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.
To Kevin Lunny, whose family purchased the oyster farm business in the Point Reyes National Seashore for $260,000 in 2004, the appeal temporarily rescinded a Feb. 28 deadline to shutter the business that harvests 8 million oysters a year from the cold, clear waters of Drakes Estero.
The deadline was based on Salazar's decision last fall not to extend a permit that had allowed oyster farming to continue for 40 years in the estero, a 2,500-acre waterway with extensive eelgrass beds and a harbor seal colony in the midst of a designated wilderness area.
Barring a reversal by the courts, Salazar's decision would ultimately require Lunny to remove and destroy $4.5 million worth of oysters, terminating mariculture that dates back to the 1930s in the Pacific Ocean estuary.
Lunny's lawsuit, filed in December by Cause of Action, describes the oyster farm has "environmentally sustainable" and alleges that Salazar's decision was "arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion."
Cause of Action, founded in 2011, is a nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization dedicated to "government accountability and transparency," according to its website.
"Any time government is overstepping its bounds, our interest is coming in to protect taxpayers' interests," said Mary Beth Hutchins, the organization's spokeswoman.
Critics say that's not the whole story, pointing to Cause of Action's refusal to disclose its funding sources and ties between its executive director, Dan Epstein, and the Koch brothers, whose global corporation has annual revenues of $115 billion.
Epstein, a lawyer, worked for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation from June 2008 to January 2009, then went to work as counsel for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, a San Diego County Republican.
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