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Oysters vs. Wilderness in Point Reyes National Seashore

The high powered PR firm hired by the oyster company operating inside one of the Bay Area’s prized jewels, Point Reyes National Seashore, has made quite an effort in the last few days to generate alarming news headlines by twisting the facts in the 50 page Inspector General’s (IG) report for its paying client, Drakes Bay Oyster Company.

The fact is that in 2005 the oyster company knowingly purchased the rights to operate, the remaining 7 years of a 40-year term in the national park, with a full understanding that the Park Service was required to remove the commercial business in 2012, when the rights expire. This was the only way the Park could complete a Congressionally mandated plan to return the area to wilderness – a protection that has been in place since 1976.

Now, Washington lobbyists and an expensive PR firm have stepped in to help the oyster operation get their reservation of use extended beyond 2012. Make no mistake, this little flare-up in Marin County has grabbed the attention of big business. The shellfish industry would like nothing more than to influence how protected public coastal waters in the United States might accommodate commercial enterprise. Part of their strategy included putting the Park on the defensive by requesting a federal Inspector General’s report into allegations of unfair treatment. Despite the oyster company’s PR spin, in fact, the IG study concluded:

* There was absolutely no validity to the claims that the Park Service was trying to get rid of the oyster company before its 2012 lease ran its course, and concluded that Park Service did not treat Mr. Lunny “with any disparity regarding either of their businesses in the park”. (1)

* Mr Lunny’s claims to investigators that he had heard from several people that the Park Service was trying to hurt his business economically were false. None of the people Mr. Lunny identified corroborated his assertion when interviewed by IG agents, except County Supervisor Kinsey, who admitted to the investigators “he did not specifically remember (Park Superintendent) Neubacher saying this,” although he admits telling this to Lunny. (2)

* Mr. Lunny was operating his business illegally without valid permits and the failure to obtain those permits was a result of Mr. Lunny’s own actions. Mr. Lunny’s allegations that the Park Service was responsible for holding up the permit process were found to be false. (3)

* Despite Mr. Lunny’s and others claim to the contrary, this Report makes clear that the National Park Service has no legal authority to extend this right to operate beyond 2012, even if it wanted to, because Congress has designated Drakes Estero as a wildernesss area with instructions to remove all obstacles (i.e., oyster company) that prevented full wilderness designation when the right to operate expired. (4)

* The Park Service did not fabricate data that concluded that the operations were disturbing harbor seals, contrary to the allegations made by Mr. Lunny. (5) Furthermore, Mr. Lunny’s 2007 claim to Marin County Board of Supervisors that the Park had never shown him maps of seal areas to avoid was also false. (6)

The Study did conclude that the Park Service had “overstated” its scientific case and that one important email was erased from Park computers. While this is regrettable, it does not negate the research that indicates the commercial oyster operation negatively impacts Drakes Estero and the wildlife that live there. The National Park Service acknowledged the error over a year ago, and has requested and will receive a National Academy of Sciences review of its scientific findings. In the meantime, Park Service employees are acting in accordance with their responsibility to protect and preserve the park’s natural resources for the public.

Point Reyes National Seashore hosts 2.3 million visitors a year, and creates over 2,000 jobs and $120 million in recreation benefits for West Marin, while the commercial oyster operation provides forty jobs. But this is a bigger issue than just economic, and it goes beyond Point Reyes. If the law is stretched here, it will impact the fate of wild lands everywhere, and open the door to private industry offshore drilling, logging and other degradation of California’s spectacular coastline and pubic lands. This fragile coastline at the edge of the continent was placed under the highest level of protection thirty-two years ago. It would be a crime to chip away at it now.

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Footnotes

1. IG Report, p. 35 “There was no indication that any NPS employees planned to oust DBOC from PRNS prior to the expiration of the Reservation of Use and Occupancy in 2012 in any of the documentation that was reviewed for this investigation, including employee say that they would like to see DBOC gone from the park before 2012. Similarly, Neubacher denied that anyone had ever made suggestions to him about ways to remove DBOC’s operation from the park prior to 2012…Kinsey confirmed that he told Lunny that Neubacher intended to shut DBOC down. Kinsey stated that although he did not specifically remember Neubacher saying this, the tenor of the meeting left no doubt in Kinsey’s mind…”

2. IG Report, p. 33 “The Lunny family claimed that Neubacher and NPS had conversations and had taken actions to actively try to shut down DBOC prior to the expiration of its lease in 2012. These allegations stemmed from discussions at two meetings – one in January 2005 between Neubacher and local environmentalists Ken Fox, President of the Tomales Bay Association; Jerry Meral, member of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin; and Gordon Bennett, Vice Chair of the Sierra Club’s Marin Group, and one in April 2007 between Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and Neubacher. Regarding the January 2005 meeting, Lunny stated that Ken Fox told him that during a meeting Fox attended with Bennett, Neubacher, and Meral, Neubacher had an “affirmative reaction” to their suggestion of financially harming DBOC.

Fox recalled attending a meeting on January 23, 2005, with several people, including Bennett and Meral, at what was commonly known as the “red barn” in PRNSsoon after Lunny took over the oyster operation. Fox stated that no one spoke of trying to shut DBOC down prior to 2012 and denied that there was any discussion about financially ruining the Lunnys or about putting DBOC out of business. Additionally, Fox said he was not certain that Neubacher had attended the meeting in question.

Bennett recalled attending at least one meeting at PRNS with Neubacher, Fox, and Meral but denied that they ever discussed a plan to oust DBOC from the park prior to 2012 or to financially ruin DBOC. He provided a copy of minutes from the meeting of January 23, 2005, which reflect that NPS staff was in attendance but do not specify which NPS officials were present. Bennett added that no one from NPS had ever told him that they would like to see DBOC “gone” before 2012.

Meral stated that he had never participated in a discussion with Neubacher or any other PRNS employee about the possibility of financially undermining DBOC to hasten the farm’s exit from the park. He added that he had never heard any NPS employee say that they would like to see DBOC gone from the park before 2012. Similarly, Neubacher denied that anyone had ever made suggestions to him about ways to remove DBOC’s operation from the park prior to 2012…”

“Kinsey confirmed that he told Lunny that Neubacher intended to shut DBOC down. Kinsey stated that although he did not specifically remember Neubacher saying this, the tenor of the meeting left no doubt in Kinsey’s mind that Neubacher intended to shut DBOC down prior to 2012.”

3. IG Report p. 2 “Conversely, our investigation revealed that, until April 22, 2008, Kevin Lunny had been operating DBOC without a Special Use Permit since he bought the oyster operation in 2005 and had refused to sign a permit despite ongoing negotiations with PRNS, the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and the San Francisco Field Office of the DOI Solicitor’s Office. Similarly, his parents had been operating the G Ranch without a signed Special Use Permit since it came up for renewal in 2004 despite efforts by PRNS to bring him into compliance with federal regulations. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, engaging in any business within a national park is prohibited without a “permit, contract, or other written agreement with the United States.”

4. IG Report, p.5 “NPS is required to actively seek to remove from potential wilderness the temporary, nonconforming conditions that preclude wilderness designation.”

5. IG Report, p. 27 “Allen provided copies of handwritten notes dated April 26 to the OIG and showed investigators a bound field notebook containing those original notes. Under oath to the OIG, Allen stated that although she had brought a camera with her on April 26, she was unsuccessful taking photos through her spotting scope because the camera was not focusing properly through it. Allen subsequently provided investigators with a photo of a tripod that she had taken while viewing the estero that day. The property description file corresponding to the photo reflected the time as “14:41″ on April 26, 2007.”

6. IG Report, p. 28 “On May 18, 2007, Allen wrote Neubacher an e-mail documenting the fact that she had met with Lunny to inform him which areas to avoid in the estero in order to prevent the disturbance of seals. In her e-mail, she wrote the following:

I want to have on record that on March 17, 2006 [sic] when we met with Mr. Kevin Lunny about Drakes Estero in the administration conference room, one of the items that we discussed was not disturbing harbor seals in Drakes Estero. I met with Kevin afterwards, and on a park brochure map, I showed him where the seals haul out and pup and explained that he should avoid those areas. I told him that I would provide a better map for his reference. I explained that the upper estero was particularly important for females with pups. Mr. Lunny was receptive to what I said and wanted more information.

That same week, I spoke with [the GIS Biologist of the park] about producing a map for Mr. Lunny so that the seal pupping and haul out areas were clearly shown. I met with [the Biologist] and he produced the map within a week. I sent the map to Mr. Lunny along with articles on harbor seals….This map was also included as Exhibit A in the draft permit to Drakes Bay Oyster Company.”