Kevin Lunny of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company is fighting to keep his farm (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
INVERNESS, Calif.—It is coming up on planting season at Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a tiny family-owned oyster farm located on a inlet nestled within the lush grassy cliffs that run along the Pacific Ocean here just north of San Francisco.
For more than 50 years, the modest farm, which looks like nothing more than a cluster of shacks, has been one of California’s leading producers of shellfish. Grown in the clear blue waters of what is known as Drakes Estero, Drakes Bay oysters make up a third of California’s annual shellfish production and are on the menu at some of the Bay Area’s top restaurants.
But the Lunny family, which purchased the farm in 2004, has been reluctant to begin planning cultivation for future seasons because they aren’t sure they will be here for much longer. For months, the Lunnys have been locked in an intense legal fight to keep the Interior Department from closing their farm—a closely watched case that heads before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Tuesday.
At issue is a decision made last November by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who declined to extend Drakes Bay’s 40-year-lease, which allowed it to operate on public land within the Point Reyes National Seashore that was created decades after the oyster farm’s inception.
The Lunnys, who had been pressing for an extension of their lease for years, sued—arguing Salazar based his decision on flawed environmental impact studies produced by the National Park Service, which oversees the land. They also contend he ignored a 2009 bill championed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and approved by Congress that would allow the farm’s lease to be extended by another 10 years.
Kevin Lunny, who owns the farm with his brothers, casts the fight as a battle between his family and an overzealous federal agency that is bowing to pressure from a powerful lobby of environmentalists who refuse to see benefits of farming on federal land. He says the government is ignoring the concerns from local residents who see his farm an important local sustainable food source.
“We are a part of a working landscape, the agriculture which is a key part of the fabric, the history and the culture that was always expected to be preserved here on the seashore,” Lunny said in an interview with Yahoo News. “What we are doing is fighting for our business, our employees and our community against a federal bureaucracy that seems to want to ignore the will of the people.”
But his opponents argue it’s more important to restore the land to protected wilderness and that extending the Drakes Bay oyster lease would set a dangerous national precedent that would allow commercial operations on other federal park lands.
“It’s a contract issue, a deal’s a deal,” said Amy Trainer, head of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, one of the farm’s most outspoken opponents. “If (Lunny) is allowed to stay, then we think that hurts the integrity of all our national parks and wilderness areas.”
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