Over the past year, some members of the Bay Area's sustainable food movement have rallied to the defense of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. They've argued that the federal government should carve out an exception for the oyster farm and allow it to remain open at Point Reyes National Seashore because it's an example of sustainable agriculture. Many environmentalists, however, not only take issue with that characterization, but also warn that allowing the oyster farm to remain open — and thus delaying the creation of the first marine wilderness on the West Coast — could set a dangerous precedent. And during the past few weeks more evidence has emerged that environmentalists have good reason to be concerned, as Republican lawmakers increasingly view the oyster farm as a poster child for the rights of corporations operating on public land.
Earlier this month, David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the most conservative members of the US Senate, introduced legislation that would allow the oyster farm to stay open for ten years at Point Reyes as part of a comprehensive package designed to dramatically increase domestic offshore oil and natural gas production. Vitter is pushing the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, which has two-dozen GOP co-sponsors, as a job creation bill. "My bill would implement a good first step to letting the Drakes Bay workers continue working," Vitter said in a statement to the Marin Independent Journal.
Vitter's legislation would overturn US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's decision last fall to deny a request by US Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to keep the oyster farm open. Salazar noted that renewing the oyster farm's lease would have been precedent-setting because it conflicted with federal "law and policy." As the Express has reported, research at UC Berkeley School of Law found that the federal government has never before renewed the lease of a so-called non-conforming use, like an oyster farm, on land that had been designated by Congress to become fully protected wilderness (see "Dianne Feinstein's War," 6/13/12).
Vitter's bill also serves as a backup plan should the oyster farm lose its legal battle in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The oyster farm's owner, Kevin Lunny, sued the Obama administration to overturn Salazar's decision. In February, a federal judge ruled against Lunny and ordered him to close his business this month. But he appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and the appellate court agreed to hear the case and to allow the oyster farm to remain open until at least mid-May.
As the Express first reported, Lunny is being represented in court by the shadowy nonprofit Cause of Action, which has ties to the ultra-conservative Koch Brothers and the Republican Party (see "Here Come the Vultures," 12/12/12). Cause of Action's executive director is Dan Epstein, an ex-staffer for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and former lead lawyer for a Republican committee in the House of Representatives. The group is representing Lunny for free and has already given him hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of legal services.
Yet despite the substantial Republican support behind Lunny, some liberal foodies in the Bay Area are still fighting for him, too, noting that he also runs an organic, grass-fed cattle ranch at Point Reyes. Earlier this month, Alice Waters joined other sustainable food advocates in filing a brief with the Ninth Circuit on Lunny's behalf. "Over the course of nearly 40 years, Chez Panisse has helped create a community of scores of local farmers and ranchers, such as the Lunnys, whose dedication to sustainable agriculture ... assures the restaurant a steady supply of fresh and pure ingredients," the brief states.
These foodies, in short, seem to think that creating an exception for the oyster farm won't have ramifications. However, they apparently don't realize that Republicans like Vitter don't care whether Drakes Bay Oyster Company is environmentally sustainable. Conservatives know that Lunny provides them with a perfect opportunity: His operation has generated a split on the left that could help them in court or in Congress, and thus open the door for allowing other private businesses — including ones that are not environmentally sustainable — to receive additional rights to operate on public land, leading to more corporate exploitation of the environment.
Plus, the oyster farm is not exactly sustainable. It grows oysters artificially in Point Reyes, has been shown to impact a harbor-seal pupping ground, and has been operating in violation of California Coastal Commission environmental laws for years. And last year, an outbreak at the farm forced it to close for more than a month after state health officials found that its oysters had sickened consumers in California. "I think their claims of sustainability are completely hollow," said Amy Trainer, executive director for The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
Monsanto Wins Again
Even if Lunny loses in court and Vitter's oil legislation fails to garner enough votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate, Republican supporters of the oyster farm have another option: attach the lease renewal as a "rider" to an important piece of legislation. Earlier this month, lobbyists for Monsanto and other companies that produce genetically modified foods took advantage of this technique.
They got a rider that strips from the courts the power to restrict the use of GMOs attached to a bill that Congress must pass to avert a government shutdown. The rider eliminates a key legal tool that environmentalists have used to slow the spread of genetically modified organisms. The bill passed the Senate last week on a vote of 73-26, and the House by a vote 318-109, MapLight.org reported.
In fact, Vitter attempted to attach a lease-renewal rider to an appropriations bill late last week, although it failed to reach the Senate floor for a vote, Trainer said.