Oyster Farm Sparks Fight Among Environmentalists An oyster farm may be closed down in a few years because it is located in a potential wilderness area. The dispute is between two different kinds of environmentalists — those who support pure wilderness, and those who believe the wilderness can be used in a sustainable way.
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Oyster Farm Sparks Fight Among Environmentalists

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Oyster Farm Sparks Fight Among Environmentalists

Oyster Farm Sparks Fight Among Environmentalists

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And now let's move over to the Pacific Ocean along Point Reyes National Seashore about 25 miles north of San Francisco. There's a big dispute over oysters. It's a local turf war that reflects larger national debates about the environment.

Reporter Charlie Foster has more.

CHARLIE FOSTER: The Pacific Ocean pounds at every foot of coast along the Point Reyes Peninsula, except where a narrow gap in the beach leads to a series of inlets called Drakes Estero. Surrounded by rolling grassy hills, the shallow bay is home to harbor seals, migratory birds and a diverse underwater ecosystem. It's no wonder that the National Park Service calls the place a sheltered wilderness.

But not everything is wild. Millions of Pacific oysters are found farmed underwater racks and mesh bags scattered across the 1,000 acre estero. It's the largest oyster farm in California, and it's been here for nearly a century.

Kevin Lunny, owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, steps out of his boat and unto a wooden rack, his boots just inches above the water. He reaches below the surface and pulls out a wire encrusted with heavy brown shells.

Mr. KEVIN LUNNY (Owner, Drakes Bay Oyster Company): So you can see the oysters - if you look closely, they are actually opened up and they're filtering the water.

FOSTER: Since buying the oyster farm in 2005, Lunny has sold only to local stores and restaurants around San Francisco. He's an advocate for what he calls this perfect working landscape.

Mr. LUNNY: Producing food efficiently without serious negative impacts to the environment. This is where we want to be.

FOSTER: A working landscape may seem out of place in a national park, but farmland has always been as much a part of Point Reyes National Seashore as hiking trails. Surrounding the estero are thousands of acres of beef and dairy ranches. But unlike the ranches, which lease public land in designated farming zones, the oyster farm operates in what the park calls potential wilderness.

Congress declared that status in 1976, says John Dell'Osso with the National Seashore.

Mr. JOHN DELL'OSSO (Spokesperson, Point Reyes National Seashore): When is designated as wilderness by the will of Congress and the will of the people, then the Park Service is mandated to remove this impediment, whatever it is - by the quickest extent possible.

FOSTER: In this case, the impediment is Lunny, and the park plans to evict him in 2012, when the 40-year lease he inherited from the previous owner is up. It's a controversial move but one that traditional environmental groups applaud.

Gordon Benett helps run the Sierra Club's local chapter from his home in Inverness which borders the park.

Mr. GORDON BENETT (Vice Chair, Marin Group, Sierra Club): There should be one estero where nothing happens and nature is allowed to run its course. And this is not something that was a good idea 40 years ago and is now past its prime. We need wilderness now more than ever.

FOSTER: But environmental politics here have changed in the past few decades, driven in part by a growing local agriculture movement.

Environmental historian Richard White at Stanford University says it's a case study for a larger debate about managing resources, with some emphasizing wise use over setting aside open land.

Professor RICHARD WHITE (Byrne Professor of History, Stanford University): What's going on is a competition over what environmentalism means. This is a national struggle. And you're going to see it played out over and over again. Across the West. You're going to see it played out in public lands. And I think you're going to see it played out in the management of large private lands too.

FOSTER: Back on Drakes Estero, Lunny says creating full wilderness here comes with a trade-off. If the farm shuts down, he says, local restaurants will replace his harvest with oyster shipped thousands of miles from Asia.

Mr. LUNNY: The environmental community today - the ones that are thinking about this, are looking at this wilderness and saying while wilderness is important and we've always argued for it, but do we really want wilderness that's at the expense of the environment?

FOSTER: Recently, the dispute has escalated beyond this remote estero.

Senator Dianne Feinstein stepped in to help Lunny get a temporary permit - originally denied by the Park Service - to keep operating until the 2012 deadline.

For NPR News, I'm Charlie Foster.

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