Note that web-links are included at end of post.
Just recently, I went to the first of the Point Reyes National Seashore scoping meetings on the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) focused on Kevin Lunny and his family’s Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC). The meeting, the first of three, was held at the West Marin Dance Palace community center, and was pretty well attended by all sides in the long standing oyster farm controversy. The Park had prepared a series of posters describing the EIS process, and staff stood by each poster, writing down comments from the public. They also had a handout inviting people to participate, with the controversial potential wilderness areas colored a rather lurid purple reddish color, alongside the Kelly green wilderness areas. The posters mostly raised the issue of wilderness and said virtually nothing about preserving the working landscapes of the Park. What was pointedly not presented was the recent revelation that NPS had a minute-by-minute record from automatic cameras focused on the oyster operations since 5 May 2007, which they had withheld from investigations by the Inspector General, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Marine Mammal Commission.
Here’s some local scuttlebutt on the oyster farm. Speculation as to why NPS is doing what it is doing depends on who is talking.
—NPS is just doing its job, and Western Regional Superintendent Jon Jarvis deserved his 2009 appointment as head of NPS, and Neubacher deserved his promotion as Superintendent of Yosemite National Park.
—NPS cooked the science, and Jarvis continues to try and sweep the whole controversy under the rug to avoid any clash with the environmentalists that might influence any subsequent promotions and elevated Neubacher to Yosemite to get him out of the firing line.
—Former Park Superintendent Neubacher had it in for Kevin Lunny and his oyster farm because he formed an association of ranchers within the park to negotiate with NPS and refused to sign away rights to the renewal clause in his lease.
—Kevin Lunny runs a large corporation that is attempting to destroy the Wilderness Act for personal financial gain, and is doing irreparable environmental damage.
—There’s a national movement to protect the Estero from commercial exploitation and save the Wilderness Act, and all right thinking environmentalists have signed on.
—A few extreme environmentalists plotted with the Park Service to get rid of the oyster farm, and have provided bogus information to national environmental groups to enlist their support.
—I like oysters/wilderness (choose 1 if you must)
The underlying facts of the matter are contained in extensive documentation, especially reports by the Department of Interior Inspector General and the National Academy of Sciences, who reviewed the NPS science at the request of Senator Feinstein. There is a forthcoming study by the Marine Mammal Commission, who also held extensive public meetings in Point Reyes. There’s also a very interesting exchange of letters in The Nation, attached to an article on loss of NPS scientific integrity, with participation from academics, the former head of the Sierra club, and others. (web links provided at the end of article)
What NPS was not talking about at the scoping meeting was the recent revelation that the Park Service had, in May 2007, placed hidden cameras in Drakes Estero, focused on areas of oyster operation. To understand the implications of this discovery, it’s important to look at a few key points in the maze of this long-running controversy, as this latest incident goes beyond just the science, beginning with a federal official making unfounded claims of criminal and civil legal violations against Kevin Lunny and DBOC in an attempts to force Lunny to sign away his rights to a lease extension as provided for in his permit.
In 2005, the Lunny family purchased the oyster farm from Johnson’s Oyster Company, agreeing to correct permit violations brought against the former owner by the California Coastal Commission. Disputes over the permits led to a 5 April 2007 meeting between Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and then Park Superintendent Neubacher. In his interview with the IG, Kinsey recalls that Neubacher stated that he had evidence to prove that Lunny and DBOC were guilty of civil and criminal violations of environmental law and thus NPS was ceasing all permit negotiations. This lead to an 8 May 2007 meeting with the Marin Board of Supervisors wherein Neubacher and his staff made further allegations against Lunny, including causing massive loss of seal pups. The purpose of the Board Meeting was to consider asking Senator Feinstein to intercede in the conflict with NPS, an action for which the board voted unanimous approval.
These dates are key when one considers that the NPS now admits the hidden camera surveys started on 5 May 2007, just days before the meeting with the Marin Board of Supervisors. The record clearly shows that Neubacher, a federal official, had absolutely no evidence to justify his claims of criminal activity made just a few days earlier. A 24 April 2007 e-mail from the PRNS senior scientist, copy to Neubacher, addressed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, stated the Park Service had no “direct observations” of seal disturbances. Furthermore, NPS never once contacted Lunny about any of the subsequent claimed incidences of seal disturbances. Had they occurred, and we now know from the hidden camera records that they didn’t, they may well have constituted violations of the Marine Mammal Act, and it stretches credulity to believe that Neubacher would not have acted on them if he had any evidence.
All the subsequent events, covered by the Inspector General report, the NAS study, and now the Marine Mammal Commission report, show NPS is conducting a concerted ongoing cover up; a failed attempt to manufacture evidence to justify their earlier false claims. Both the Inspector General’s report and the NAS report document years of misrepresentation, misdirection, omission and selective use of scientific data and other information. The pattern continues, as shown by this issue’s page 1 article on shark activities. However, the revelation of the hidden cameras is of a different order. Not only did NPS hide this information from the IG and the NAS at the time of their investigations, but Park scientists submitted papers to scientific journals with the full knowledge that they had excluded data that contradicted their claims of seal disturbances.
The importance of NPS concealing the existence of the photograph is made clear by the statement in the 5 May 2009 NAS report on the controversial seal disturbances, “… It is not possible for the committee to resolve the controversy over individual survey sheets, but the focus on these observations highlights how this type of [volunteer] monitoring program is best utilized to indicate potential disturbance problems (that might result in decreased use of a haul-out habitat) rather than to quantify them definitively. The latter would require a data collection system that could be independently verified, such as time and date stamped photographs. This verification is especially important in circumstances where there is an indication of a source of disturbance that could lead to a regulatory action, as was the case with disturbances attributed to DBOC.”
The 5 year record of their dealings with the Lunny family and DBOC shows that the Park Service is incapable of behaving in an ethical and impartial manner, and should be removed from the process. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is ultimately responsible for NPS, and must act. The first thing he must do is force the NPS to retract their papers on seal disturbances, now totally discredited by the photographic evidence. The seal disturbance paper is the only new “evidence” of harm introduced by the Park Service since 1998, when Neubacher signed a FONSI (finding of non-significant impact) Environmental Assessment declaration under the National Environmental Policy Act for a major rebuild and expansion of the oyster operation, then owned by the Johnson family. (The actual shellfish growing areas are leased from the State of California, to whom the Lunny’s pay rent) With the now discredited claims of harm removed, the 1998 Environmental Assessment would still stand.
It appears that NPS may well have wasted in the order of $2 million taxpayer dollars by their attempts to manufacture evidence and justifications for their initial actions towards the oyster farm, especially considering the IG report, the upcoming Marine Mammal Commission report, and the National Academy of Sciences report, which itself cost over half a million dollars. Now they want us to pay for a lengthy and unnecessary EIS process, especially considering the depth and scope of the NAS and Marine Mammal Commission work. The EIS will take two years, and who knows what those responsible for the current deceptions would ‘discover’ and publish in that time. As documented by the NAS and the Inspector General, there is no reason for the public to believe that NPS would handle itself any more ethically in preparing the new EIS than they have in the past, especially since they are in many cases the same people who attempted to hide the exculpatory camera data for over three years and during three separate investigations.
Let us hope that Salazar deals firmly and decisively with his errant subordinates in a manner to restore confidence in NPS science and integrity. Simultaneously, he should use his authority to extend the oyster farm lease as permitted in the original permit and under current law, and work with Lunny’s on the addition of the interpretive center, upgraded facilities and the research program set forth on pages 82 and 83 of NAS report. That would be fair to the Lunny’s, their workers as well as benefiting the local community, not to mention the countless Park visitors who come to enjoy the wilderness, the wildlife, the historic working landscapes of the park, and of course, the oysters.
Referenced web links.
Department of the Interior IG report. Testimony of Supervisor Kinsey is on p. 34.
National Academy of Sciences report.
NPS Press release on FONSI findings on proposd 1998 upgrading the oyster farm.
The Nation article. Click on Web Letters to see all correspondence
NPS website for public comments on EIS (Closing date is Nov. 22)