* Decision followed debate about how much farm damaged
* California wrestles with wanting wilderness and home-grown
* Oyster farmer vows to struggle to continue operations
INVERNESS, Calif., Nov 29 (Reuters) - In the famously
liberal and prosperous enclave of Marin County, California,
environmentalists and local food fans usually line up on the
same side of any given cause. The oyster, however, has managed
to cleave them far apart.
The U.S. government sided with environmental groups on
Thursday with its decision to shut down a 40-year-old Northern
California oyster farm in an attempt to restore wilderness.
Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar said he would not renew
the lease for the weatherbeaten shacks, oyster shell mounds and
waterlogged docks that make up Drakes Bay Oyster Company.
The lease ends Friday, and then Drakes Estero in Point Reyes
National Seashore, an hour north of San Francisco, will be
turned into the West Coast's only designated marine wilderness
Harbor seals, birds and native grasses are expected to
reclaim the property, four decades after a collection of local
ranches and oyster farmers agreed to sell their land to the
government, rather than developers, in exchange for long-term
leases. The Interior Department will renew leases on cattle
Workers on a small dock crowded with oyster crates, a power
drill to separate mollusks, and a rickety conveyor belt, cried
openly after Salazar called owner Kevin Lunny in the morning
with the news. A third generation cattle-rancher, Lunny took
over the oyster company lease seven years ago and had hoped to
California is wrestling with how to have its wilderness and
its freshly grown local food too, issues at the heart of the
oyster war. "Sustainable" is the popular catch phrase in the
state, adding the notion that food production needs to work
long-term - and be profitable - to the "organic" manifesto of
But the lofty goals, which fit the bill of high-end San
Francisco restaurants, don't go down so well with
environmentalists who say there are places one cannot
'SERIOUS, IRREPARABLE HARM? NO'
Oyster joints, from roadside dives to upscale zinc bars, are
thriving in California and Drakes has helped meet demand with
450,000 pounds (204,100 kg) of oyster meat annually.
Environmentalists say production from other parts of the state
will compensate for the Drakes oysters, but Lunny expects
increased supplies from Asia.
Lunny lamented that "we could have had a powerful
discussion," about "working landscapes and sustainability"
versus "hands off preservation of wilderness." But attempts at
that conversation were overshadowed by a bitter fight over the
science about whether the oyster farm hurt the estuary.
Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton agreed
the fight was unfortunately nasty and the science less clear
than either side suggested.
"There is harm," said Hamilton. "Is it serious, irreparable
harm? No. But you can't put that many motor boats and that many
exotic oysters and not have some harm."
For the Sierra Club, the matter was simple - you can't have
an oyster operation in a wilderness.
"National parks are not places where you authorize private
use of public lands," agreed National Parks Conservation
Association Associate Director Neal Desai, one of the leaders of
the effort to end the lease.
OYSTERS LEFT IN BED
His sentiment was echoed in the vast majority of tens of
thousands of comments submitted to the National Parks Service.
Plenty of locals sided with the environmentalists, but some
were concerned about the loss of tradition, jobs and good food.
"Devastating. Devastating," said Linda Sturdivant, who had
been a caretaker for a former owner and said the Lunnys cleaned
up "a real dive."
Self-described "treehugger" Todd Board, picking up oysters
at the farm store, said that agriculture and environment had to
coexist - or the environment would lose. "Of all entities, the
Sierra Club is not seeing the forest for the trees," he said.
Salazar gave the oyster company 90 days to pack up. "The
Estero is one of our nation's crown jewels, and today we are
fulfilling the vision to protect this special place for
generations to come," he said in a release.
Out on the dock, the Lunny family was stunned but seemed
more inclined to fight than leave, if they could only figure out
how. "We're not finished," Lunny told his workers.
His son, Sean, 24, a fourth-generation rancher aiming to
become a second-generation oyster farmer, said the slate gray
water still teemed with his family's work. "I just know that we
have three years of oysters out there," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Mary Milliken
and Eric Walsh)