Drakes Bay Oyster Company's legal bid to continue operating in federally protected waters has broader implications than simply the fate of the Marin County family-owed business that sells $1.5 million worth of shellfish a year.
To Cause of Action, a little-known Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that has provided the oyster company about $200,000 worth of free legal services, the case is about curbing government regulatory overreach.
To critics — including another nonprofit organization, California Common Cause — the oyster farm's challenge to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's authority fits into a national effort to promote for-profit use of national parks and wilderness areas.
Amid the controversy stand Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who own the nation's second-largest privately held corporation and are well-known for supporting conservative political causes, such as the tea party.
"It's pretty clear there's an overriding interest in this case," said William Robertson, dean of the Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa.
The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear the oyster farm's case, rejected by a district court last month, the week of May 13.
Robertson said there is reason to believe the appellate court's three-judge panel may issue a ruling that could "expand, contract or eliminate" commercial uses, including cattle and sheep ranches, timber and mining operations, on some federal lands.
"Every word (in the decision) will be worth a lot of money," Robertson said, calling the case "a big deal for the American West as we know it."
The appellate ruling would apply throughout the 9th Circuit, which covers California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii, a region that includes several signature national parks: Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.