Shuck and awe: California oyster farm loses to environmentalists

* Decision followed debate about how much farm damaged

estuary

* California wrestles with wanting wilderness and home-grown

food

* 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

outside Alaska.

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

operations.

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

renew it.

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

chemical-free farming.

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

compromise.

'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)

Most Popular in Business