A walk down the main street in Point Reyes reveals a community shocked and deeply angered over the closure of the historic oyster farm in Drakes Estero. During the seven-year conflict, and despite repeated promises to do so long before now, last week Interior Secretary Ken Salazar finally visited the oyster farm.
Secretary Salazar must have told his staffers to get him in and out of Point Reyes as quickly as possible in his visit, one supposedly meant to decide the fate of the Lunny family’s operation. Contrast that with Prince Charles, who came to see W. Marin’s thriving sustainable agriculture, sat down to a lunch with many of the farmers and ranchers, with Kevin Lunny seated next to him. Prince Charles even went and had a pint with the locals at the Western Saloon. Salazar never walked down Main Street, but if he were to do so today, he would hear a radically different story than he heard during last week’s carefully choreographed visit.
According to surveys conducted by the Marin Independent Journal, about 84-87% of local and area residents consistently favor continuation of the oyster farm. However, during Secretary Salazar’s eleventh-hour visit to West Marin, he allocated only a half an hour to meet with three specific groups: the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, the National Park Service, and “Stakeholders.” Curiously, the “Stakeholder” meeting was invite-only, and largely represented anti-oyster farm environmental groups. (In fact, MALT Founder and environmental icon Phyllis Faber was barred from entering the Stakeholders meeting to discuss the oyster farm. Local political representatives were also not invited. Surely, Secretary Salazar has a curious interpretation as to the Department of the Interior definition of a Stakeholder. There is a suspicion that NPS arranged for Salazar to hear from only the 13-16% of the public represented by the oyster farm opponents, mostly a coalition of environmental groups.
The overwhelmingly pro-oyster figures mirror the substantive public comments vs. cut-and-paste one-click comments received on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). When the ‘one-click’ web responses are separated out, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the EIS contractor, 90% of the EIS comments favored the oyster farm. Despite the actual data, NPS claims 90% support for evicting the oyster farm, based solely on a ‘click-through’ web survey by the Sierra Club, NPCA and others under a combined contract with Convio. As a company that serves non profit causes, Convio set up a program that allowed its clients (including NPCA and Sierra Club) to send a mass email to their membership lists. That special email imploring readers to click on a link to “Take Action” – that allowed them to immediately submit a copy-and-paste anti-oyster message to the EIS process. Giving such one-click, copy-and-paste submission the same weight as substantive, issue-based comments violates NEPA regulations. It is even more telling given the fact that Jake Hoogland, who visited the oyster farm and headed up the project for VHB, the contractor on the $2 million dollar EIS, had previously headed the NPS program for NEPA compliance and developed the public comment program.
None of the national organizations who commissioned the massive anti-oyster comment program have disclosed the nature of the program, how the lists were compiled or how many of the people had actually visited the oyster farm or if they even knew they were responding to a Draft EIS.
What is clear from NPS records is that the majority of the one click responses came immediately after Neil Desai of NPCA sent out a national bulletin stating that the oyster operation was threatening four endangered species, an assertion disproved by federal and state agencies in their substantive comments to the draft EIS. NPCA, Sierra Club and other groups found a clever way around the EIS rule, which disallowed bulk comments. Because they had access to this specialized Convio software/service, they were able to collect bulk comments this way and be counted as individual comments to the EIS process. In contrast, the Lunnys collected a petition signed by over 7700 people who had actually visited the oyster farm and attempted to submit it to the EIS process. The NPS rejected the oyster farm’s petition from actual physical farm visitors, but allowed the anti-oyster crowd to submit what amounts to a fancy electronic petition of people who may never have even heard of the farm, or who may not have known what an EIS was.
On his visit to the oyster farm, Salazar and Kevin and Nancy Lunny hold a perfectly normal conversation in front of the oyster tumbler. Nancy is holding a sound meter, which was used to measure the levels to compare with the values in the Draft EIS and Final EIS, which were based on ‘imported’ data rather than the actual measurement required by NPS policy. At the NPS reported sound levels, which would have been clearly audible over a mile away, this conversation would have been impossible. (Photo courtesy of Linda Petersen, West Marin Citizen)
The photograph captures the feeling of many in West Marin; that the realities of our community simply don’t exist as far as NPS and Salazar are concerned, and that the Secretary’s visit was just a pro-forma sham before giving in to the NPS and the anti-oyster faction. Salazar never met with the majority of the stakeholders, nor did he discuss the matter with local government. Despite having requested to meet, Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey would not have had a chance to speak to Salazar if Kevin Lunny had not given up some of the half-hour allocated to the oyster farm visit. This continues the pattern of NPS’ failure to consult with all the stakeholders and government of gateway communities, despite clear requirements in DOI policy. Notwithstanding, Point Reyes National Seashore officials arranged a ‘community’ meeting comprised solely of members of the anti-oyster farm environmental coalition.
For many in West Marin, the question of who is a stakeholder and who represents the community was underscored by Salazar’s meeting at NPS headquarters. The coalition brought in a ‘celebrity’ scientist, Sylvia Earle. Neil Desai, of NPCA, announced that she would be available to the press after her presentation. She was allowed to speak to Salazar at length, but apparently has done no research in the Estero, had not met with the Lunnys, and from her statements was clearly unaware of key facts (such as the Seashore denial of permits to a federal Sea Grant funded program working with the Lunnys on re-establishing native oysters in the estero). However, Phyllis Faber, a well-known local scientist who has conducted substantial research in the area, co-founded Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and was instrumental in the creation of the California Coastal Commission, was physically barred from the meeting by four park rangers. This most unfortunate NPS behavior was actually recorded in a photograph in the Nov 29th West Marin Citizen. (It only shows two of the rangers) Faber’s contributions to MALT alone, which has preserved thousands of acres of pastoral land adjacent to the Seashore, should have given her a seat at the table.
And the stakeholder issue gets worse. In the Drakes Estero EIS, NPS claimed significant harm from sound impairment due to the oyster farm. The draft EIS stated that the noise levels from the oyster operation was ruining the wilderness experience for the customers of the commercial kayakers who provide trips in the estero. (One would think these kayakers would certainly be defined as stakeholders.) Not only did the NPS fail to consult the kayak companies to ask about sound impairment on their tours, but NPS actively ignored the contrary information provided directly to them by the kayak companies. The kayak companies wrote a comment letter to NPS regarding the draft EIS stating that the Park (a) had failed to consult the kayakers themselves regarding the claims about kayaker experiences, and (b) was deliberately misrepresenting the fact that the oyster sounds and operations had no impact on their kayaking experience. Not only did NPS fail to ground-truth their accusation, they failed to reexamine their position after being provided with clearly contradictory evidence.
One person I spoke commented that this type of dishonest behavior and Salazar’s visit were rapidly becoming the poster child for why people have such a low opinion of government, and if local communities can’t trust that NPS will follow it’s own policies and previous decisions regarding West Marin, local governance becomes impossible.
Salazar’s expressed concern over the fate of the oyster workers was greeted with derision by many in the community. As one ranch owner stated, “Salazar claims that he has the power to extend the ranch leases by a decade, yet can’t lift a finger to grant the time to make an orderly transition for Kevin and the oyster workers, throwing them all out right before Christmas, at the worst time of year to find jobs and forcing Kevin to rip out the farm during the winter storms. Bull….. As far as I’m concerned, NPS and its environmental henchmen are nothing more than a bunch of green collar criminals.” Hopefully, Salazar will be forced to reconsider his decision. In that case, he should read his own policies on gateway communities and stakeholders (there’s even a DOI site on how to find them) and come out and meet the same people that Prince Charles visited. We’ll even buy him a beer at the Western.