The Taking of Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

A note from Sarah

I had the privilege of meeting Kevin Lunny in 2006. I was riveted by the story of his quest to save his way of life in the face of injustices by the Park Service.

I knew right away that I wanted to write this story. What I didn't know was that it would take ten years; along the way I joined the battle to save the farm.

As part of the Lunny support team, I provided pro bono communications services and created an advocacy website for the cause, www.savedrakesbay.com, which I continue to maintain.

We lost the fight to save the farm in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. I am now working full-time on the book.

Kevin Lunny, a third-generation rancher in Point Reyes, California, looked into the faces of his children at breakfast one morning and had a terrible thought: they might never have the chance to become the fourth generation of Lunny ranchers. Beef was becoming a commodity, farming was becoming more and more expensive, and some were saying that agriculture in West Marin County was on its way out.

Kevin, shaken, talked it over with his mom. "We sat at a table in the sun," he remembers, and she helped him to realize that this was a problem that could be solved.

The farmer became an entrepreneur. The Lunny ranch created the first certified organic and certified grass-fed beef herd in Marin County, and the Lunnys family became stewards of a historic oyster farm that has operated in Drakes Estero on Point Reyes for over 80 years.

Point Reyes is a gorgeous rural peninsula an hour north of San Francisco. In the 1970s, Point Reyes National Seashore was formed to protect the area from encroaching development. For years, the ranchers, the hippies, the rich people, and the Park Service all got along fine. Then around 2005, shortly after the Lunny family purchased the oyster farm, strange things started happening.

The Park Service accused the Lunny family of being environmental criminals. An investigation showed there was no evidence for any such thing. Yet the Park Service continued its character assassination of the family, escalating its claims until the family stood charged with false claims of harming the harbor seals that are prevalent in Drakes Estero.

Nobody knows why. One plausible theory is a cultural shift within the Park Service, which seems to have reduced its emphasis on cultural resources—people—and increased its emphasis on natural resources. (Both are traditionally part of the agency's charter.)

Another key factor is the relationship between the agency and its environmentalist allies. Seashore Superintendent at the time Don Neubacher had bent over backwards to help the Johnson family, the previous owners of this same historic oyster farm. For years he worked with Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey to cajole the Johnsons into regulatory compliance, and in 1998 supported construction of a visitor center and new processing plant at the oyster farm, going so far as to write a letter to the bank supporting the loan for the project. In the letter, Neubacher assured the bank that the Park Service wanted the oyster farm to stay, citing the Seashore's General Management Plan. That GMP still supports the oyster farm, as do all of the local County planning efforts.

The visitor center project fell through because of a death in the Johnson family. Neubacher had egg on his face in the eyes of the environmentalists. There would be no new lovely Park facility to assuage the complaints of the wilderness activists about the little oyster operation they consider an eyesore in a recreational area they deem important. The activists grew restless.

The Park Service at Point Reyes says the "best use" of Drakes Estero is to designate it as wilderness. It's a strange sort of wilderness that has a road running through it, however, and stranger still when Drakes Estero is host to birders, hikers, and paddlers, including four local commercial kayaking outfits that provide tours of the lovely estero. None of these uses are being criticized. Only the historic oyster farm.

The Park Service says it has a Congressional mandate to remove the oyster farm. That recently-minted claim doesn't seem to be true.

The Seashore was formed in part to protect the oyster farm and surrounding ranches. This area has been an agricultural region for generations. "The people I'm best friends with, our fathers were best friends and their fathers were best friends," says Kevin Lunny, Point Reyes rancher and beleaguered oyster farmer. These ranchers sold their land to the government as part of an agreement to create a National Seashore with working landscapes. Now the agency seems to want to take those landscapes back, to create something closer to a National Park.

In the case of the oyster farm, some of this may be personal. Like most government agencies, the Park Service is very used to getting its way.  Superintendent Neubacher didn't expect Kevin Lunny to stand up to him, and apparently he did not take it kindly. "Just remember, Kevin," Don said to Lunny at one point, "I don't have to pay for my lawyers."