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Oyster farmer battles federal government's order to shuck operation

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    An employee holds an oyster harvested by Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which learned last week that its lease will not be renewed, effectively ending its operation. (Courtesy: Drakes Bay Oyster Company)

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    Employees harvest oysters at Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which produces nearly 460,000 pounds of shucked oysters annually and employs 30 people. (Courtesy: Drakes Bay Oyster Company)

A California family that has operated an oyster farm on the bucolic Northern California coast is fighting back after the federal government moved to kick it off of the National Park Service property where the shellfish have been legally harvested for nearly 80 years.

The Drakes Bay Oyster Company faces closure and its 30 employees will be out of work if the National Park Service reclaims some 1,100 acres of an estuary as part of a plan to create a larger marine wilderness preserve at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County. Owner Kevin Lunny said federal officials told him on Thursday — one day before his company's 40-year lease was set to expire — that he had three months to clear out. On Tuesday, he announced he's suing.

"We're not going to walk away," Lunny told reporters during a conference call. "We're fighting for our community."

Lunny said the company currently has roughly 10 million immature oysters worth up to $5 million awaiting harvest.

Lunny has an ally in Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who had tried to get the lease extended for another decade. But even her clout failed to sway U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“I am extremely disappointed that Secretary Salazar chose not to renew the operating permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Company,” Feinstein said in a statement. “The National Park Service’s review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement. The secretary’s decision 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.”

The National Park Service bought the land from Lunny's predecessor in 1972, but granted then-owner Johnson Oyster Company a 40-year lease to continue harvesting oysters. Salazar said in a department memo that it was made clear at the time of the lease's signing that it would not be renewed, and that the information was conveyed to Lunny in 2004 when he bought the business.

Salazar's move will effectively end the company’s operations within the national park estuary, which includes an onshore oyster processing plant and offshore oyster harvesting on more than 1,000 acres of coastal waters.

“Our family business is not going to sit back and let the government steam roll our community, which has been incredibly supportive of us.”

- Statement on DrakesBayOyster.com

“I’ve taken this matter very seriously,” Salazar said in a statement. “We’ve undertaken a robust public process to review the matter from all sides, and I have personally visited the park to meet with the company and members of the community … I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape.”

Amber Abbasi, an attorney for Cause of Action, which is representing Lunney, said the federal government did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and violated the Data Quality Act when determining to deny the renewal. National Park Service employees also provided false and misleading information, she said.

"A permit could have been granted and it was not granted," Abbasi told reporters Tuesday. "And the process by which it was not granted was deficient in many, many respects.”

A motion seeking a preliminary injunction in the case will be filed later this week, she said.

The estuary, according to federal officials, supports one of the largest harbor seal colonies in the state and is within the Point Reyes National Seashore, which attracts more than 2 million visitors annually and provides $85 million in economic activity to the region. Salazar said the displaced workers will get federal job training to find new work.

Salazar also moved to convert the entire area to a federally-protected marine wilderness once the oyster operation has shuttered. The move follows through on a 1976 congressional designation of the expansive estuary locally known as the Estero as a potential marine wilderness area, the only such area on the West Coast of the continental United States.

“Carrying out steps set in motion by the United States Congress over three decades ago, we are taking the final step to recognize this pristine area as wilderness,” said Salazar. “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.”

But critics say responsible oyster harvesting poses no threat to the environment, and accuse Salazar of gunning for the commercial fishing industry.

“At a time when we are struggling to solve our national fiscal problems, throwing 30 more Americans out of work and removing an estimated 40 percent of California's oyster production — which will undoubtedly be replaced by imported oysters — makes no sense,” Rod Moore of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association told FoxNews.com in a statement.

Moore said the National Park Service has a long-standing policy of trying to remove commercial fisheries from within existing or expanded national park boundaries, even while allowing other commercial concessionaires to continue. The service has made similar moves regarding federal parkland in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Everglades National Park in Florida, he said.

Greenpeace Ocean Campaign Director John Hocevar said reclaiming the oyster farm and designating the wider area for federal protection preserves it for both tourism and environmental safety.

“Protecting the estuary at Point Reyes National Seashore will pay dividends for the health of the area's economy as well as its ecosystem,” Hocevar wrote FoxNews.com in a statement. “Estuaries are vital nurseries for fish, crab, and other marine life. Over 2 million people visit Point Reyes each year, injecting $85 million into the local economy. Protecting coastal habitat is good business."

But Lunny, whose lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on Monday, said people's livelihoods are being thrown away for no good reason.

“It’s actually hard to believe this decision was made," Lunny said. "The Bay Area was ignored in this decision apparently and this is a public resource … Our family is just the current steward of this farm, it has existed for decades.”

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