Photograph by Gil Riego Jr.
Oysters courtesy of Waterbar.
On a map, the rambling 2,500-acre inlet known as Drakes Estero looks like a chicken foot, its bony fingers pointing north from the larger Drakes Bay. In person, the estuary is strikingly beautiful: calm water protected from ocean waves by sand spits at its mouth, flanked by headlands and low, grassy hills dotted with cattle and a few trees tough enough to withstand the wind. It's also an ecological jewel, a stopping point for dozens of species of migrating birds, host to a thriving eelgrass population, a favorite sunning spot and pupping ground for harbor seals. There are signs of civilization, though: Hiking paths traverse the estuary on both sides and it's a peaceful destination for kayakers. The air is bracing, briny, restorative. It's hard to believe even the most heartless capitalist could do it harm.
The debate over who is the best steward for this piece of land could be settled this week in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Drakes Bay Oyster Company, the only commercial business in Drakes Estero, has been ordered by the federal government to leave the estuary after its 40-year operating permit expired in November 2012. Drakes Estero is protected federal land — part of the Point Reyes National Seashore — and the National Park Service wants the oyster farm gone so the estuary can become the first marine protected wilderness on the West Coast.
In response, Drakes Bay Oyster Company is suing the federal government over the right to stay open. Owner Kevin Lunny argues that the farm is an important cultural heritage site for the park and has been since the 1930s; that oysters are good for the environment; that local, sustainably grown food is important in the age of factory farms and carbon footprints. If his suit is unsuccessful, the oyster farm will close — leaving two dozen people out of jobs and the Bay Area out of a significant source of local oysters.
The fight has bitterly divided the liberal, eco-friendly community of the Bay Area. Environmentalists fear that a decision in favor of the oyster farm could set a precedent to open up protected wilderness lands to private interests pursuing fracking, offshore oil drilling, and other shadowy, anti-nature plots. To food advocates and producers, a decision against the oyster farm could be another nail in the coffin of the rapidly disappearing American family farm and the utopian dream of a sustainable, local culinary culture in the Bay Area.
Those who are in favor of both the environment and local food — that is, most Bay Area residents — have been forced to choose between the two. As the issue has divided the community, it has also created some strange bedfellows. Sustainable food advocates have found themselves on the same side as small-government Republicans, who see the case as an example of government trampling private interests, and have attached a 10-year lease extension for the oyster farm to a bill in Congress that also includes legislation expediting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for gas and oil development.
The case will likely be settled in court. But the ferocity of the debate suggests that the concepts of "wilderness" and "environmentalism" that we've been using to frame it have become obsolete. Is a sustainable farm providing local food better for the environment in some cases than letting the land sit as pristine wilderness? Even the idea of some proto-natural state that the estuary can return to is a fraught concept, given that Native Americans had been changing the land in that area for millennia before white settlers showed up. Questions like that will linger long after Drakes Bay Oyster Farm has received its decision; but no matter which way the decision falls, it sheds light on the need to redefine what we consider environmental preservation today.
The whole thing might've been smooth sailing if it weren't for Lunny, a third-generation Marin rancher who grew up on the historic "G" Ranch next to Drakes Estero. Lunny still runs an organic, grass-fed beef business that his family has owned since 1940, and says he hadn't considered aquaculture until the oyster farm's former owners asked for his help in early 2004 to revive the struggling business. Lunny bought the farm later that year and renamed it Drakes Bay Oyster Company. He also assumed ownership of a unique relationship between small business and government.
Drakes Estero is part of Point Reyes National Seashore, 71,000 acres of West Marin County comprised of rocky coast, grassy headlands, wild elk herds, and, curiously for a national park, a number of commercial farms and ranches. The region has enjoyed a thriving dairy and cattle business since before the Gold Rush, thanks to near-ideal conditions: a cool, temperate climate, lush prairie grasses, and the abundance of fresh water. Ranchers and farmers work today on land they've inherited from their grandparents and great-grandparents, many of whom were ranching here before California became a state.
Point Reyes feels like a step back to an era not so long ago when nearly a third of the American population lived on family farms (the Census Bureau stopped counting in 1993, after the number dropped below 2 percent). In a sense it is — government effort has preserved this particular corner of American culture. As the Bay Area population swelled in the 1950s and '60s, suburbanization and commercial development threatened the Point Reyes ranchers' way of life and the unique ecological character of the region. So environmental activist groups like the Sierra Club formed an alliance with ranchers and successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation establishing the Point Reyes National Seashore, which President Kennedy signed into law in 1962.
The bill established one of the first national parks next to a major American city (from downtown San Francisco, you could be in Point Reyes in the time it takes to wait in line at Swan Oyster Depot). In the bill, Congress provided for established ranchers by buying their land and letting them continue working on it on long-term leases in a newly created "pastoral zone," thus preserving the cultural and economic heritage of the region along with the land.