More work ahead to restore estero after Drakes Bay Oyster Co. departure
A rainbow arched over the wind-rippled water of Drakes Estero, a shallow bay teeming with harbor seals, fish and eelgrass beds in the Point Reyes National Seashore that was the focal point of an epic battle between the federal government and a family-owned oyster farm that reached Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The tranquil scene last week, as the sun broke through a rainstorm-clouded winter sky, belied the conflict that sharply divided friends and neighbors in West Marin County and engaged countless others, including celebrity chefs and an organization with ties to the arch-conservative Koch brothers.
The farmer, Kevin Lunny, ultimately lost his bid to continue harvesting $1.5 million a year worth of succulent Pacific oysters from the 2,500-acre estero and was evicted from the shoreline adjacent to his lifelong home on the last day of 2014. Resentments kindled by the dispute still linger in the bucolic Point Reyes community where “everyone is an environmentalist,” a county supervisor said.
The National Park Service, which manages the seashore, immediately launched a cleanup effort that has cost taxpayers more than $500,000 to date. That number could easily double with the toughest part of the job due to start this spring.
Contractors for the agency scraped away Lunny's weather-beaten oyster shack, dock and all other structures on the farm's 5-acre site at the north end of the estero last year at a cost to taxpayers of $220,000, plus $87,000 to remove about 37,000 pounds of oysters, clams and debris from the water.
Starting in July, after the close of the harbor seal pupping season, another contractor will tackle the next major phase of the estero's restoration, including removal of 470 tons of wooden oyster racks made of pressure-treated lumber with posts sunk 5 feet into the estero's muddy bottom. The racks, built mostly in the 1950s and '60s, would make a line 5 miles long if placed end-to-end instead of clustered about the estuary.
At low tide, the tops of the 95 racks protrude like sepulchral fingers from the water's silvery surface. In tests to determine the best way to pull out the racks, it took a winch applying 2,000 pounds of force a minute to loosen the posts.
Plastic, wood and metal debris, along with oyster shells, will be collected from the estero floor and from exposed sandbars in a project that will stretch into 2017. More than $200,000 already has been spent planning the restoration and the cost of the upcoming work hasn't been determined, said Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator at the national seashore.
Restoring ‘wilderness character'
The ultimate goal is to restore the estero, after 80 years of commercial oyster cultivation, to its “wilderness character,” Gunn said, of natural ecological and biological processes.
“It's an absolute gem,” she said, noting that Drakes Estero is now the second marine wilderness in the National Parks system, along with Glacier Bay near Juneau, Alaska.
But the estero gained that designation, embodied in a 1976 act of Congress, after a tortuous political dispute - pitting pure wilderness against sustainable agriculture - culminating in former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision not to renew Lunny's permit in November 2012. Lunny immediately sued in federal court, alleging the secretary's action was “arbitrary and capricious” and based on flawed science.
That kicked off a two-year legal battle, in which teams of attorneys gave Lunny a small fortune's worth of free legal representation to fight the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking a verdict favorable to private interests pressing for rights to mine, cut timber and ranch on federal lands. Numerous supporting briefs were filed, with famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau among the litigants.
Lunny's case initially was handled by Cause of Action, a little-known Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit whose executive director had previously worked for a Koch foundation. Through a series of appeals, his lawyers enabled Lunny to continue selling oysters for two years.
But they otherwise failed even to get to a legal first base, as a federal judge in Oakland found she had no jurisdiction to review Salazar's decision. Appeals court judges twice upheld her ruling and the Supreme Court declined to consider the case in June 2014. Lunny subsequently agreed to abandon the oyster business, which trucked fresh oysters to restaurants and grocery stores, mostly in Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties. The popular mollusks would arrive 24 hours after they had been pulled from the estero's 51-degree water.
UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy: