POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE — A creaky wooden scow piled high with gnarled oysters slides over the water toward wooden racks hung with rows of the shellfish on Drakes Estero, a stunning estuary teeming with marine and bird life.
Then oystermen in green waders haul up 100-pound strings of the bivalves for Drakes Bay Oyster Co. — a chore that annually yields almost 40 percent of the California's commercial crop.
The oyster farming has endured here for more than 70 years in what is now Point Reyes National Seashore. But swirling around these peaceful waters about 50 miles north of San Francisco is a tumultuous and costly debate over whether the federal government should renew the farm's lease next year or convert the estuary to untouchable wilderness.
The rancor has reverberated all the way to Washington. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the National Academy of Sciences have charged that the National Parks Service is attempting to oust the oyster company by exaggerating its negative impacts. The park service and environmentalists say boats and other equipment used by the oyster farm are harming harbor seals and native grasses, as well as fostering non-native species.
To help Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reach his decision, the government has spent well over $1 million on research, according to records and interviews. A draft environmental impact statement released by the National Park Service in September alone cost more than $600,000, not counting staff time and other costs.