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As for Feinstein, she has arguably fought as hard for the oyster farm as for any other issue on her agenda in the past several years. And evidence has surfaced recently that she hatched a plan to broker a secret backroom deal that would block Drakes Estero from becoming a protected wilderness.
Point Reyes became a national seashore in 1962; in fact, the park is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Drakes Estero, a sprawling, 2,500-acre estuary on the park's southern, central shore, is named for Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer who landed at Point Reyes in 1579.
In 1965, as the park expanded and its popularity grew, the State of California ceded control of coastal areas at Point Reyes to the National Park Service. Seven years later, Charlie Johnson, owner of Johnson's Oyster Company, which would later become Drakes Bay Oyster Company, sold his coastal property to the Park Service and received a forty-year lease in return. Such transactions have been and are typical for commercial enterprises and personal property surrounded by national parkland.
In 1976, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, and President Ford signed it. The Act designated more than 25,000 acres in Point Reyes as wilderness, and more than 8,000 acres as "potential wilderness," including Drakes Estero. Congress deemed the estero to be potential wilderness because land cannot become true wilderness as long as there's a commercial business, in this case an oyster farm, operating on it. As such, Drakes Estero would become wilderness once the oyster farm's lease expired.
On a recent spring day, I hiked to the estero during low tide from Drakes Beach. Along the way, Tom Baty, a local fisherman who has been trekking daily throughout Point Reyes National Seashore for the past several decades, pointed out dozens of pieces of plastic from the oyster farm that had washed up on the beach. "There's another one," Baty said, scooping it up for his large collection. "They're all along here."
As we headed inland, through berry brambles and poison oak and over a ridge top, the mouth of Drakes Estero came into view. Dozens of harbor seals were sunbathing on a big sandbar in the middle of the inlet; the estero is a major pupping ground for harbor seals. High overhead, an osprey cruised by its nest. Farther into the estero, the oyster farm's operations started to become apparent as the tide continued to recede.
Throughout much of the 20th century, Johnson's Oyster Company was a bustling enterprise. Johnson's family grew oysters in the estero, and then sold them to restaurants and other Bay Area outlets — and to tourists at a rambling shack at the end of a dirt road off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. But by 2004, the oyster business had lost steam, and so the Johnsons sold it to Lunny, who operates the historic, 1,400-acre G Ranch that sits directly across Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the estero and the oyster farm.
According to public documents, both Johnson and the National Park Service told Lunny that the oyster farm's lease was going to expire in 2012 and that Drakes Estero was to become a federal marine wilderness — a fact that Lunny admitted in a recent interview for this story. Lunny also knew when he bought the oyster farm that the California Coastal Commission had issued a cease-and-desist letter to the Johnsons for not having proper permits. Yet Lunny decided to invest heavily in the aging, aquaculture business, and to ramp up its operations.
According to government data, the oyster farm had produced, on average, about 150,000 pounds of oysters a year in the half-decade before Lunny purchased it, but by 2007, it was pumping out 475,000 pounds annually, Trainer said. Lunny's oyster farm is big business; it supplies at least 25 percent of the oysters consumed in California, is the largest supplier of oysters in the Bay Area, and is the state's biggest commercial shellfish operation in terms of production.
Under Lunny, the newly named Drakes Bay Oyster Company, like its predecessor, has also run afoul of state regulators. Public records show that the Coastal Commission continued to issue cease-and-desist letters in the years after Lunny bought the oyster farm because he did not have proper permits. In February 2009, Lunny got in more trouble because he was growing and harvesting Manila clams, an invasive species, in the estero without a National Park Service permit. Then in December of that year, the Coastal Commission fined the oyster farm $61,500 for numerous ongoing violations. And last September, the commission sent another reprimand to Lunny, warning about the "adverse impacts" of his company's boats operating in sensitive harbor seal habitat "during the breeding and pupping season."
Nonetheless, Lunny has successfully portrayed himself in Marin County as the "little guy" fighting against oppressive government bureaucrats who have unfairly targeted him and his thirty employees. "They make us out to be some kind of terrible stewards" of the environment, he said of the Coastal Commission regulators, "which is not the truth."
Lunny's extensive network of friends and supporters in West Marin also is impressive, and his prominence within the sustainable-foods community has won him much sympathy and praise, creating a situation in which some liberal Democrats, who otherwise would typically side with the environment, are instead firmly in his corner. "West Marin is ground zero for sustainable and organic agriculture," noted Corey Goodman, who owns a ranch in the nearby town of Marshall.