DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's hear, now, about a battle in California between environmentalists and one of the state's largest commercial shellfish operations. The outcome of this is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here's the situation. A controversial oyster company sits on a marine wilderness on federal land in Marin County. Its lease has expired, and the company hopes the high court will allow the oyster farm to stay open. It's a divisive issue among residents in western Marin County, as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.
RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Drive just an hour and a half north of San Francisco into Drakes Estero, or estuary, named for the first English explorer to lay claim California. You're in a near pristine and wind-whipped marine wilderness. It's a federally protected home for large beds of eel grass, the base of the marine food chain. The Estero hosts the largest colony of harbor seals on the West Coast and tens of thousands of resident and migratory birds. It's also home to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, where workers are sorting out recently harvested oysters on a crude conveyor belt.
KEVIN LUNNY: What we do at the conveyor - we're sorting for size and quality.
GONZALES: Kevin Lunny owns Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which plants and harvests about eight million oysters a year, worth an estimated one and a half million dollars. He employs 30 people. These oysters are a popular delicacy in nearby restaurants and farmer's markets.
LUNNY: Oysters are really one of the best protein-food choices we can make.
LUNNY: When Lunny bought this operation back in 2004, the company had only eight years left on a 40 year federal lease. And the National Park Service told him it wouldn't renew that lease. Fast forward to November 2012, when then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, ordered Lunny to wrap up operations within 90 days. But with the pro-bono help of libertarian legal groups, Lunny sued the federal government, arguing that Salazar abused his power.
LUNNY: It's a renewable permit. To renew the permit, changes absolutely nothing. It sets no precedent at all because we're already here, in a wilderness area. We've already been permitted to be here, and it's simply a renewal.
GONZALES: But some local and national environmental groups have pushed back, saying it's time for Lunny and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company to leave. They say a deal is a deal.
TRAINER: This is a landlord-tenant situation, and the landlord gave them seven years notice to say, OK, we're going to want our property back now. It's time that we get it back.
GONZALES: Amy Trainer is executive director of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee. She says there are hundreds, if not thousands, of federal leases on public lands across the country. She says allowing the oyster farm to remain operating sets a bad precedent.
TRAINER: I really fear it would embolden other leaseholders in our National Parks System, our Forest Service areas and our wilderness areas to fight, simply because they don't like the contract.
GONZALES: But not all environmentalists oppose the oyster farm, and some advocates of local, sustainable food such as celebrated chef Alice Waters, have come to Lunny's defense. As you drive to and through Point Reyes Station, the small town near the oyster farm, you'll see lots of blue and white signs that read, save our Drakes Bay oyster farm. There's one hanging over Sean Bracken's auto repair shop.
SEAN BRACKEN: And there's no reason why anybody should be put out of business when they're actually doing something that's natural with the area out there and growing oysters. And I don't think it affects the seals. I don't think it affects the eco or anything. And that's why I put the sign up over the door.
GONZALES: And Bracken says he's had only one customer complain about the sign. The controversy has all but exhausted the community, says Tom Batey, a retired businessman who's against the oyster farm staying in business.
TOM BATEY: It started out where it would just sort of get in the way of dinner parties, and now it's been going on for years. There are people in town that don't speak to each other anymore, but I'm hoping that as a community that there can be some sort of healing.
GONZALES: But before that's ever likely to happen, the Drake's Bay Oyster Farm awaits word from the U.S. Supreme Court. After losing two rounds in lower courts, the farm operators hope the high court will hear their appeal. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
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