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Feds deny Pt. Reyes oyster farm lease renewal

Jason Dearen, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- An historic Northern California oyster farm along Point Reyes National Seashore will be shut down and the site converted to a wilderness area, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on Thursday.

Salazar said he will not renew the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. lease that expires Friday. The move will bring a close to a yearslong environmental battle over the site.

"After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to expire ... and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976," Salazar said in a statement.

Salazar visited the oyster farm last week and said he did not make the decision lightly.

Point Reyes National Seashore was added to the national parks system by Congress in 1962, and protects more than 80 miles of California coastline.

The Interior secretary also has the power to lease the park's lands for dairy and cattle-ranching purposes. Currently there are 15 beef and dairy ranches operating along the Point Reyes seashore. Those ranches will remain open under the decision Thursday.

Oyster farm owner Kevin Lunny, whose family also operates one of the cattle ranches, said he was disappointed by the decision and was still trying to figure out his next move. He had been asking for a 10-year extension to his lease.

"This is going to be devastating to our families, our community and our county," Lunny said. "This is wrong beyond words in our opinion."

He said Salazar called to tell him about the decision.

Lunny bought the oyster company in 2004, knowing the lease expired in 2012. But his lawyers felt an extension could be negotiated, so he decided to take on the fight.

Lunny will have to remove the oyster company's property from park land and waters within 90 days. Because the lease was set to expire anyway, the company gets no compensation for the decision.

Salazar did not stop all commercial activities in the park. He sought to extend the terms of the cattle ranch leases from 10 to 20 years.

"Ranching operations have a long and important history on the Point Reyes peninsula and will be continued at Point Reyes National Seashore," he said.

Environmentalists and the National Park Service said the farm's operations threatened nearby harbor seals and other native species. The area is a key pupping site for the seals.

But the oyster farm decision had many powerful allies, who fought vociferously on its behalf.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the National Academy of Sciences claimed park officials were trying to get rid of the oyster farm by exaggerating its negative impacts on the environment.

On Thursday, Feinstein said she was "extremely disappointed."

"The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science," she said in a statement.

"(This) effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs."

To resolve the dispute over the seals, more than $1 million in taxpayer money was spent on environmental assessment studies, according to records. That study was used by Salazar to make his final decision.

California's other senator, Barbara Boxer, issued support for Salazar's choice, saying "in the end, he made his decision based on the science and the law."

Conservationists rejoiced at the decision, saying it will return one of the few coastal wildernesses in the country to its natural state.

"Protecting Drakes Estero, America's only west coast marine wilderness park, will restore health — and hope — for the ocean and for the interests of all of the people of this country," oceanographer Sylvia Earle said.


Associated Press writer Terry Chea in San Francisco contributed to this report.


Jason Dearen can be reached on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/JHDearen