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Something Smells Fishy

Author: Bill Meagher
November, 2008 Issue

West Marin’s Lunny family struggles to keep Drakes Bay Oysters afloat.

There’s no such thing as a simple issue in West Marin. Black and white is missing from the standard color palate in places like Bolinas and Point Reyes Station. Rather, the predominant hues along the coast are shades of gray. And many of them are found atop Kevin Lunny’s head.

The 50-year old-Lunny, along with his brothers, Robert (Bob) and Joe III, own Drakes Bay Oysters inside the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). Actually, the oyster and clam farm is found on Drakes Estero, a body of water that provides the main drainage for the Point Reyes peninsula. When the Lunny family purchased the company in 2005, it inherited a “reservation of use” (ROU) with the National Park Service. The ROU specifies that the farm and cannery can only operate until the end of 2012—and then it’s out of business.

  This helps explain Kevin Lunny’s gray hair. Adding to the shading of Monsieur Lunny’s pate is the red ink that will flow—to the tune of at least $200,000—should the business clam up (no pun intended).

See, the Lunny family would like to keep farming past the 2012 deadline in the ROU. And this makes many organizations nervous and unhappy. The Park Service, for example, has made it quite plain that it has no desire to have the oyster farm operating a day longer than the ROU states. The Point Reyes National Seashore Wilderness Act of 1976 designated much of the park’s coastal areas as “wilderness” or “potential wilderness.” The Estero is currently designated “potential wilderness” and, after the oyster facility leaves, will be returned to “wilderness” status. From the Lunny standpoint, the Estero could be designated wilderness while the farm operates. Under the Wilderness Act, though, the term “wilderness” means “untrammeled by man,” or no human impact.

Did I mention it’s impossible to write a story involving the federal government without extensive use of quotation marks?

Taking sides

The Park Service isn’t alone in wanting the Estero to exist without farming. The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin also wants Lunny out. The Marin Audubon Society is against the oyster farm, and so are the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club’s Marin Group and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The Sonoma Conservation Action and Wilderness Watch both favor a Lunny exit from the Estero. The Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the California Wilderness Coalition, wants the oyster farm to take a walk. The Planning and Conservation League and the Bluewater Network also believe the PRNS is better off without the farm.

No word yet on how the National Football League or Dish Network feel about the oyster operation.

Not that the Lunny family is without support. The Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture is on its side. Marin Organic has praised the farm as an example of a green business that operates in a sustainable fashion. And Drakes Bay Oysters is a poster child for the slow food movement, because the shellfish are an organic product that’s produced with respect for the environment and is only distributed and consumed locally.

And if you want to get political, the Marin County Board of Supervisors and Senator Dianne Feinstein both intervened in the tussle between the business and the Park Service. Still, all things considered, you’d have to install the Lunny family as a considerable underdog in a steel cage match with Uncle Sammy.

This is to say nothing of the Lunny’s availing themselves of the spin services of public relations fixer par excellence Sam Singer. More on that later.

What makes the dispute between the oyster farm and the Park Service unusual is that neither side disputes the agreement currently in place. It may be the only thing the two sides agree on in what’s become a very public battle. The Lunny family maintains the Park Service has harassed it. The Park Service denies the accusation. On the other hand, the Park Service says the oyster operation has run afoul, damaging the eelgrass and harming harbor seals, which the Lunnys say is untrue. The Lunnys say the Park Service is relying on voodoo science to back its arguments against the family, and the NPS says it ain’t so.

One thing to bear in mind through all this is that West Marin is the last bastion of what Marin once was. There are those who will claim this isn’t so, that a walk along the piers of Sausalito’s houseboats will take you back to another time. Or that the counterculture still lives in the nooks and crannies of Fairfax. But starving artists no longer live on the water, and just because Marin’s best known medical pot dispensary is found in Fairfax doesn’t make it a latter day flower power haven.

From the old tradition of Bolinas residents dumping the state-erected signs announcing the town limits to the ranches and dairy farms making their stands against creeping urbanism, West Marin finds itself pushed up against the edge of Marin—and it isn’t giving an inch. Those who call hamlets like Inverness and Olema home are a fiercely independent lot. Passions run high in these parts, and discussions are spirited and sometimes conducted in a manner to make it easier for the opponent, and everyone else, to hear. So it’s easy to understand how the dispute between the Lunnys and the Park Service is pushing the decibel envelope and maxing out the bitter meter.
What isn’t so easy to understand is why.

The back story

The bay was named for Sir Francis Drake who, according to legend, landed there in 1579 during his voyage around the world. Oysters have been harvested from Drakes Estero since at least the late 19th century (though some archaeological evidence indicates native populations were availing themselves of the tasty shellfish for possibly thousands of years). And a commercial operation has been in place since the 1930s, when the Coast Oyster Company out of Washington state pulled oysters out of the Estero. In 1957, Johnson’s Oyster Company bought out the operation, calling Drakes Bay home until 2004, when the Johnson family sold the farm to the Lunnys.

“Originally, we became involved because the Johnsons, who had been our neighbors for years, asked us to do some construction work,” says Kevin Lunny, a third-generation Marin farmer. The family owns a construction company, Lunny Grading and Paving, as well as Drakes Bay Family Farms, which produces organic, grass-fed beef. “The place had fallen into disrepair; we were doing some demo work and, in general, just cleaning up.”

Disrepair might be charitable. The California Coastal Commission had slapped the operation with a cease and desist order over the conditions of the cannery and farm.

Lunny and his family have lived and produced food on the historic G Ranch (also known as Lunny Ranch) for generations. Now located inside PRNS (which was established in 1962, well after the famring operation), G Ranch includes the Lunny’s Drakes Bay Family Farms. The ranch overlooks the bay, and Lunny had grown used to watching the Johnsons and their crew working on the water. “It wasn’t until I was down there working that I began to really see what they were doing,” he says.

If Marin is a small town, then West Marin is a tiny berg when it comes to gossip and a grapevine. Lunny knew the Johnsons’ operation was struggling, and it wasn’t long before he and the family were talking sale. “We did our homework. We knew the agreement ended in 2012,” says Lunny, taking a break from working a booth at the Point Reyes Farmers Market. “I called Don Neubacher [superintendent of the PRNS] and said, ‘What would you think of us buying Johnson’s Oyster Company?’ He said, ‘I really don’t think that’s a very good idea. You know they have permit and environmental problems.’”

He continues, “The next day, Don calls me back and says, ‘Was I dreaming? Did you ask about buying Johnson’s?’ Then he says he thinks having us buy it is a great idea. He says there are some permit issues but they can help us with those.”
There were three different permits that had to be obtained. According to Lunny, the first two were simple and caused no problems; the last contained a new clause that contradicted language in the ROU and specifically stated the Lunnys agreed to be out by 2012. “I asked Don, ‘Why would we sign that? The ROU agreement already states the deadline, but why would we want to tie our hands like that?’” Lunny asks. “This wasn’t what Don wanted to hear, and that was where the tension began.”

The debate heats up

Dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve print shirt, Lunny looks like a gentleman farmer. His face is shaded with sandpaper-like stubble, and his left eye is set in a perpetual squint. We’re seated at a folding table adjacent to a gent playing banjo and serenading shoppers with an old Steve Martin song, besieging listeners to put a live chicken in their underwear.

Lunny raises his voice. “We had a business plan so we could break even; make a little money if we left in 2012. But we also found out it was possible for the Park Service to extend the deadline.”
Lunny is referring to a continuation clause within the ROU that states: “Upon expiration of the reserved term, a special use permit may be issued for the continued occupancy of the property for the herein described purposes, provided however, that such permit will run concurrently with and will terminate upon the expiration of state water bottom allotments assigned to the Vendor.” (According to Lunny, the California Department of Fish and Game shellfish lease—aka the state water bottom allotment—expires in 2029.)

In the meantime, the Lunnys invested $300,000 in capital improvements and, soon, the oyster farm was humming along. The family had no problems selling its shellfish and business was good, which meant it was due for some bad news. The last permit required by the NPS was slow in coming. By 2007, it still wasn’t in place, and relations between the Lunnys and the Park Service deteriorated.

Lunny decided to ask Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey for help. Kinsey met with Neubacher and, after their conversation, asked Neubacher to appear before the full Board of Supervisors to explain alleged environmental problems posed by the farm’s operation, including NPS claims that it disrupts native seal populations and that the boats damage native eelgrass beds. During the meeting, Neubacher gave the Supes some inaccurate information based on questionable science.

“They started a campaign to discredit the farm,” charges Lunny. The issue came to a head when the Lunny family wrote the United States Department of the Interior alleging National Park Service officials of “scientific misconduct and disparate treatment,” according to an official report from the Office of the Inspector General, the investigative arm of the NPS.

The subsequent report was 53 pages long and based on interviews with almost 80 people. The investigators also looked at 1,100 documents and went into the kind of exhaustive detail where reading it qualifies as torture (if the United States actually tortured people, which, of course, it doesn’t).

The Inspector General’s report did find that a report from the Point Reyes National Seashore regarding the environmental health of the Estero contained several errors; but had been taken down off the park website and replaced by an “acknowledgement of error.” The report also showed that PRNS Senior Science Advisor Sarah Allen misinterpretated scientific information, and Superintendent Neubacher also came in for criticism over how he countered claims from Lunny that the oyster farm was an environmental benefit for the Estero, because the bivalves act as a significant, natural filtration system for impurities in the waters.
On the other hand, the report stated that the PRNS wasn’t trying to remove the Lunnys before the 2012 deadline.

To the family’s dismay, the report also includes this: “an extension of DBOC’s particular ROU would violate a congressional mandate that the oyster operation would be removed as soon as the ROU expires in order to manage Drake’s Estero as wilderness.”

Spin control

With the issuing of the report, fixer Sam Singer came on the scene. Singer is known in media circles as an expert on spin and crisis control. Singer, who knows Kevin Lunny’s sister-in law, leaped into the breach by authoring an incendiary press release with a headline that read, “Marin County’s Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Abused by Government Agency According to U.S. Department of Interior Inspector General Report.” If the headline was a stretch, the body of the release was a mix of fiction, innuendo and shading, with a sprinkling of truth here and there for spice.

But give Singer his due. He has a long track record of coming into difficult-to-impossible situations and making his client look better. In 1999, he represented John and Denise DeBartolo in a bloody family battle with brother Eddie to wrest control of the San Francisco 49ers. In 1995, he spun for Jack-in-the Box Restaurants when a meat contamination threatened its financial health.

More recently, he represented the San Francisco Zoological Society when a Siberian tiger escaped on Christmas day and killed a teenager. As the New Year began, the zoo was pummeled by the media. But Singer was hired and the next news cycle was complete with a story in the New York Post saying the victim’s friends had slingshots, and that an empty bottle of vodka as well as traces of pot were found in their car. The source for the Post story was anonymous, but is generally thought to be Singer.

While Singer doesn’t typically shy away from the press, he was more circumspect in his description of his work for Lunny. “My job was to take a complicated issue and make it understandable and compelling for the public. My role was to explain.”

But Singer isn’t the only one with an agenda in the seafood saga. The Save Drakes Bay Coalition is made up a collection of high-profile environmental organizations as well as pro-park groups. At the most local level, the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin has weighed in on every important environmental issue since 1971. The organization is known for its creativity and no-nonsense approach to any environmental issue—real or perceived—in West Marin.

The Marin Audubon Society has gained ground in recent years with its efforts to acquire open space in Marin. The Sierra Club’s Marin Group has 7,000 members and has gained status as both an environmental power as well as a local political player. Its conservation chair, Gordon Bennett, has been outspoken regarding the need for the NPS to limit Drakes Bay Oysters to its present agreement. And the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) is an advocate for the protection and enhancement of the national park system.

National parks versus local agriculture

Neil Desai of NPCA describes his organization as an independent, nonpartisan voice for the park system, “at times its best friend—and, at times, its harshest critic. And from Desai’s point of view, any change in position by Congress or the NPS regarding Lunny is dangerous. “This has implications far beyond West Marin. This is a national issue with systemwide implications. When land is designated by Congress for wilderness, it needs to remain as wilderness.”

Desai cops to the fact the debate has blown up. “All parties involved are at fault. It’s escalated to a level it should never have reached.” In the next breath, however, Desai is presenting a spirited offense. “Any special exemption would set a negative precedent with unfortunate public policy consequences. Placing private profit over public benefit shouldn’t happen to our most special lands. And does Marin County want to be known as the poster child for unraveling longstanding environmental laws in our national parks?”

The Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture doesn’t come with well-known groups, just concerned individuals who are dedicated to agriculture as a continuing way of life in West Marin. For them, the struggles of Lunny with the NPS are part of a larger issue as well. “The current administration of the park believes man has no place here; it’s never supported agriculture at large,” says Jeff Creque, a land stewardship consultant and member of the Alliance. “More than anything else, it’s a cultural, ideological problem. And Kevin and his family have to deal with that issue.”

Chief of Interpretation and Resource Education John Dell’Osso has been with the NPS for 25 years, so he’s seen a few things. He’s watched the situation with Drakes Bay Oysters develop, and he’s the first person to say the episode hasn’t been the agency’s finest hour. “Our job is to protect our resources and follow the law. We don’t typically get involved in defending ourselves,” says Dell’Osso. “But he [Lunny] put us on the defensive by going after our scientists. And this had a snowball effect over the last two years.”

Dell’Osso continues, “Kevin did a good job cleaning up the oyster farm, and we were happy he bought the place. But there’s an agreement he’s known about and we can’t change it. There is no mechanism for us to continue it.”

In the end, given hindsight of 20-20, taking on the Feds may have been a bad business decision for Lunny. “The Park Service added new permit provisions that would cripple the business and began to make allegations of serious environmental harm caused by the oyster farm. We had to find out what could be done and we had to hire consultants and lawyers,” he says a little wistfully.

It’s hard to tell a rancher to back off since, by nature, they seem drawn to doing things the hard way. But Lunny and his brothers have invested more than $1 million into the oyster operation, and if it closes in 2012 as scheduled, there’s going to be a tsunami of red ink to clean up.



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