused Lunny of polluting the waters in Drake’s Estero, flouting local environmental regulations and treating his employees badly by not giving them adequate health insurance and overtime pay (allegations he denies). And she slammed Lunny and his supporters for putting out what she described as “misinformation” in an effort to boost their cause.
“The story has been, ‘This poor farmer, and he’s a victim of the government,’ and it’s just complete nonsense,” Trainer said. “He’s getting all kinds of free legal advice, hundreds of thousands of dollars in free legal help. He’s working with all these ultra-conservative members of Congress.”
But Lunny counters that while he has accepted help from those willing to help, it doesn’t mean he agrees with all of their views. He, in turn, accuses Trainer and local environmentalists of being unwilling to even try to find common ground and for personal attacks that aren't true.
“I have never been treated like the enemy before, and it’s been an uncomfortable position,” Lunny said, adding that he’s invited his opponents to come view his operation, but none have.
Sighing, he added, “I am a farmer. That’s all I want to do.”
Correction/Clarification: This piece has been updated to reflect the name of the spokesman for Cause of Action, Reed Rubinstein, as well as the timing for when the group first became involved in Lunny's case. It was last summer. We apologize for the errors.