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Coastal Commission officials, however, take issue with the allegation that they have persecuted Lunny. "The reality is: He still doesn't have any permits," said commission spokeswoman Sarah Christie. "We would have been well within our rights to go after his operation as an enforcement case. But we haven't. We have bent over backwards ... for the operation. Not only have we not persecuted him, we've been more than fair."
But in the small coastal towns near the park and Tomales Bay — Marshall, Point Reyes Station, Olema, Inverness Park, Inverness, and Bolinas — state regulators are often looked upon with suspicion, and the National Park Service is viewed by many as a giant with an insatiable appetite. Ranchers, in fact, believe that if the oyster farm's lease isn't renewed, they'll be the next to go. "Almost everybody close to this does have that fear," Lunny said. "The oyster farm is seen as an example of unbecoming conduct by the Park Service and its distaste for agriculture."
For their part, Park Service officials have stopped talking about the oyster farm as Salazar nears his decision. But they've said previously that ranchers, including Lunny, who leases his cattle ranch from the park, are in no danger of losing their leases because they're on property that was never designated by Congress to be potential wilderness.
Many residents and ranchers, however, don't trust the Park Service because of the missteps it made with Drakes Bay Oyster Company.
Lunny's decision to dramatically increase production at his oyster farm in 2005 and 2006 raised alarm bells at Point Reyes National Seashore. By early 2007, Sarah Allen, a park scientist, and Don Neubacher, the park's superintendent, began warning publicly that the expanding oyster farm was seriously impacting the harbor seals' pupping ground.
Lunny reacted angrily and swiftly, complaining to the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General that Park Service officials were allegedly slandering him and harming his business. Lunny, who also owns a rock quarry and paving business, convinced Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor who represents West Marin and has close ties with the ranching community, to get the rest of the board of supervisors to ask Dianne Feinstein to intervene on the oyster farm's behalf.
Despite her success in protecting Southern California desert, Feinstein also has a record of siding with business over the environment. California Watch reported in 2009 that Feinstein had assisted wealthy Central Valley farmer Stewart Resnick and state agribusiness interests in their attempts to extract more water from the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and thus leave less water for declining salmon populations.
And in the summer of 2008, Feinstein received the ammunition she needed to help Lunny in his battle with the Park Service. The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General issued its report, strongly criticizing Allen and Neubacher for overstating the oyster farm's impacts on harbor seals.
Lunny portrayed the report as vindication of his claims of being persecuted, while Feinstein expressed outrage at the conduct of Park Service officials. The senator also asked the National Academy of Sciences to review an environmental study that the Park Service had done on Drakes Estero and the oyster farm. In May 2009, the academy responded with more fuel for the fire, concluding that the Park Service had manipulated data and exaggerated the oyster farm's effects on the estero and harbor seals.
Neubacher apologized and retracted the environmental study. But the damage had been done. The flawed study and misstatements by park officials helped Lunny and Feinstein change the public conversation from the planned creation of the first marine wilderness on the West Coast to the alleged persecution of a popular oyster farm and its owner.
Looking back, some environmentalists now acknowledge that the Park Service's claims about the oyster farm and the environmental studies it conducted were unnecessary. That's because it doesn't matter whether the oyster farm harms Drakes Estero or not (it does have impacts, but their extent remains in dispute). The simple fact is: The estero cannot become a wilderness as long as Lunny's operation is there.
So why did the Park Service do what it did? Lunny claims that Neubacher was determined to stop him from extending his lease and manipulated the science to show that he was greatly harming the environment. "There are some impacts," he acknowledged of his oyster farm. "But no serious adverse effects."
However, Gordon Bennett, a West Marin environmentalist who has closely monitored the estero controversy, said the Park Service conducted the environmental studies because it was concerned about the massive increase in production at the oyster farm. "Mr. Lunny was engaged in a fairly heavy expansion at that point," Bennett said. "There was conflict there."
Lunny, however, wasn't just expanding his oyster operation; he was expanding his network of influential friends. Among them was Nan T. McEvoy, heiress to the Chronicle publishing empire and big-time Democratic Party donor. Since 2000, she has contributed at least $534,900 to federal Democratic campaigns, finance reports show. She also is an influential player in state politics, donating $1 million to Governor Jerry Brown's two charter schools in Oakland.