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Interior secretary tours controversial Drakes Estero oyster farm

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center, talks with Drakes Bay Oyster Company part-owner Kevin Lunny, left, during a tour at the Point Reyes National Seashore near Point Reyes Station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 1:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012 at 6:12 p.m.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the Pt. Reyes National Seashore Wednesday, meeting with operators of a controversial oyster farm on Drake’s Estero and environmental activists who want to close it.

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Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, center, talks with Drakes Bay Oyster Company part-owner Kevin Lunny, left, during a tour at the Point Reyes National Seashore near Point Reyes Station on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012.

(BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, Salazar walked the muddy grounds of the family-owned Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, which is seeking renewal of an historic agreement that expires Nov. 30.

He listened to owner Kevin Lunny, who produces 40 percent of the state’s oysters, and spoke in Spanish to the mostly Latino workers as they shucked and sorted the shell fish.

Then Salazar made the short trip to Park Service headquarters at Pt. Reyes Station, where wildlife advocates urged him to end oyster farming on the 2,500-acre estuary out of concern that it endangers marine mammals and vital grasses.

Salazar said he would review a recently completed environmental study — which recommended no preferred uses — before announcing a decision next week.

Throughout the visit, the former Colorado senator seemed torn by the legal agreement calling for the return of the land to the Park Service by 2012 and the deep-rooted agricultural heritage of west Marin County.

“It’s a very special place,” said Salazar, seated at a picnic table overlooking the estero with Lunny and others. “This is not going to be an easy decision for me.”

However, it’s Salazar’s call to make. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein authored legislation giving him sole discretion to either terminate the permit or renew it for up to 10 years.

Either choice could lead to drawn-out legal challenges. The government already spent $2 million to prepare an environmental analysis of the farm.

Salazar’s aides said the final document was published late Tuesday on the Park Service website. It spells out alternative uses for the land but doesn’t suggest any change from the oyster farming, which has been going on for 100 years.

Advocates for returning the land to its natural state argued the estuary is the wrong place for a commercial seafood operation.

They pointed to plastic debris that washes up by the armful on local beaches and expressed concern about displaced sea lions and life-sustaining fauna.

They called for immediate action to include assistance for people who lose their jobs.

“We don’t need another decade or two to wait,” said the Sierra Club’s Bruce Hamilton. “We’ve waited long enough. It’s time to close the deal and move on.”

The Lunny family maintains that harvesting $1.5 million worth of oysters a year from the estero’s cold, clear water is an ideal example of sustainable food production in a wilderness area.

He said the Park Service has made unsubstantiated claims that his business is harmful for the region.

Salazar got a close look at the operation, which not only includes harvesting and selling bags of oysters but growing new ones with the help of old oyster shells.

He walked through various stages, handling craggy mollusks and observing procedures.

“I’m very interested in seeing what you do here,” Salazar said as he trudged the soggy property.

He said at other wildlife preserves across the country, farmers and ranchers have been leaders in conservation efforts. He said they are playing a “central role in the 21st century conservation agenda.”

However, he didn’t make any promises. Other factors including legal obligations would be considered, he said.

He acknowledged the serious potential effects of his choice on the farm, its employees, the park and visitors.

“The reality is, there are issues of tenure here,” Salazar said. “I can commit to you that the ranching heritage of this area is something we are absolutely going to support.”

Lunny urged him to support the farm. Under the agreement, Lunny said Salazar has an option to extend his lease for another decade.

He expressed hope that it would happen as the secretary and his entourage drove away.

“I didn’t get an absolute vibe from him,” Lunny said. “I think he’s trying to make an informed decision.”

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.)

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