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Permit renewal dispute pits commercial cultivation operation in Drakes Estero against wilderness advocates and National Park Service

  • Drakes Bay Oyster Company employees Lorenzo Hernandez, left, Francisco Lopez, Francisco Manzo and Rogelio Camacho remove Pacific oysters from a rack in Drakes Estero and load them onto a barge on Thursday morning, June 14, 2012.

An early morning breeze ripples the surface of Drakes Estero, the silence broken by the outboard motor on a weatherbeaten work boat heading south to harvest oysters.

Three men wearing rubber waders step onto a sandbar, knee-deep in the estuary's cold, clear water, and hoist bags full of the prized mollusks onto a 30-foot barge lashed to the boat.

"This is sustainable agriculture," said Ginny Cummings, seated on the work boat's gunwale. "A perfect example of coexistence."

Drakes Bay Oyster Company

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But in almost her next breath, Cummings, who grew up with her three brothers on a ranch overlooking the estero, acknowledged how fiercely some people believe otherwise.

"We're talking about two different ideologies," she said.

The 2,500-acre estero, a five-fingered estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore on the Marin County coast, is an anomaly.

It is a maritime cornucopia that yields about 8 million commercially cultivated Pacific oysters a year. And it is a designated wilderness, defined by Congress as a place "untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Oyster farming in the estero dates back to the 1930s, but the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., operated by Cummings and her brothers, depends on a permit granted by the federal government 40 years ago when it bought the property from a previous owner.

The permit expires Nov. 30, and for the past five years, a maelstrom of politics, disputed science and conflicting principles — pure wilderness versus productive use of natural resources — has swirled around the estero and the oyster farm located near its northern end, just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard.

The dispute is headed for resolution this fall by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who holds sole authority to decide whether the oyster company's permit is renewed for 10 years.


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