Wilderness Vs. Commerce Future of a 70-year-old oyster farm at the heart of controversy over use of public lands

  • 12/12/2007: A1: Jorge Mata stacks farmed oysters Tuesday morning for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the Point Reyes National Seashore near Inverness. The recent oil spill resulted in a ban on fishing and shellfish harvesting, creating financial hardships for North Coast companies.

    PC: Jorge Mata stacks farmed oysters, Tuesday morning December 11, 2007 for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the Point Reyes National Seashore near Invernesss. The recent oil spill and it's closures caused great havoc for the oyster company by putting financial hardship on it's retail operation and workers salaries. (Kent Porter / The Press democrat) 2007

POINT REYES STATION - It seems a perfect marriage of nature and commerce. As boats ferry oysters to the shore, pelicans swoop by and seals pop their heads out of the water.

But this spot on the Point Reyes National Seashore has become a flashpoint for a bitter debate over the limits of wilderness and commercial interest within America's national parks.

The National Park Service has said it cannot renew the permit to farm oysters in a tidal estuary here, which lapses in 2012, because federal law requires it to return the area to wilderness by eliminating intrusive commercial activity.

Kevin Lunny, owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., says he feels persecuted by the Park Service and has sought legislation that could allow him to continue operating.

He argues the 70-year-old oyster farm, which predates the park, is part of the historical working landscape of the area -- and every bit as in need of protection as the harbor seals and eelgrass that share the bay.

Lunny and his allies also accuse the Park Service's regional office of issuing faulty scientific reports exaggerating the threat that the oyster farm poses to baby seals and flora in the estuary -- accusations given credence last spring by the National Academy of Sciences.

The battle has split the local towns into passionately opposed camps: The Point Reyes Light newspaper has been critical of the Park Service, as have many sympathetic ranchers. But other residents and environmental groups cast Lunny as a savvy businessman manipulating public opinion to win favored status at the expense of the estuary.

The furor over the oyster lease also has drawn in partisans across the country because it plays into an old debate: Are the national parks primarily for preserving untouched wilderness, or for preserving the historic human imprint on the land, too?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has thrown her support behind the oyster farm. A provision she attached to the fiscal year 2010 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, passed by Congress recently, would give Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the option to extend the oyster farm's lease for 10 years.

Some environmental groups worry the provision could set a precedent for hundreds of other private leaseholders in the national parks looking to extend their stay. For example, some owners of fishing cabins and other vacation properties in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin want to stay on in perpetuity for similar historical reasons. And federal legislation has been introduced several times to allow the private herds of a hunting club in the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California to remain on the land.

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