Point Reyes National Seashore

Point Reyes National Seashore

Debate Flares on Limits of Nature and Commerce in Parks

November 2, 2009, 7:26 am

It seems a perfect marriage of nature and commerce. As boats ferry oysters to the shore, pelicans swoop by and seals pop their heads out of the water.

But this spot on the Point Reyes National Seashore has become a flashpoint for a bitter debate over the limits of wilderness and commercial interest within America’s national parks.

The National Park Service has said it cannot renew the permit to farm oysters in a tidal estuary here, which lapses in 2012, because federal law requires it to return the area to wilderness by eliminating intrusive commercial activity.

Kevin Lunny, the owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, says he feels persecuted by the National Park Service and has sought legislation that could allow him to continue operating.

He argues that the 70-year-old oyster farm, which predates the park, is part of the historical working landscape of the area — and every bit as in need of protection as the harbor seals and eelgrass that share the bay.

Mr. Lunny and his allies also accuse the park service’s regional office of issuing faulty scientific reports exaggerating the threat that the oyster farm poses to baby seals and flora in the estuary — accusations given credence last spring by the National Academy of Sciences.

The battle has split the local towns into passionately opposed camps: The Point Reyes Light, a local newspaper, has been critical of the park service, as have many sympathetic ranchers. But other residents and environmental groups cast Mr. Lunny as a savvy businessman manipulating public opinion to win favored status at the expense of the estuary.

The furor over the oyster lease has also drawn in partisans across the country because it plays into an old debate: Are the national parks primarily for preserving untouched wilderness, or for preserving the historic human imprint on the land, too?

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, has thrown her support behind the oyster farm. A provision she attached to the fiscal year 2010 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, passed by Congress recently, would give Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the option to extend the oyster farm’s lease for 10 more years.

Some environmental groups worry that the provision could set a precedent for hundreds of other private leaseholders in the national parks looking to extend their stay. For example, some owners of fishing cabins and other vacation properties in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin want to stay on in perpetuity for similar historical reasons. And federal legislation has been introduced several times to allow the private herds of a hunting club in the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California to remain on the land.

Ms. Feinstein included language in the provision saying that it should not be seen as a precedent, but the environmentalists say those words could prove meaningless.

“This exception is not just about the slippery slope,” said Jerry Meral, vice chairman of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which has helped organize opposition to the lease extension. “It’s the beginning of the end of wilderness.”

Foes of the provision also include the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association here.