Supreme Court Won't Hear Point Reyes Oyster Farm Case

Customers line up for oysters in 2011 | Photo: Jeffrey Strain/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A controversial legal case involving a Northern California oyster farm may have come to an end today, as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

At issue was the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, operating in the bay of the same name in the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County under a 40-year lease that expired in 2012. The National Park Service declined to renew the lease, citing a 1976 law that reverted the bay and surrounding land to wilderness as soon as the oyster farm's lease expired.

Drakes Bay Oyster Company owner Ken Lunny, who bought the farm seven years before its lease expired, claimed in a lawsuit brought in federal district court that the Interior Department acted improperly in declining to renew his lease. That judge ruled against Lunny, and so did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now, SCOTUS is backing up those lower courts. But Lunny isn't giving up.

In a media statement Monday, Lunny told reporters "This is a disappointment, but not really a setback. We do plan to continue to fight for what's right."

It's not clear what alternative legal routes Lunny intends to explore. All three federal courts have now held, either expressly or implicitly, that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar acted legally and within his area of discretion in declining to renew the lease. With SCOTUS' decision not to hear the case, a Ninth Circuit Court ruling refusing an injunction to block the closure goes into effect. The farm had been allowed to stay open as the case progressed through the courts. Lunny did win a ruling in a local court last week, in which a Marin County judge blocked a California Coastal Commission cease-and-desist order against continued farm operation, but that ruling only found that the Coastal Commission had no authority to issue the order, and didn't touch the issue of the lease itself.

Story continues below

The Drakes Bay Oyster Company case has split environmentalists. Wilderness advocates claimed that to allow the farm to stay would erode the whole point of the 1976 law proclaiming Drake's Estero a wilderness area. Meanwhile, local food supporters rallied to Lunny's side proclaiming the lease denial a blow to locally sourced food and the concept of sustainable working landscapes.

That last is a hot-button issue around Point Reyes. About a fifth of the 110-square-mile National Park Service holding north of San Francisco is leased for grazing by area ranches, and the surrounding landscape is replete with artisan dairies and crop farms, much of it protected from other development by one of the nation's leading agricultural land trusts. Lunny has been able to get a fair amount of political traction by claiming that the end of his lease is a first assault on local agriculture. First goes the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, as his argument had it, and then sometime later the feds would close down the ranches on the National Seashore, presumably marching into Point Reyes Station to close down the Cowgirl Creamery after that.

Not mentioned in the pro-Drakes Bay Oyster Company PR: the fact that Lunny knew perfectly well that federal law required the termination of his lease seven years after he bought the farm. (Lunny claims a verbal agreement with the National Park Service, which agreement it is unclear anyone at NPS had the authority to convey.)

In other words, if you strip away the emotion about local food and West Marin pastoral romanticism, what we have is a speculator who bought a farm with a federally mandated "going out of business" notice, then complained when his time of business came to an end. Details of the price Lunny paid for the farm in 2005 are hard to come by, but it's inconceivable that the 2012 lease expiration wasn't reflected in the price.

It's not at al uncommon for a businessman who got a sweet deal to want to renegotiate that deal when the downside comes around. But that doesn't mean the National Park Service, or the wildlife of Drake's Bay, ought to be obligated to make Lunny's speculation pay off.

In a day full of disappointing news coming out of SCOTUS as regards the notorious Hobby Lobby case and a lesser-known decision on public employee unions, it's reassuring to know there are one or two things the highest court in the land can still get right.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading