Sen. sides with oyster farmer over Park Serv.

June 29, 2009 8:31:05 AM PDT
A powerful Senate Democrat is backing an oyster farmer over the National Park Service in a northern California controversy that has environmentalists seething.This is good news for San Francisco Bay area lovers of succulent Drakes Bay oysters, some of the world's finest. But to environmentalists, the move by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sets a bad precedent because it permits a commercial operation in a wilderness area.

Feinstein is using her position as chair of the panel with jurisdiction over budget of the National Park Service - which has been battling with oyster farmer Kevin Lunny for several years - to weigh in on Lunny's behalf. She inserted language into the 2010 Interior spending bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Thursday that would force the Park Service to extend Mr. Lunny's permit to raise and harvest oysters in Drakes Bay until 2022.

The earmark preserves more than 30 jobs in West Marin County and keeps the Drake's Bay Oyster Company, California's largest commercial shellfish operation, afloat. In taking the unusual step, Feinstein is siding squarely with Lunny, whose battles with the Park Service and local environmental groups are legendary in the small, politically active community of Point Reyes.

Lunny says the park service has been trying to drive him with phony accusations that his operation was harming seals and doing other damage to the pristine Drakes Estero.

But the oyster farmer's case was strengthened by a recent National Academy of Sciences study released last month that says the Park Service misrepresented facts and exaggerated the operation's negative impact on seal populations and the environment of Drakes Bay, a sheltered estuary that is the only marine wilderness on the west coast from Canada to Mexico.

"They alleged that we were doing criminal harm to the environment," Lunny said. "Now that the farm has a clean bill of environmental health, it's a whole new ball game."

Armed with the new environmental study, which cemented support from other members of the local congressional delegation, Feinstein pounced this week by using her chairmanship of the Interior panel to muscle through the unusual earmark.

In fact, Feinstein says, the presence of hundreds of thousands of farm-cultured oysters is probably having a beneficial effect on the bay's ecology by performing water filtering functions that native oysters once did.

The oyster farm has been in operation for more than 70 years and was permitted - along with 15 historic cattle ranches and dairy farms - to continue operating after the Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1960. But in 1976, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, which designated the area as "potential wilderness."

The Park Service and local environmental groups have been pushing to force out the oyster operation so that the area would become an official wilderness.

"This is a family-owned oyster farm ... that predates the creation of Point Reyes National Seashore," Feinstein said in a statement. "This is an area with 15 historic dairy farms and historic cattle ranches, along with many roads running through it. It is not a remote wilderness."

But environmentalists worry that Feinstein's move would set the precedent that's it's okay to have commercial businesses in wilderness areas.

"I'm unaware of any other situations where a designated wilderness area in a national park is being undermined for the sake of one private commercial business," said Fred Smith, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. "And I really think that's going to embolden industry to seek other types of concessions like that in other parts of the country. I really do believe this is a national issue."

Lunny said in an interview that he learned of Feinstein's move just this week. He's given campaign contributions totaling $600 to local Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey in recent cycles but not to Feinstein.

Meanwhile, on Friday the House passed its version of the underlying $32.3 billion Interior appropriations bill by a 254-173 vote. The measure provides a remarkably generous 17 percent increase for programs covered by the bill.

Democrats justified a 9 percent increase for the Interior Department and a whopping 38 percent boost for the Environmental Protection Agency by saying former President George W. Bush shortchanged them for years.

A 75 percent increase for grants to cities and counties for clean and safe drinking water projects would both ease a backlog of projects and create much-needed infrastructure jobs, Democrats said.


Load Comments