More work ahead to restore estero after Drakes Bay Oyster Co. departure

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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.

Farmer looking forward

Lunny, who turned 58 on Christmas Day, said in an interview that he has not gone back to the site, though he can see the estero from the bedroom window of his home on the historic 1,100-acre G Ranch. The home at Point Reyes is one of the “alphabet” ranches on federal land where agriculture was allowed to continue. Lunny said he is looking forward, including making plans to get back into oyster cultivation, but he remains blunt in restating his grievance against the federal government.

“It was an ugly fight, but we can sleep at night,” he said. “We’re very comfortable with what went on. We were telling the truth.”

Claims of scientific misconduct in the park service’s assessment of the oyster farm’s impact on the estero repeatedly were raised in his legal filings but never resolved by the federal courts. Nor did the park service set the record straight, Lunny said.

“The truth never came out,” he said, calling the government’s conduct a crime.

Called to testify before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in April, Lunny told the panel headed by Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, that the park service “engaged in a taxpayer-funded enterprise of corruption to run our small business out of Point Reyes.”

Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has represented the Point Reyes area for 19 years, said the loss of the oyster farm was the “greatest disappointment” of his political career.

“I think it was wrong. I think it was manipulated by the park service and the Coastal Commission,” said Kinsey, who is chairman of the state commission.

Kinsey said he initially supported Lunny’s bid to renew the oyster cultivation permit, but decided to accept Salazar’s decision in 2012. Under Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, who was appointed in 2010, the national seashore has shown “genuine interest in putting the controversy behind us,” he said.

The “acid test” of that resolve, Kinsey said, would be if the park service makes good on Salazar’s directive to grant 20-year permits to the beef and dairy ranches in the 28,000-acre pastoral zone on federal lands. Gunn said there have been more than 100 meetings with ranchers, environmental groups and other stakeholders in the ongoing process of forging a ranch management plan, with 20-year permits that would include the Lunny family ranch.

Kinsey, who said he will not run for a sixth term as supervisor, said the government’s dealings with Lunny still rankle some locals. “I think there’s a scab, but I don’t think the wound has healed,” he said.

Still angry over ouster

Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley, a co-founder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and a former Coastal Commission member, remains outraged by the oyster company’s ouster. “It was mismanagement in the extreme,” she said, noting that Lunny deserved better treatment for cleaning up the company site after purchasing it in 2004.

Moreover, she said, millions of filter-feeding oysters improved the estero by cleaning the water and allowing more sun to penetrate and promote the growth of the extensive eelgrass beds.

Oysters made a limited contribution to water clarity near the growing racks, but the main driver in that regard is strong tidal action flushing the entire estero, according to the park service’s environmental assessment.

Green pastures of eelgrass, a flowering plant that grows in shallow coastal waters around the world, are the biological cornerstone of the estero. They afford shelter for small fish and invertebrates and form the bottom of the food chain in a biologically diverse waterway that supports crabs, bat rays, leopard sharks, migrating birds and one of California’s largest harbor seal colonies.

“It’s amazing when you go snorkeling. It’s like flying over a rainforest,” said Ben Becker, the seashore’s marine biologist, who estimates there are 500 acres of eelgrass in the estero.

But California has lost much of its eelgrass to bayshore development, and one reason for pulling the oyster racks and clearing the debris beneath them is to allow eelgrass to grow into those spaces, Becker said.

Test pulls of the oyster rack posts have shown they create a small cloud of sediment that dissipates in a couple of minutes, he said.

Fighting invasive species

Removing the racks and oyster shells — the unnatural hard surfaces in the estuary — should also eliminate most of the Didemnum vexillum, a fast-growing invasive species nicknamed “marine vomit,” Gunn said.

The park service never considered leaving the racks in the estero, she said, given its intent recreate wilderness, defined by Congress as a place “untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Faber and other park service critics contended that was unrealistic, citing the history of oyster cultivation dating back to the 1930s and insisting that sustainable, chemical-free production of a sought- after food was compatible with the estero’s near-pristine environment.

Lunny’s critics, however, said that he bought the oyster farm for $260,000 in 2004 knowing the 40-year federal permit granted to the previous owner would expire in eight years. “A deal’s a deal,” they said.

Park service backers, including Sylvia Earle, the renowned oceanographer based in Oakland, insisted that Congress had promised the public a 33,000-acre wilderness in 1976 and the government should deliver it. In a Huffington Post column in 2012, Earle wrote that the estero should be free of those who “derive financial gain at the expense of a national treasure.”

Amy Trainer, as executive director of the Environmental Action Center of West Marin, a nonprofit based in Point Reyes Station, became the point person for the campaign to terminate the oyster farm. She has resigned and will depart at the end of February for Seattle, where she worked last year on a campaign to get the first marine ecologist elected to the powerful Seattle Port Commission.

“It was just time for a change,” Trainer said. But she also acknowledged being “the target of a lot of anger and misinformation” during her five-year tenure with the center, which celebrated its 45th anniversary this month.

“I regret that it was so divisive for so many members of the community,” Trainer said, but she expressed satisfaction with her effort. “If there was ever a place worthy of our tax dollars to clean up and restore it would be Drakes Estero,” she said, a few weeks after kayaking on the estuary and watching harbor seals pop their heads out of the water.

Lately, Trainer said she has been involved in community discussions of the ranch management plan and gotten a sense that “a lot of trust has been built” between the two formerly antagonistic factions.

Lunny said he, too, wants to work on the ranch plan with wilderness advocates and the park service. “We need to reach out and shake hands,” he said. “We want a lot of the same things.”

Other enterprises

Lunny said he is busy with his family’s enterprises — a construction company, a composting business and the cattle ranch. Drakes Bay Oyster Co., run by his sister, Ginny Cummings, continues distributing oysters to some of its old customers, getting most of its bivalves from the Pacific coast of Baja, Mexico.

The family had contemplated opening a restaurant in the Inverness area, but Lunny said that proved “too complicated for us.”

The Lunnys remain “in love with shellfish agriculture” and are working with regulators to get back in the oyster business, Kevin Lunny said, declining to be more specific.

Some of the people he fought with over the use of Drakes Estero are longtime friends, and that conflict needs to be put to rest.

“Life’s too short to hold grudges,” Lunny said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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