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Feds: Parks scientists erred in Marin County oyster farm study


SAN FRANCISCO — Errors were made but there was no criminal conduct by National Park Service scientists assessing the environmental impact of a disputed oyster farm in Northern California, a federal investigation has found.

The Interior Department's Solicitor's Office said the scientists made mistakes that eroded public confidence when studying whether the operation of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. hurt seal populations and the environment in the pristine waters of Point Reyes National Seashore.

"Specifically, several NPS employees mishandled research in the form of photographic images showing the activities of humans, birds and harbor seals at upper Drakes Estero," the Interior Department said Tuesday.

Interior's probe came after a separate study by the National Academy of Sciences found park service officials exaggerated the operation's negative impact on the environment. The academy's investigators did not receive some 250,000 surveillance photos showing the oyster boats' interaction with harbor seals.

At issue is whether the 71-year-old oyster farm — the only such facility in the Point Reyes National Seashore — can extend its lease, which runs out next year. The farm, which produces 40 percent of the state's commercial oysters, is located in a small bay tucked into the green coastal hills of the park, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.

The company has been in a feud for years with park officials who want to convert the estuary to official wilderness. Later this year the park service is expected to release its draft environmental impact statement, which will help determine if the farm can stay.

"They were trying to figure out a way to scientifically support their beliefs that the farm was harming the environment," said Kevin Lunny, the farm's owner. "Our goal is not to get people in trouble or see heads roll, but this biased science material has made it into the environmental impact statement process."

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said on Thursday the agency was ensuring that all appropriate actions are taken to address the issues the report identifies.

In addition, the department has set up a website with access to the photographs and other documents related to the oyster farm dispute.

The company has found a powerful ally in Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who accused the Interior Department on Wednesday of downplaying misconduct by the park service.

"Rather than accepting the ... verdict of misconduct and taking decisive action, the Department of the Interior responded defensively by noting the absence of 'criminal violation,' admitting that 'mistakes' were made, and declining to inform the public whether corrective action is taken," Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1960, but the oyster farm and 15 historic cattle ranches and dairy farms were allowed to continue operating. In 1976, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which designated the area as potential wilderness.

The NPS and local environmentalists have argued that the oyster operation should cease so the area can be designated official wilderness.

Feinstein has asked the Interior Department to clearly state how the science in question will be used in determining whether to renew the oyster farm's lease, and to be transparent in its corrective actions.