Raw Deal
Bad science and contempt for the law allow the government to destroy a family oyster farm.

Kevin Lunny, patriarch and owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co.


Jillian Kay Melchior

What happened from there is suspicious, to say the least. At first, the Department of the Interior began following the procedures outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act: Before it made a decision on the lease, the law required Interior to complete a draft environmental-impact statement, analyze the results, allow for public involvement and comment, issue a final environmental-impact statement, invite public comment again, then issue a record of the decision.

However, Goodman and others at the National Academy of Sciences found numerous problems with Interior’s environmental-impact statements, some of which were just described. Furthermore, the department was running behind schedule. It issued its final environmental-impact statement the day before Thanksgiving this year, just days before the final decision on the lease permit for Drakes Bay Oyster Co. was due. That didn’t allow enough time for the period of public comment mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act.

So Salazar simply reinterpreted the law. He claimed that because Feinstein’s rider had given him authority to extend the lease “notwithstanding any other provisions of law,” he was free to deny the lease and disregard the National Environmental Policy Act too. That would also allow him to make a decision without considering the findings — and many errors — within the environmental-impact statements. It essentially takes the science out of the decision.

“That’s a fairly broad grant of authority that [Salazar] is embracing there,” says Amber Abbasi, chief counsel for Cause of Action, a government-accountability group representing the Lunnys. She adds that the history of Feinstein’s rider legislation “clearly indicates that Section 124 was passed to rebut the National Park Service Interpretation of the 1976 Wilderness Act.”

The Lunnys’ interpretation of Feinstein’s rider seems spot-on. After all, Feinstein wrote that she “authored legislation to give the Interior Secretary the option to extend the oyster company’s lease by 10 years.” The senator also wrote that “the Park Service has repeatedly misrepresented the scientific record since 2006 to portray the farm as environmentally harmful, and it is my belief that the Park Service is doing everything it can to justify ending the oyster farm’s operations.”

The Lunny family bought Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in 2004, but their history with the land goes back much further. Kevin Lunny was born and raised on a cattle ranch and dairy farm that overlooked the oyster farm, a child of the Point Reyes National Seashore. When Drakes Bay Oyster Co. was put up for sale, Lunny was thrilled. “It’s such a beautiful, sustainable food system,” he tells National Review Online.

“It’s extremely healthy for the environment. There are no feeds, no fertilizers, no chemicals. . . . [We] got very involved and passionate about the local-food movement, organic production, sustainability, and local marketing.”

A committed environmentalist, Lunny wanted to farm oysters in a responsible way. He took out a $300,000 loan to clean the farm and restore the property, using the old Lunny family cattle ranch as collateral. As the Lunnys’ reputation for good oysters and responsible, sustainable agriculture grew, the farm became more and more popular. The Lunnys were able to make payments on their loan, maintain their employees, and stabilize their inventory. The farm was holding its own.

The Interior Department’s decision not only kills the farm but also financially ruins the Lunny family. The farm is home to an inventory of baby oysters worth nearly $5 million, all too young to be harvested and sold. Furthermore, with their business shuttered, the Lunnys will have no way to repay the loan they took out to improve the farmland, so they’ll probably lose the cattle ranch they used as collateral, too.

“This is not a store where we can have a fire sale, sell everything off the shelves and go away,” Lunny says. “The Park Service is asking us to kill all these oysters, destroy all this food, get out before they can even be harvested. There’s no way for us to recover our investment.”

The National Park Service would not take questions from National Review Online, referring reporters instead to the Interior Department. Blake Androff, the Interior Department’s spokesman, would not respond to questions about the numerous scientific errors in the National Park Service and Interior Department reports. He also wouldn’t comment on why the Lunnys were given only 90 days to vacate the premises.

Instead, Androff responded with an uninformative e-mailed statement: “The Secretary made his decision after careful consideration of the applicable law and policy. The Department will carefully review the complaint and any related materials that may be filed. The Department does not comment on litigation.”

The Sierra Club and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin — both of which have made the environmental case against the oyster farm — did not return phone calls by the time this story was filed.

And Gordon Bennett, spokesman for Save Our Seashore, said: “With all due respect, we’re not opposing the oyster farm. We’re supporting wilderness. . . . it doesn’t matter if they’re doing good or bad. It’s irrelevant.” He added that it was the Lunnys’ responsibility to prepare for job losses and provide retraining opportunities and severance to the employees who were left out of work when the farm was evicted.

The Lunnys have launched one final attempt to keep their farm, working with lawyers from Cause of Action. The lawyers say the Lunnys were not afforded due process and have been deprived of their property through arbitrary action of the government — both constitutional claims. Furthermore, they allege that Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Park Service violated its own rules. Last week the Lunnys filed for injunctive relief, which would allow them to continue operating the farm until a court rules on the case.

To be sure, it’s an uphill battle. The Interior Department has millions of taxpayer dollars at its disposal, while the Lunnys are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“We’re saying now, ‘We are dead,’” Lunny says. “It’s a really insensitive and harsh way to throw us out. It will completely destroy us.”

Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.