On a cold November Thursday, Ken Salazar made a boatload of enemies with a single phone call.
The secretary of the U.S. Interior Department chose that day to announce his decision that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, the family-run seafood business that became a fixture in Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore, had 90 days to depart the premises.
He’d visited West Marin the week before, taken a tour of the facility and sat with owner Kevin Lunny. It was the right thing for Salazar to do, though only he knows if his mind was already made up to tell Lunny his business had run its course. Salazar had company—there are many people in the North Bay who believe he did the right thing by dispatching the oyster operation.
There are also plenty of folks who feel Lunny and company got the wood put to them without the benefit of so much as a kiss. It’s a debate that was playing out in Marin in a loud manner as folks were hanging Christmas lights and I was putting this column to bed. I won’t try to cover every angle now as I have but 1,000 words and I’ll do a longer story later. For now, there are a few lessons that can be drawn from this tale.
For those who’ve been hiding out in the witness protection program, this is the down and dirty version. The Lunny family bought the company in 2005 from Johnson Oyster Company, and inherited a “reservation of use,” which essentially let it farm oysters until November 2012, when a 40-year lease expired. The National Park Service, as well as National Parks Conservation Association, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a host of local environmental organizations made it clear that the business should vacate and the Estero revert back to its natural state as “wilderness” and “untrammeled by man.”
It wasn’t like nobody was in favor of Drakes Bay Oyster getting a longer lease, however. Politically powerful Senator Diane Feinstein has been outspoken in her support of the business, and local restaurants and seafood lovers of every stripe have sided with Lunny. The Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture and Marin Organic backed the operation as well.
But, in the end, Salazar sent Lunny packing.
Lesson One: The end justifies the means. The National Park Service made no secret it preferred that the oyster company get out. It was cordial in dealing with the company and, most of the time, it was professional as well. But on at least two occasions, the Park Service was a party to reports that doctored the science, shaded the truth or spun the data regarding how the oyster business negatively affected the park. The reports were designed to influence public opinion and to paint the oyster operation as being bad for the environment or poor stewards of the Estero. While it was eventually acknowledged that the reports were flawed, the damage was done. A level playing field is nice, but W.C. Fields once advised that giving a sucker an even break was not the profitable path to follow.
Lesson Two: Political backing ain’t what it used to be. Back in the days when I spent a fair amount of time covering politics, having a sitting U.S. senator on your side was a pretty good thing. It didn’t guarantee you’d win every fight, but that was certainly the way to bet if you were the kind who enjoyed a sporting wager. In this particular contest, DiFi lined up on one side and Senator Barbara Boxer managed to play it both ways. In 2009, she and Feinstein supported the lengthening of the lease between Drakes Bay and the National Park Service. But when Salazar pulled the trigger, Boxer said she supported him saying he made the decision “based on the law and the science.” Political lightweight Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey wound up backing the NPS as well. That and $3 will get you a nice cup of coffee at Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes.
Lesson Three: Organic and sustainable is nice, but not a game changer. Marin has long championed foods that were free from the taint of chemicals as well as local goods. The first farmers market in the country was birthed here, and the concept of having a menu rich with locally grown veggies as well as meat, poultry and fish has become gospel to those who worship at Our Lady of the Blessed Foodie. Drakes Bay was a pretty fair example of an operation that fit with those principles. But, in the end, the scoreboard didn’t read its way.
Lesson Four: Pack a good lawyer. Salazar knew no matter what way he came down, somebody was going to be suing Uncle Sammy, and he’d rather that somebody be Lunny than a group of environmental organizations that are experienced enough to have legal counsel well-versed in suing the feds. And to be sure, Lunny is bringing a suit. Ironically, a nonprofit representing the oyster farm, Cause of Action, has ties to the Koch Brothers. The Brothers Koch bankrolled lots of conservative causes and advocacy groups including the Tea Party.
Lesson Five: The White House is about small business…mostly. The Obama administration has spent plenty of time talking about small business and its role in restoring the economy. But in this case there were 30 people pink slipped when Salazar put the hammer to Drakes Bay. At the same time, however, he took the opportunity to assure all the ranches and dairies that operate in Point Reyes National Seashore that the Interior Department planned to extend the leases of their businesses 10 to 20 years.