Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday ended a longstanding and bitter dispute that pitted wilderness advocates against supporters of a Northern California oyster farm, announcing that the farm's lease from Point Reyes National Seashore would end on Friday as originally planned. An estuary known as Drakes Estero, where the oyster operation has existed for the last 40 years, will become a federally designated wilderness area.
In a statement, Mr. Salazar said, "We are taking the final step to recognize this pristine area as wilderness." The Interior Department has given the farm 90 days to fold.
More than a decade after the park was created on Point Reyes in 1962, Congress mandated that part of it be designated as wilderness; the section included Drakes Estero, a 2,500-acre rich marine estuary that is home to scores of seals. The oyster farm is the source of roughly 40 percent of California's oysters and is part of a local food web that makes the surrounding Marin County area a mecca for locavores.
In 2004, the oyster farm changed hands, and the lease was taken over by the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is run by a local rancher, Kevin Lunny.
Mr. Lunny was notified that the lease was set to end this year, but indicated about six years ago that he hoped to have it extended.
In the ensuing years, park service scientists questioned the farm's environmental record, and were in turn accused of skewing the science to paint Mr. Lunny as a despoiler of the ecosystem.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Lunny said: "We're trying to get over the devastation, the surprise and the disappointment. To have to deliver this message to our staff is beyond imaginable. To have to tell them they're going to lose their jobs and their homes." He said about 15 of the 30 oyster farm workers lived on the site with their families.
The department indicated it would do what it could "to help employees who might be affected by this decision" but there is no provision for any payment to Mr. Lunny.
Three environmental groups -- the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association -- immediately praised the decision. In an interview, Neal Desai, a West Coast representative of the Washington-based Conservation Association, said, "This is a very big gift the secretary has given the public."
While the policy issue was always whether to extend the lease, the parallel debate over park service science moved to the forefront in recent years.
The park service had to backpedal on some of its original claims about environmental damage, and its subsequent scientific efforts were scrutinized by outside scientists who identified significant shortcomings. Repeated investigations confirmed many of these shortcomings, but never found that park scientists had engaged in outright scientific misconduct.
The memorandum supporting the secretary's decision played down the scientific issues, saying that the environmental impact statements that reviewed the science and recommended ending the lease had been helpful, but in no way indicating they were central to the decision.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.