The fight last year over oyster farming in Drakes Bay at Marin County’s Point Reyes pitted conservationists, who supported its long-awaited transformation into a federally-protected wilderness area, and supporters of the local-family operator, who lauded its sustainable aquaculture and promotion of the local-foods movement.
But the food fight took a right turn when it was revealed that the owner was receiving legal assistance from Cause of Action, a group with close ties to the ultra-conservative billionaire Koch brothers. Suddenly, the primary issue pushed to the fore was the demand by private interests for the right to operate commercial enterprises on public lands.
The East Bay Express first wrote about the Koch connection last December, after the owners protested a long-expected decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar not to extend the company’s expiring 40-year lease another 10 years. The family was given 90 days to end its operations in the 2,700-acre estuary that the National Park Service intended to transform into the first federally-designated marine wilderness area on the coast outside of Alaska.
The Phillip Burton Wilderness Act of 1976 (pdf) included Drakes Estero among the areas it intended to preserve once human enterprises in the area ran their course. The Lunnys bought the company in 2005 knowing that the lease would run out in 2012.
Although the Lunnys have support from foodies, some environmentalists and local residents who fear economic fallout from closure of the farm, the muscular pushback against the Interior Department has come from conservative forces.
Darrell Issa, a powerful conservative Republican member of the House of Representatives from California, ordered an investigation by his Oversight Committee, according to the East Bay Express. Right-wing websites ran stories—like RedState’s “Ken Salazar’s war on Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Science” —blasting the federal government. Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by the Koch brothers and instrumental in funding the Tea Party, produced a video slamming the “federal land grab.” Congressional Republicans are trying to insert provisions extending the Lunny lease in legislation that promotes the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Lunnys, who are regulars on Fox News, have taken their case to court and a decision is expected soon from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Until recently, the Lunnys have received major pro bono legal support from Cause of Action, but after a report on PBS last month publicizing its participation, the Lunnys and the advocacy group parted ways.
The case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where the conservative majority might very well find it a vehicle to address the issue of private development on public land.