POINT REYES On clear days at low tide from his home above Drakes Estero, Kevin Lunny can make out the wooden racks of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. farm.
Lunny, who is also a cattle rancher and contractor, bought the business in 2005 despite some daunting conditions. The original tenants, Johnson's Oyster Farm, had left a legacy of public health violations and plastic debris polluting the bay and shoreline.
Along with this vexing environmental cleanup, Lunny inherited another mess: The federal lease for his operation, which allows Lunny to harvest oysters within the pristine Point Reyes National Seashore, expires Nov. 30.
With the backing of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein a powerful ally and ardent supporter of his oyster farm Lunny is seeking a 10-year extension that would mean survival for Drakes Bay.
The resulting conflict between supporters of a thriving, sustainable oyster farm and wilderness advocates trying to protect one of the world's most spectacular conservation areas has divided the Point Reyes community.
It's one of the most bitter local battles since the Point Reyes National Seashore was cobbled together out of government holdings and private ranches 50 years ago.
"Kevin Lunny is the most sensitive ecological farmer in our region," said Sue Conley, whose Cowgirl Creamery produces artisanal cheeses sold all over the United States. "He's a model for the kind of agriculture that environmentalists should embrace. But this is a stronghold of old-time thinking about environmentalism being separate from human activity."
To environmentalists, the status of Drakes Estero is a matter of science, law and federal policy. Much of the Point Reyes National Seashore already is protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964, which defines a federally protected wilderness as "retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation."
Lunny's farm grows 500,000 pounds of non-native Pacific oysters each year and harvests them using motorboats. Some 30 people work on the site. It's a rustic-looking operation, surrounded by a shucking room, a packing room and large circular tanks used to grow oyster larvae.
About half of the Drakes Bay crop is packed in jars and sold in the retail market; the rest supplies fresh oysters to scores of restaurants statewide. The business brings in just a little less than $2 million a year.
The roots of Lunny's dilemma go back four decades. In 1972, the National Park Service, which owns Drakes Estero as part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, granted the Johnsons a 40-year terminable lease called a "reservation of use."
Four years later, with the Point Reyes Wilderness Act, Congress designated the 2,200-acre inlet a "potential wilderness." This means that in November, when the oyster farm's lease expires, the park service would take over the land. Drakes Estero then would become the only federally protected marine wilderness on America's Pacific coast.
"Once Congress says you are potential wilderness, you're on a one-way path," said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. "The Lunnys knew the deal when they moved in seven years ago. I'm not working to shut down the oyster farm. I'm working to honor a congressional wilderness designation."
Initially, those conditions were acceptable to the Lunnys. In 2006, however, they began working with Feinstein to protect their growing business.
In 2009, she attached a rider to an appropriations bill, giving Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar the discretion to extend the Lunnys' lease an additional 10 years. His decision is due by Nov. 30.
Feinstein wrote Salazar saying she was "concerned about the National Park Service's apparent efforts to shut down a family-owned oyster operation in Drakes Estero by casting it as harmful to the environment. Drakes Estero has been home to a family-owned oystering business since 1934 long before the park was established."
There's no question that the oyster farm itself is not compatible with wilderness. The farm's footprint is subtle, but it's not invisible. Noise from the oyster-collecting boats, which make more than 1,000 trips a year, may disturb pupping seals. Some patches of native eelgrass have been covered.
And there is an ongoing problem with "legacy" debris: 6-inch black plastic spacer tubes, used in the cultivation of oysters, that wash up on Point Reyes' beaches.
"We're not pretending that there's no effect," said Lunny, whose operation attracts some 50,000 visitors a year and produces about 40 percent of the oysters consumed in California. "Going out on a boat, there will be times when we may flush birds or whatever."
The next step is a final environmental impact statement, which is designed to summarize whether the commercial operation is consistent with existing policy, law and science.
Salazar will review those findings, along with arguments to the contrary, and decide whether to make the business a part of the estuary's landscape for at least another decade.
Salazar's ruling, when it comes, will resonate far beyond the wooden oyster beds of Drakes Bay. Environmentalists contend that if the oyster farm's lease is extended, park protections everywhere could be affected.
"Secretary Salazar's decision will have a major impact, for better or worse," said Neal Desai, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association's Pacific regional office. "He can affirm that our country's national parks are managed for public benefit, rather than private gain."