Kevin Lunny's struggle to keep his family's oyster farm running in Point Reyes National Seashore appears to be over, closing out an era of oysterman plying the park's pristine waters and ushering in the nation's newest ocean wilderness.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's announcement Thursday that he was allowing the oyster farm's lease to expire took many by surprise — especially Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Lunny — whose family also operates a cattle ranch in the park.
"We expected a different decision. We really thought that there was a right and a wrong here, and we expected the secretary to make the right decision," Lunny said.
Salazar's move keeps intact a Congressional mandate from 1976 that sought to restore Drakes Estero to its natural state, removing the oyster racks and motor boats used to shuttle the shelled delicacies to and from shore. Environmentalists and the National Park Service said the farm disturbed harbor seal pupping, and damaged native plants.
In the end, after millions of dollars spent on studies and years of heated debate, Salazar decided that returning the area to its natural state was more important than allowing a popular local business to continue operating.
"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.
The national seashore was added to the federal parks system by Congress in 1962, and protects more than 80 miles of California coastline.
The Interior secretary was given 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.
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.
The company will have to remove its property from park land and waters within 90 days. Because the lease was set to expire, 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.
The oyster farm had many powerful allies who fought vociferously on its behalf. Many hailed the oyster operation as an example of sustainable aquaculture and the local foods movement.
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 by the decision by Salazar that will put 30 people out of work.
"The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science," she said in a statement.
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, voiced support for Salazar's choice, saying he made his decision based on science and law.
Jason Dearen can be reached on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen