In Defense of Drakes Bay Oyster Company

Field Notes from Point Reyes National Seashore

The latest environmental controversy has to do with a small, little animal whose anus passes through the middle of its heart.

pt reyesPhoto by Flickr user lidiadehenPierce Ranch trail at the Point Reyes National Seashore.

For those of you who aren’t molluscologists, I am referring to the oyster (Crassostrea virginica or Crassotrea gigas). And for those who don’t happen to live in the rarified precincts of Marin County, California, I am talking about the long running battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a family-run outfit located at the center of one of our most unique national parks, Point Reyes National Seashore.

Here’s the latest headlines: On November 29, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that he would not renew Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s operating permit, and gave the oyster farm 90 days to close its doors. Salazar’s decision was the culmination of a seven-year-long debate (or, if you prefer, a 40-year-long one) over whether the oyster farm is compatible with Drake Estero’s designation as a wilderness area.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Stanford professor Richard White described the contretemps this way: “On one side are liberal Democrats … who promote local and organic foods. … On the other side are liberal Democrats who advocate on behalf of wilderness and public access to parks. But only one side [the wilderness advocates] have the law on their side.”

If only the matter were so simple.

Beyond the impassioned back-and-forth over what exactly the science says about the estuary where the oyster farm is located, beyond the parsing over the original intent of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, there lie much bigger questions. For starters, how do we define “wilderness”? And, more to the point, how do we measure the value of a pastoral landscape against the value of a wild one?

National environmental groups have been unanimous in demanding that Drakes Estero should become a fully protected wilderness, and the oyster farm removed. “The National Park Service rightly concluded in its study that the oyster factory is damaging the national park; full wilderness protection is the best way to preserve this fragile area,” the Sierra Club said in a statement following the Salazar announcement. In its statement, NRDC said: “With today’s announcement, Point Reyes’ Drakes Bay becomes the very first marine wilderness along the Pacific, and it will take its rightful place as one of the nation’s most precious and protected wild places along with designated wilderness areas at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Zion and other national parks. Its preservation will enrich the lives of people today and for generations to come.”

As a passionate backpacker and hiker, I’m instinctively sympathetic to this viewpoint. Wilderness is all too rare (and becoming rarer) and we need more places that aren’t stamped with humanity’s insignia.

But Drake’s Estero is not that place. Having followed this controversy for years — and having spent several spells living in Point Reyes Station, the hamlet at the edge of the park — I strongly believe the oyster farm should stay.

It seems to me the debate over the ecological impact of Drakes Bay Oyster Company is all backwards. The issue isn’t whether shellfish farming is compatible with the ideal of wilderness. Rather, it’s whether a wilderness is compatible with the pastoral landscape that surrounds Drake’s Estero.

• • •

oyester farmPhoto by Flicrk user EarthwormWorkers clean oysters at the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm.

Some background: In 1962 President Kennedy signed a law establishing a national seashore on the largely undeveloped, triangle-shaped peninsula about 30 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The designation was a landmark achievement for conservationists. The suburbs of San Francisco had begun encroaching on what historically had been a bucolic area of ranches, farms and dairies. Logging was underway on Inverness Ridge, and real estate interests were starting to carve subdivisions into the bluff overlooking Limantour Beach, a miles-long expanse of white sand surrounded by tall, white cliffs. Environmentalists, led by the Sierra Club’s David Brower (also the founder of this publication), launched a campaign to stop the bulldozers. They won. Congress passed a bill “to save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States that remains undeveloped.”

The new protected area was unlike any other national park before — or since. Point Reyes ranchers and dairymen had been opposed to the park, so Congress crafted a compromise to allow them to stay. The federal government would buy out the farmers and then lease the land back to them so they could continue their agricultural traditions. Point Reyes National Seashore would strike a balance between recreation, wilderness preservation, and pastoral land use.

This arrangement continues today. More than two million people visit the park every year. What they find there is an eclectic landscape of fog-shrouded and moss-hung forests, pristine beaches, wind-swept dunes, tidal estuaries … and miles of open rangeland grazed by cows and some chickens. While the park’s northern and southern sections at Tomales Point and Inverness Ridge are designated as wilderness, the interior of park (about one third of the park’s 71,000 acres) is what’s called the “pastoral zone.” It is a working landscape of (mostly organic) dairies and ranches that supply milk, butter, and meat to Northern Californians.

When the park was created in 1962, the large, hand-shaped estuary at the heart of peninsula was left in a kind of limbo. Drake’s Estero (named for the English pirate Sir Francis Drake, who beached his booty-laden ship, the Golden Hinde, there in the summer of 1579 for repairs) is a shallow lagoon of about 2,200 acres. The tidal marshes and secluded beaches of the estero are popular with some of the 470 species of birds spotted in Point Reyes. Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) use the lagoon’s mudflats to haul-out, sunbathe and, in the springtime, rear their pups. The estuary is also an ideal location for mariculture. In 1935 an oyster farm was established on the northeast shore of the central finger of the estuary. It was soon one of the largest shellfish producers in the state.

In 1972 the federal government bought out Johnson’s Oyster Farm, the outfit then running the operation, and gave Johnson a conditional use permit to keep farming there until 2012. In 2005 a third generation Point Reyes rancher named Kevin Lunny, whose family still operates the Historic G Ranch to the northwest of the estuary, bought the oyster farm from Johnson. Lunny cleaned up the place, rebranded it as Drakes Bay Oyster Company, and announced his intention to seek a lease extension from the National Park Service and continue operating past 2012.

That’s when the controversy exploded. Some area environmentalists (emphasis on some) were outraged at the prospect of not seeing the estuary receive the full wilderness protection they believed the law demanded. They were quickly joined by national environmental organizations that were eager to secure the first marine wilderness area on the West Coast. (For the record, Earth Island Institute chose not to take sides in the controversy.) The ranchers and dairies closed ranks in support of Lunny family, fearing that if the Park Service kicked out the oyster farm they would be next. Locals split into warring factions. People began trading polemics and potshots in the Point Reyes Light and the West Marin Citizen. In a place where late model Priuses and mud-splattered F-250 pickups seem to split the road evenly, the debate became a litmus test of loyalty. A Point Reyes Station merchant, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue is so emotional, told me: “It’s the most divisive issue I’ve seen in the 16 years that we’ve been here.”

• • •

cows grazingPhoto by Flickr userkate_stuart

In his excellent new book, An Island in Time, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California author John Hart offers this encapsulation of the controversy, “Two matters … seem essential: the exact intent of Congress in the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, and the extent to which the presence of the oyster farm is known to be changing the environment of Drakes Estero.”

Here’s what Amy Trainer, the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, the loudest and most impassioned critics of the oyster farm, has to say about mariculture’s impact on the estuary: “There are tens of thousands of birds, both resident and migrating, that stop over in the estero. The [oyster company’s] motorboats flush them. The science is very clear on that. They get disturbed when they are resting and foraging. Both the Marine Mammal Commission studies and peer-reviewed science have showed that, from time to time, mariculture operations do disturb harbor seals. You know, this is one of the main breeding sites on the California coast for harbor seal pupping.”

Actually, the science on the matter isn’t as clear as Trainer makes it sound. It would take a whole book to document the scientific back-and-forth on the issue (including the accusations of misrepresented findings and shoddy research), but suffice to say that the best available evidence regarding the oyster farm’s impact on wildlife is inconclusive.

A National Academies of Science report from 2009 said the data on oyster farm-related harbor seal disturbance was so thin that it “cannot be used to infer cause and effect,” and called for “a more detailed assessment.” A professor from UC-Davis who reviewed the Park Service’s draft environmental impact study on the oyster farm removal observed that “impacts of oyster aquaculture on birds are speculative and unsupported by peer-reviewed publications.” And what about the Marine Mammal Commission report Trainer refers to? It concluded that the data supporting the claim that oyster farming disturbs the harbor seals “are scant and have been stretched to their limit” and that “analyses are not sufficient to demonstrate a causal relationship.” As the commission pointed out, the Park Service’s own fact-finding suggests that the worst culprit for harbor seal disturbance might not be the oyster farm, but rather recreational kayakers.

I asked Kevin Lunny, the owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, about his thoughts on the question of seal disturbance. “There is no evidence that says there is major adverse effects,” Lunny told me, after rattling off the reports cited above. “There isn’t enough data. They can’t make that claim, and we can’t make the opposite claim.” He later added,

“They [the harbor seals] habituate. They get used to boats going in and out of there. They don’t even lift their head. They could care less if we are out there. They are used to us, they are used to activity.”

Then, in what I’m sure is a practiced line, Lunny said: “They’re called harbor seals.”

In his seven-page memo ordering the closure of the oyster farm, Secretary Salazar acknowledged that “there is scientific uncertainty and a lack of consensus in the record regarding the precise nature and scope of impacts that [Drake’s Bay Oyster Company’s] operations have on wilderness resources.” His decision was based, Salazar said, on the 1976 law designating parts of the national seashore as wilderness. According to Salazar, “Congress clearly expressed its view that, but for the nonconforming uses, the estero possessed wilderness characteristics and was worthy of wilderness designation.”

Here, too, the record isn’t all that clear. The authors of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act created a whole new term to describe Drakes Estero — potential wilderness. The estuary received the conditional designation precisely because of the presence of the oyster farm. The question then becomes: Did the law’s authors intend for the oyster farm to eventually disappear?

Salazar obviously thinks so. But some of the people who were involved in crafting the legislation have a different take. In a letter sent to Salazar in the fall of 2011, former US Representatives Pete McCloskey and John Burton, along with former California Assemblyman William T. Bagley, wrote: “The seashore is somewhat unique in the National Park System in that from the beginning, it was intended to have a considerable part of its area, consisting of the historic scenic ranches being leased back to their owners, and to retain an oyster farm and California’s only oyster cannery in the Drakes Estero [sic]. The estero sits in the middle of those 20,000 acres of ranches designated as a pastoral zone; the oyster plant and cannery on the shores of Drakes Estero are in that pastoral zone.”

The question of Congress’s original intent will get a full hearing soon. Earlier this month Lunny filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior charging the agency with failing to do a full review as required under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) and the Administrative Procedure Act. Lunny is also seeking a temporary restraining order allowing the oyster farm to continue operating while the case is in court.

The way West Marin environmental activist Amy Trainer sees it: “This is about law and policy. Congress was very clear that this estuary — this is the only chance on the entire West Coast, and it’s the only one so far in the continental United States, where we have a chance to have a marine wilderness experience.”

But will a Drakes Estero absent the oyster farm really be a “marine wilderness experience”? I hope that in deciding the case Judge Elizabeth Laporte will consider that question, because I don’t think it’s as obvious as Trainer or Salazar or the national environmental organizations make it seem.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 has a clear definition of the wild. In what is one of the most eloquent passages in US legislation, the act says: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

As most visitors to the estuary will tell you, Drakes Estero — even without the oyster farm — is not a place that meets that standard.

• • •

elkPhoto by Flickr userchrissam42

Ten days after Salazar announced the closure of the oyster farm I took a trip to Point Reyes National Seashore to remind myself of what is at stake in this fight. By way of disclosure, I should say that Point Reyes is one of my favorite places in the world. I have hiked its trails countless times: trekking the wind-blown bluffs of Tomales Point where the Tule elk live, bird-watching at Abbots Lagoon, slogging through the soggy trails of the aptly named Muddy Hollow. I can tell you that there is nothing like leaving San Francisco at 5 PM, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and after a shoreline hike pitching tent at Coast Camp as the sun goes down. A good part of my heart is attached to the landscape there.

It was an ideal Northern California December day for hiking. The hills were Ireland-green after a spate of heavy rainstorms. The sky was clear and bright blue and the air chilly. The sign at the Drakes Estero trailhead reminded my companion and I that we were about to enter a “cultural landscape” — a place that humans have been using for centuries.

After a short walk through a grove of pines (the remnants of a former Christmas tree farm), we made our way down to the bridge that crosses the labyrinth-like mudflats. The tide was ebbing and the channel there was low, so we didn’t spot any rays or sharks, but on the far side of Home Bay we could see a large number of white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). From the bridge the trails climbs the bluffs above the estero, drops down to a small fresh water pond, climbs again, and again drops down to another fresh water reservoir held in place by a simple earthen dike. At one of the inlets we spotted a large group of dunlins (Calidris alpina) scuttling about in the shallows; a trio of great egrets (Ardea alba) stood about as a single great blue heron (Ardea herodias) stalked its lunch. Although it was out of sight, past the far west edge of the estero, we could hear the roar of the Pacific Ocean at the Great Beach, like a never-ending freight train rumbling in the distance.

In most places the trail was a muddy mess. The situation had been made worse by the herds of cattle that also make their home on the estero. Their footprints were obvious, and it was clear how much erosion they cause with their constant traffic. We encountered a large herd of Angus and Hereford cattle (Bos taurus) grazing near a lone eucalyptus tree. After passing through their midst, I turned and counted them: at least 82 head in that one spot alone. (Later, on the ridges above Limantour estero, we would pass through a herd at least a third as large.)

We kept hiking southward through the grasslands and the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) showing off its downy winter blooms, and eventually found a nice picnic spot on a hill. To the north, the estero. To the south, the western tip of Limantour spit. At the mouth of the estuary, the very critter at the center of the controversy: a herd of at least 50 harbor seals, sunning themselves on a mudflat. During the hour we spent snacking, not one of them moved from their spot. The seals did not seem the least discomfited by the oyster platform about 200 yards away from their haul-out. They appeared way less uneasy than the five or six mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) I spotted watching us bipeds with studied disinterest.

This, in short, is what makes Point Reyes exceptional: The ability to see scores of birds, dozens of cattle, a herd of seals and the occasional prancing deer — all within just a few miles and all in a mixed landscape of natural wonders and human artifacts. The juxtaposition of the natural and the pastoral is, for this hiker at least, why the place feels wondrous. Yes, I know that the stock tank right before the junction with the Drakes Head trail is artificial. But I like the way that the water’s reflection makes the scene there seem bigger, even as the barn at the Historic D Ranch, seen from that point, makes the space feel smaller and somehow more homey. Sure, the dikes that help form the ponds around the estero’s edge are fake — and they help create the perfect habitat for the grebes (Aechmophorus occidentalis) we caught sight of. It was a thrill to walk no more than 12 feet from a cow as she nursed her offspring, and to experience the young calves test their courage by staying on the trail until we were barely an arm’s length away. And it was equally a thrill when we spotted the tracks and scat of a coyote (Canis latrans) on the little-traveled White Gate trail as the alder groves settled into dusk.

Point Reyes National Seashore has always been an experiment in co-existence. My recent hike there offers evidence that the experiment mostly has been successful. Until, that is, the oyster farm controversy shattered the peace.

It’s important to note that the cattle that graze the banks of the estero aren’t going anywhere. Secretary Salazar, in his memo shutting down the oyster farm, ordered the Department of Interior to pursue extending the leases of the area’s ranches and dairies and went out of his way to recognize the importance of the park’s pastoral character. “These working ranches are a vibrant and compatible part of Point Reyes National Seashore, and both now and in the future present an important contribution to Point Reyes’ superlative natural and cultural resources,” Salazar wrote. Even Amy Trainer, considered uncompromising by some people in Point Reyes, concedes that the cattle are there to stay. “This is a compatible use, to have sort of this working landscape.”

I have a hard time understanding how the cattle grazing fits within the ideal — or the legal definition — of wilderness. As long as there are ranchers riding horseback or riding ATVs to manage their herds, the estero won’t be one of those places where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Barbed wire fences and gates aren’t something I associate with the wild.

In any case, I don’t believe the estero should be considered wilderness, no matter what Congress has said. The wilderness experience is valuable for the sense of awe that solitude in a magnificent setting can provide — something close to spiritual awakening or religious revelation. The pastoral experience is far different, but no less valuable. The working landscape of fields and farms illustrates how dependent we are on natural systems even as we shape them to our own ends. Whereas the wilderness is special because it’s untouched, the pastoral is important because it’s interactive.

When I asked Kevin Lunny about the difference between the wild and the pastoral, he explained it simply. “People are fascinated with where their food comes from,” he told me. “We have 50,000 visitors a year. The oyster farm is one of the most popular attractions in the park. We are interpreting the landscape around us. We explain how oysters grow, to everyone from little kids to marine biology classes.” He later said: “And driving through the pastoral zone is cool, too. I grew up with it, seeing seashore visitors loving it — driving into our ranch when we’re working cows. And they are coming from the City, and they go, ‘What are you doing?’ And we say, ‘Come on, watch for a while.’ And they are completely fascinated.”

If we need the wilderness because it is inspirational, we need the pastoral because it is instructive. The intimacy of the pastoral experience offers a lesson in how we are involved in a web of relationships to plants, to other animals, to the rhythm of the weather and the tides. A working landscape — perhaps even more than a wild one — situates us, showing us our place on this planet.

• • •

a litte fawnPhoto by Matt Knoth

During our conversation I asked the Environmental Action Committee’s Amy Trainer to tell me why she sees a difference between terrestrial agriculture and mariculture. Why are the ranches OK, but not the oyster farm? Especially given that oyster farming likely requires less human intervention in the ecosystem than the cattle ranching. (“With the oyster farm, you don’t feed, you don’t fertilize. There’s no cultivation at all,” Lunny said.) Also considering the fact that the oysters, as bottom feeders, are helping to keep the estero clean by filtering the cow shit.

Trainer had difficulty explaining why the oyster farm, in and of itself, is so bad. Instead, she kept coming back to the ideal of the rule of law: Back in 1976, Congress said this should be a wilderness, so it was time to make it wilderness. “This has never been about the Drakes Bay Oyster Company,” she said. “It has always been about upholding the very clear law and policy. … This has never, ever happened — that once Congress has declared a potential wilderness area, and there’s a lease expiration, that commercial rights would be extended. That’s never happened. And whether it’s oil or oysters, it’s the same precedent that could be applicable. That if you have friends in high places, you can get special treatment.”

I get the point Trainer is trying to make (even if her statement is misleading*). There are rules, and the rules need to be followed. Overt Congressional meddling in established environmental policy — like the 2009 appropriations rider sponsored by Senator Diane Feinstein that gave decision-making power over the estero to the Secretary of the Interior — is usually a bad idea. As just one example, see the 2011 removal of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List.

I can also understand why this was a no-brainer for national environmental organizations. In calling for the closure of the oyster farm, they were advocating for an important principle: Whenever possible, potential wildernesses should receive full wilderness protection, and commercial enterprises removed.

In this case, however, the principle is misaligned with the place. For all of the reasons alluded to above — ecological, cultural, educational, recreational — it doesn’t make sense to consider Drakes Estero a wilderness area.

I worry about what this disconnect between the ideal and the specific reveals of the environmental movement. The twentieth century activists who saved Point Reyes knew well that conservationism, in its best sense, is all about a love of place. Affection for place is how the ur-pastoralist Wendell Berry explains it. At the risk of being too cynical, I don’t see much love of place in the behavior of national environmental groups involved in this fight. Not when an overwhelming percentage of Marin residents — many, if not most of them, committed environmentalists — support the oyster farm. Not when I happen to know that the conservation director of a Big Green group advocating for the oyster farm’s closure has never stepped foot in Point Reyes National Seashore. Not when I consider the wall of silence (see here and here and here) that greeted the Interior Department’s move — just two days before Salazar’s Drakes Estero decision — to open 20 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas leasing. The whole affair strikes me as an easy way for national environmental organizations to win some points with a largely symbolic victory and also, on the flip side, a relatively easy way for the Obama Administration to throw environmentalists a bone.

My cynicism is probably just an expression of my frustration. But I simply can’t see many upsides to this decision (if it’s upheld in court, as I’m sorry to say I expect it will be). Californians will lose an important sustainable food producer. At least two dozen people in West Marin will lose their jobs. Visitors to the national park will lose an opportunity to learn a little something new about marine ecology. For the birds and the harbor seals the closing of the oyster farm will likely be a wash. The only winners are likely to be kayakers — and I would guess that some of them will come to miss the chance to paddle around the shellfish platforms.

In its statement released after Salazar’s closure announcement, the NRDC said the “preservation” (air quotes intended) of Drakes Estero “will enrich the lives of people.” Maybe. But for those of us who live here in Northern California, and who really know and love Point Reyes, I can only see how it makes us poorer.

This article has been corrected from the original version, which stated that Earth Island Institute was formally in support of closing the oyster farm. In fact, the institute decided not to take a position on the issue.

* In An Island In Time John Hart points out that there are 29 other “potential wilderness” areas in national parks. Most of them are “potential” because they aren’t federally owned or are encumbered by other property rights. Utility corridors with power lines account for most of the rest. Oil wells in potential wildernesses seem a remote possibility.

Because this fact was shared with me in a casual conversation earlier this fall, I have to keep the identity of the group and the individual confidential.

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