Assignment 7

Battle over local oyster farms heats up

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

For the last four years, ABC7 has been sharing the story of an oyster farmer in the North Bay fighting to keep his business. The battle is in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The owner of the farm wants to continue the operation when the lease expires next year. Some environmentalists insist the farm has to go because Congress intended the area to be wilderness, but the legislators that created the park are saying "not so fast."

Oyster farmer Kevin Lunny is running out of time; he's fighting to save the last oyster cannery in California. For nearly 100 years oysters have been harvested at Drake's Estero in what is now the Point Reyes National Seashore. Lunny bought Johnson's Oyster Farm in 2005 and renamed it the Drake's Bay Oyster Company.

But now the National Park Service wants him out. The battle has been going for four years.

"In 1976, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act simply stated this area is in wilderness and by 2012 or sooner the commercial operation in this national wilderness system would be removed," National Park Service spokesperson John Dell'Osso said in 2007.

That wilderness act created the Point Reyes National Seashore and the park service is trying to use it to get Lunny out. But the legislators responsible for that act say they never intended to get rid of the oyster farm.

"It wasn't even an issue, I mean there was no contention and trust me, in Marin County, when people had a beef, I would hear about it," former Congressman John Burton said.

Burton and Pete McCloskey, along with former Assm. William Bagley helped write the law in the 1960s and 70s. They all say some environmentalists and the park service have twisted their words.

Bagley was actually a friend of the former owner.

"Knowing Charlie Johnson, I wasn't about to put the man out of business," Bagley said.

Bagley wrote the 1965 legislation that would eventually give property rights to the National Park Service. He says that because of its cultural and historical importance, the oyster operation was always meant to be a part of the park. As proof, he points to a 1961 feasibility study stating "existing commercial oyster beds and an oyster cannery at Drake's Estero...should continue under national seashore status because of their public value."

McCloskey, Bagley and Burton wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, urging him to renew the lease.

"We think it is clear that there was no intent in the congressional record or in the plain language of the law that the oyster farm continue," Environmental Action Committee of West Marin spokesperson Amy Trainer said.

Trainer she questions the lawmakers' memories.

"I think that authors of the legislation are entitled to their opinion, but what Congress passed was a different matter," she said.

Amy Meyer was part of the commission that urged national park status for Point Reyes. She admits there was never specific discussion about the future of the oyster operation at the time, but says it was implied that the oyster farm would eventually be shut down.

"There was never any question that the intent of the legislation was a right of use and occupancy to be terminated in 2012," Meyer said.

Meyer says Drake's Estero was identified as "potential wilderness," meaning that if the oyster farm closed, it would be returned to nature.

"We waited four decades for this to become a reality and if anything happens but the termination of this lease, that's a betrayal," Meyer said.

But oyster farm supporters are also citing state fishing rights to protect the operation. Californians have a constitutional right to fish and Bagley says his legislation emphasized that.

"The Department of Fish and Game wrote to the seashore, basically saying the Legislature has reserved fishing rights to the state and because of that, and I am quoting the letter October 22, 1965, 'all statutes and regulations pertaining to shellfish cultivation...including planting rights land rental, etcetera, remain in effect,'" Bagley said.

Opponents say the state has already come down on their side, relinquishing its rights to the estero and therefore it has no say in the future of the oyster farm. They provided letters from the California Department of Fish and Game to the National Park Service as proof the oyster farm has to go.

"The state says the primary jurisdiction, the primary management of Drake's Estero, is with the National Park Service," National Parks Conservation Association spokesperson Neal Desai said.

They interpret the letters to say that the Department of Fish and Game has rejected its right to manage all operations in the estero.

Kevin Lunny, the owner of Drake's Bay Oyster Company says that makes no sense.

"The state of California retains the rights to continue shellfishing as demonstrated by the leases that have been paid to the state of California for the past 40 years since the seashore was established," Lunny said.

ABC7 checked with John McCammon, director of the California Department of Fish and Game. It's his signature on one of the letters. He says the state wants to keep the oyster operation. It brings in tax money, keeps a food source local and is good for the economy.

"We don't see any interest in the state's interest, point of view, for it to have to go," McCammon said.

McCammon says the environmental groups are interpreting the letters incorrectly. The state currently does have jurisdiction over the estero. The letters were in response to a request by the National Park Service to clarify what happens after 2012 and only if the farm's lease was not renewed.

"What they were asking me for was to make clear that the primary management authority shifted, effective 2012," McCammon said.

Mccammon says the state retains rights as long as the Lunny lease remains. State officials renewed the farm's permit to operate until 2029.

The National Park Service says whether the farm stays or goes hinges on the results of an environmental impact statement still in progress. They said they wouldn't comment until the statement is complete.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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