Shuck and Jive: Drakes Bay Oyster Company Forces a Redefinition of Environmentalism

image
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.

Photograph by Josh Edelson
Drakes Bay Oyster Company owner Kevin Lunny donates old oyster shells to restoration projects and uses them in organic compost he sells at his quarry.
Photograph by Josh Edelson
Drakes Bay Oyster Company owner Kevin Lunny donates old oyster shells to restoration projects and uses them in organic compost he sells at his quarry.

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.

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14 comments
carrie
carrie

Once again, we are getting it wrong here. This is not about environmentalism and sustainable agriculture coexisting. This is about whether or not private, commercial industry can operate in designated wilderness. If letting what one so called sustainable farm (which I question from its numerous infractions and debris violations) run among a wilderness area just because some claim it's "greener" (or what they are really saying, better for the world than oil and gas), than who is to stop oil and gas private industry run among wilderness areas because they say it is in the best public interest? We live in America here folks. If one private business gets to do it (small, sustainable, or not), others will get to do it. Some areas, ans SO few they are, need to be left alone. Carrie, sustainable farm owner and farmer on private land AND environmental advocate for the conservation of public wilderness.

putitupmlk
putitupmlk

I disagree with the comment, "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".  These folks know better, tehy understand that there will never be "other" corporate interests in the Estuary.  They are just pissy perfection seekers aptly described in another post here as NIMBY'ers.  

The DBOC is a perfect model of what we want... a balance of the environment and business.  sustainable, local, prone to doing great things.  But wait!  Maybe we can grow Oysters in Detroit where unemployment is really high, or let Montsano put some Farm Pits in the desert somewhere...  This is really just the insane attempting to control everything, and it's gotta stop.

milener
milener

If Drakes Bay Oyster Co is not doing anything egregious, I say let them stay *open*.  It's a great recreational resource for SF Bay community and gives us a reason to go enjoy that area.  I am a long time supporter of environmental causes, including National parks and Wildlife funds.  BUT I would bet that the surrounding towns, roads and businesses inadvertently put 100 times more toxic effluent into Drakes Bay/Estero than does Drakes Bay Oysters.  Are you going to tear down all those old houses near the Oyster Farm too?

metaskeptik
metaskeptik

Why don't we call this what it is, a simple (feeble) attempt to not call this NIMBYism.  Much like people driving their cars to an Iraq war protest, any "good cause" remains good until it affects one's lifestyle.  It's hypocritical BS to say that we need to redefine environmentalism when it doesn't suit one's ends. 

emmaskin
emmaskin

The Drakes Oyster company simply is not natural, no matter how they twist their story.   Our family are 3rd generation Marin and Sonoma residents, we want our shoreline put back the way it was created originally!

They have sucked out every dollar that they could and now it is time to go.   We would like to say Good Bye & Good riddance to the shuckers & jivers,  the sooner the better.

jane222
jane222

Journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history, not the first rewrite of press releases and sound bites. In recent weeks, some journalists reporting on the Estero controversy say ‘they would not touch the science,” not realizing the irony that they are essentially saying they are reporting without knowledge. The word ‘science’ itself comes from the Latin scientia, ”to know.”

To report on scientific issues, it is not necessary for reporters to ‘do’ science. For example, to return to the issue of sound as a major impact in the Estero: when the NPS and its EIS consultant substitute the sound of a high- powered jet ski for a small four stroke outboard–as National Park Service did in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement–and claim the Estero is damaged by the sound, it raises issues that can only be answered by the basic journalism questions, Who? What? When? Where? Why?

The standard for journalistic coverage of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company controversy seems to be based on guilt by six degrees of separation. The bulk of the recent reporting on the ‘ right wing conspiracy to destroy the wilderness act’  claim against DBOC is based solely on the fact that one attorney representing DBOC’s Kevin Lunny is a Republican who worked in Washington for a few months for a charity funded by right-wing interests.

By these standards, we assume that if the oyster-farm opponents report to the press that a lawyer supporting DBOC had defended an arsonist, this would be proof that Kevin Lunny, the DBOC owner, is burning down the Estero.  Much of the general press has shown an equal lack of standards in the other allegations against DBOC, with no real investigation, relying instead on unsubstantiated claims in the press releases of oyster-farm opponents, the latest of which is merely the last in a long line of attempts by National Park Service and its supporters to smear the Lunny family and present them as some sort of environmental criminals.

The press has no excuse for this type of journalism, which merely restates claims from anti-oyster-farm press releases without even the most basic fact checking. There is a marvelous expression in the British press, ‘Churnalism,’ which aptly describes much of the press and TV coverage, e.g. the regurgitation of recent press releases from Amy Trainer of West Marin Environmental Action Committee and the PBS Newshour report, “Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep Oyster Farm in Operation.” There is simply no excuse for this type of inept and biased reporting.

Minimal research uncovers the facts. Both the National Academy of Science study (which found NPS had misrepresented the science), and the Marine Mammal Committee report (whose experts found no incompatibility with oyster operations and the seal population), have summaries and complete lists of all documents on their website. These including letters from the oyster-farm opponents and supporters.  Likewise, the response to the draft EIS contains statements from National Marine Fisheries, Cal Fish and Game that conflict directly with the allegations of the oyster-farm opponents.

Small local papers like the Russian River Times report stories that impact their communities, often over several years, while the larger press tends to only pick up on the sensational, often from unsubstantiated press releases and statements from advocacy groups. The truth is that NPS and its allies have conducted a long national campaign to portray the Lunnys as environmental criminals, damaging wilderness for personal gain. Locally, the Lunnys are known as a third-generation ranching family, well respected as responsible stewards and valued members of the community. Examples include their assistance with grazing research to support rangeland carbon sequestration, supporting shellfish restoration in San Francisco Bay, local composting projects, and working with endangered species restoration.

Ironically, the NPS also celebrated the Lunny’s contributions in a 2007 publication about stewardship in National Parks entitled, ‘Stewardship Begins with People.’ Page 45 shows a photo of Kevin Lunny and Seashore rancher David Evans and the statement that ”…both have been recognized for their environmental stewardship and innovation.”  In a currently available on-line version of this NPS document, Lunny has been literally airbrushed out.  He was made to disappear!  What is disturbing is that the Lunny’s environmental stewardship is ignored in most of the press coverage where NPS and its allies have attempted to destroy the Lunny’s reputation for stewardship. Not five months after the publication date back in 2007, Point Reyes Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher told Marin County Supervisors that Lunny was an environmental criminal.

From www.russianrivertimes.wordpress.com 05-14-2013

jane222
jane222

Journalism is supposed to be the first draft of history, not the first rewrite of press releases and sound bites. In recent weeks, some journalists reporting on the Estero controversy say ‘they would not touch the science,” not realizing the irony that they are essentially saying they are reporting without knowledge. The word ‘science’ itself comes from the Latin scientia, ”to know.”

To report on scientific issues, it is not necessary for reporters to ‘do’ science. For example, to return to the issue of sound as a major impact in the Estero: when the NPS and its EIS consultant substitute the sound of a high- powered jet ski for a small four stroke outboard–as National Park Service did in preparing the Environmental Impact Statement–and claim the Estero is damaged by the sound, it raises issues that can only be answered by the basic journalism questions, Who? What? When? Where? Why?

The standard for journalistic coverage of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company controversy seems to be based on guilt by six degrees of separation. The bulk of the recent reporting on the ‘ right wing conspiracy to destroy the wilderness act’  claim against DBOC is based solely on the fact that one attorney representing DBOC’s Kevin Lunny is a Republican who worked in Washington for a few months for a charity funded by right-wing interests.

By these standards, we assume that if the oyster-farm opponents report to the press that a lawyer supporting DBOC had defended an arsonist, this would be proof that Kevin Lunny, the DBOC owner, is burning down the Estero.  Much of the general press has shown an equal lack of standards in the other allegations against DBOC, with no real investigation, relying instead on unsubstantiated claims in the press releases of oyster-farm opponents, the latest of which is merely the last in a long line of attempts by National Park Service and its supporters to smear the Lunny family and present them as some sort of environmental criminals.

The press has no excuse for this type of journalism, which merely restates claims from anti-oyster-farm press releases without even the most basic fact checking. There is a marvelous expression in the British press, ‘Churnalism,’ which aptly describes much of the press and TV coverage, e.g. the regurgitation of recent press releases from Amy Trainer of West Marin Environmental Action Committee and the PBS Newshour report, “Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep Oyster Farm in Operation.” There is simply no excuse for this type of inept and biased reporting.

Minimal research uncovers the facts. Both the National Academy of Science study (which found NPS had misrepresented the science), and the Marine Mammal Committee report (whose experts found no incompatibility with oyster operations and the seal population), have summaries and complete lists of all documents on their website. These including letters from the oyster-farm opponents and supporters.  Likewise, the response to the draft EIS contains statements from National Marine Fisheries, Cal Fish and Game that conflict directly with the allegations of the oyster-farm opponents.

Small local papers like the Russian River Times report stories that impact their communities, often over several years, while the larger press tends to only pick up on the sensational, often from unsubstantiated press releases and statements from advocacy groups. The truth is that NPS and its allies have conducted a long national campaign to portray the Lunnys as environmental criminals, damaging wilderness for personal gain. Locally, the Lunnys are known as a third-generation ranching family, well respected as responsible stewards and valued members of the community. Examples include their assistance with grazing research to support rangeland carbon sequestration, supporting shellfish restoration in San Francisco Bay, local composting projects, and working with endangered species restoration.

Ironically, the NPS also celebrated the Lunny’s contributions in a 2007 publication about stewardship in National Parks entitled, ‘Stewardship Begins with People.’ Page 45 shows a photo of Kevin Lunny and Seashore rancher David Evans and the statement that ”…both have been recognized for their environmental stewardship and innovation.”  In a currently available on-line version of this NPS document, Lunny has been literally airbrushed out.  He was made to disappear!  What is disturbing is that the Lunny’s environmental stewardship is ignored in most of the press coverage where NPS and its allies have attempted to destroy the Lunny’s reputation for stewardship. Not five months after the publication date back in 2007, Point Reyes Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher told Marin County Supervisors that Lunny was an environmental criminal.

s.wordpress.com 05-14-2013

joethepimpernel
joethepimpernel

You people just don't get it.

ALL property belongs to the US feral government and future global government.

They will let you keep yours for a while longer, but eventually they'll get around to yours, too.

UN Agenda 21 is breathing down your necks and you're too distracted by gay marriage and free contraception to notice.

awayneramsey
awayneramsey topcommenter

To me, it is a priori that “... environmental preservation and sustainable food production can co-exist,” only if public policy is effective and commensurate with aggressive industry regulation.

putitupmlk
putitupmlk

@emmaskinPerhaps you would forward the name and location of a "natural" business.  Just wondering, where did the anger of your comment..."sucked out every dollar that they could and now it is time to go" come from?  Evidently anything yo do not like is, bad. 

patnlisa
patnlisa

@emmaskin What a ridiculous statement, was your house part of the original environmental design. I didn't think so. Tear it down. What about all the land that has been paved over so you can drive your toxic fume spewing SUV to Safeway and back.

putitupmlk
putitupmlk

@jane222   VEry nicely thought our and wonderfully presented.  thank you!

 
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