Protecting a Bay While Treading on Truth

Protecting a Bay While Treading on Truth

By Carl M. Cannon - May 11, 2014

For reasons known best to themselves—because they’ve mostly eschewed reasoned argument for slogans, fabrications, and junk science—the federal government and environmental groups have waged a crusade against a family-owned oyster farm in the waters off Marin County, Calif.

So far, the oyster farm owners and employees are losing: Their last hope is a pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The law does not appear to be in the oyster farmers’ favor, but it’s still the kind of thing that gives liberal activists and their bureaucratic enablers a bad name.

A few words of background: In the early 1960s, as California’s population burgeoned, a robust preservation movement arose around the idea of protecting the national wonders that made the state so attractive in the first place. I was a boy in California then, and fondly recall family hikes organized by the Sierra Club, which my parents joined and I revered. On one trip we went to a new park, a windswept place of majestic beauty: Point Reyes National Seashore.

Point Reyes was not uninhabited; it’s only a 30-mile drive north from San Francisco on Route 1. Working ranches and other agricultural enterprises dotted its 100 square miles, including an oyster farm that had been in operation since the 1930s. Most conservationists weren’t purist then: They wanted to block ugly urban sprawl, not eradicate a few dozen rustic family farms. Political accommodations were made in land sales to the government in return for long-term leases.

Nothing lasts forever, however, and in 2004, the aging proprietor of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. sold out to Kevin Lunny and his brothers, Point Reyes ranchers respected locally for their commitment to sustainable agriculture. Lunny knew the lease was expiring in a few years, and that some environmentalists dreamed of halting commercialism in the Drakes estuary. But the “slow-food” movement was gaining traction, oysters were a popular (and non-polluting) product, and the farm enjoyed a good relationship with the National Park Service—or so he thought.

Although Lunny didn’t know it at the time, by 2006 a park service scientist named Sarah Allen was surreptitiously gathering data she hoped would reveal how the farm was despoiling Point Reyes’ ecosystem. She installed hidden cameras that took 281,000 photos—one per minute—with the idea of showing that boats used by Lunny’s oystermen harmed harbor seals that lived in the waterway.

There was one problem: The photos didn’t show any such thing. Nor did the other “evidence” cited by the NPS withstand even cursory examination. When a local scientist named Corey Goodman blew the whistle, new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered an Environmental Impact Statement. This, too, was riddled with distortions. The most brazen involved noise measurements purporting to show that Lunny’s motorized boats distressed Drakes Bay seals—but which were really from a study of jet-ski noise off the coast of New Jersey.

So another internal review was ordered, this one conducted by department lawyer Gavin Frost. Although Frost minimizes the NPS mistakes as procedural, his report made clear that Sarah Allen’s “subjective belief” about the harm of the oyster farm inflicts on seals was based on ideology, not research. “Disinclined to test the reasonableness of that belief,” he reported, “[she] did not carefully and thoroughly analyze the new scientific material” —meaning the voluminous photographic record she’d compiled herself.

Ultimately, California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, concluded the government was abusing its authority. She came out in support of the oyster farm, noting that the NPS “has repeatedly misrepresented the scientific record since 2006 to portray the farm as environmentally harmful.”

Once upon a time, the voice of a respected U.S. senator would have carried weight with a president of her own party on a local issue, and an overzealous government bureaucrat might be reassigned. Today, the primacy of special interest groups, and their fundraising prowess, trumps everything. And those groups have doubled-down in their efforts to discredit the oyster farm. Michael Ames, who wrote about Point Reyes for Harper’s, discovered the environmental community had designated two—and only two—people to speak about Drakes Bay.

One of them, Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association, has fudged facts when discussing this issue. He calls the Drakes Bay estuary “the only marine wilderness on the West Coast” (it isn’t) and claims harbor seals are “endangered” (they aren’t.)

The other spokesperson is Amy Trainer of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee. Her preferred method of argumentation is ad-hominem attacks. When Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter offered an amendment that would have directed the government to renew the farm’s lease, Trainer unleashed a rhetoric attack on Kevin Lunny, who doesn’t know Vitter and hadn’t asked him for anything.

“Apparently right-wing politicians and industry lobbyists on Capitol Hill have made this policy-based decision about protecting our most special waters into a national cause celebre of conservatives,” she said. “It appears that the corporation’s deep-dive into special interest, right-wing politics has backfired … in the rabid attempt to attack national parks, and [is] in fact making statements that inadvertently undermine the corporation’s own arguments before the court.”

The “corporation” she’s talking about is apparently the oyster farm—and yes, there are people in America who talk this way. Trainer does so more than most. When Lunny appealed Salazar’s decision to close his business, she responded: “We are disappointed but not surprised by the oyster company’s decision since it has consistently put its private business interest ahead of the national park and wilderness values of this exceptional estuary that belongs to all of us.”

Tainer’s allies have also ranted against Lunny for accepting pro-bono legal assistance from a libertarian-leaning nonprofit that assists Americans in private property rights disputes with the government. He’s also been attacked for daring to state his case on Fox News.

Stop and think about these statements for a moment: The government takes your business away, which it apparently can do because you’re leasing government land. But federal officials cite bogus science to justify their action, so you go to court to see if you have legal recourse. You also explain yourself on a network willing to give you an airing. These actions are then offered as proof that you’re an unfeeling, right-wing, corporate polluter with contempt for the ecology.

The problem isn’t that the players in this drama, including Lunny, Feinstein, and the slow-food advocates who support him, are progressives by any normal understanding of the term. The problem is that one side rigged the game and is employing guilt-by-association, one of the most despicable (and least authentically liberal) methods of argumentation in the public policy arena.

Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, Drakes Bay Oyster Co., will be no more. That’s not a national tragedy. For all I know, real wilderness is the best use of that estuary. But if the preservationists prevail they will have done so by Machiavellian motives and tactics, i.e. that the ends justified the means, and they are not likely to stop at Point Reyes National Seashore. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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