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

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.


In the early 1970s, the National Park Service took inventory of the still-undeveloped land to designate it as “wilderness” — the highest level of government protection for land. In the subsequent Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, Congress identified 25,000 acres as wilderness and another 8,000 as “potential wilderness” — basically, lands adjacent to wilderness that don't immediately qualify for that designation “due to temporary nonconforming or incompatible conditions.”

Drakes Estero fell into the “potential wilderness” category. Though it was an important ecological zone that the National Park Service thought deserved protection, there was one “incompatible condition”: A commercial business operated on it, Johnson Oyster Company, which had been growing oysters in the estuary since 1932. When the Park Service purchased Charlie Johnson's land in 1972, it had given him a 40-year permit to continue his operations on the property. Once time was up, the oyster business would pack up and leave, and the estuary would be set aside to let the natural world take over. All environmental advocates who wanted Drakes Estero to become wilderness had to do was wait.

Lunny knew he was assuming the permit that the farm's former owner, Johnson, had signed with the government in 1972, set to expire in 2012 — he was told by both the Johnsons and the National Park Service. But Lunny claims that he was given cause to believe that his permit would be extended. There are statements from those involved in the original legislation voicing their intent to keep aquaculture alive in the National Seashore, as well as the fact that the Park Service endorsed an overhaul of the farm in 1998 saying it would “have no significant impact upon the environment.” Thinking that he'd be able to continue operations, Lunny says, he busily began to clean up the farm and perk up the business.

It's easy to dismiss Lunny as an opportunist, but he certainly doesn't come across as one. He portrays himself as a farmer just trying to keep growing oysters for the Bay Area. He's apt to use phrases like “all the legal schmeagal stuff” when talking about the particulars of the lawsuit, and he looks the part of a rancher — slim and wiry, clad in jeans and work boots, his white hair often hidden beneath a faded baseball cap. The farm itself isn't some slick operation either: a few ramshackle buildings that were once white but have settled into grey; handwritten signs advertising the current inventory; Lunny's daughter, Brigid, behind the counter selling oysters; Lunny's son, Sean, hauling oysters in and out of the water with the workers. The epitome of a family-run business.

Though Lunny is certainly more of a businessman than he lets on (in addition to the oyster farm and ranch, he operates a paving and gravel company), his passion for the land and environmental preservation seems genuine. He speaks earnestly about the reason he was drawn to oysters — they're one of the most environmentally friendly food sources out there, don't need feed or fertilizer to grow, and filter the water as they get nutrients from it. “[Oysters] are the best example of any food production, certainly in protein, when it comes to sustainability and a really light footprint on the land,” he says.

He was the one who converted his family's ranch into an organic one, and during his tenure at Drake's he's changed over to a French tube-growing system that uses less plastic waste, led regular shore cleanups with his staff of 30, and donated thousands of oyster shells to the Watershed Project, a nonprofit working to re-establish native oysters to San Francisco Bay.

It's not all kumbaya on the farm, though. He's been cited several times by the California Coastal Commission for compliance issues. He inherited some of the trouble when he purchased the farm from Johnson, but since has expanded operations without a permit and brought in invasive manila clams without following standard operating procedure, according to the Coastal Commission. Then there's the issue of the plastic debris that keeps washing up on shore. Lunny claims it is a legacy of the previous owner, but to the Coastal Commission, it doesn't matter whose fault it is. “If there's going to be a commercial operation in a marine wilderness area, we have to make sure they're taking care of the debris issue,” says Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement at the Coastal Commission.

Meanwhile, environmental groups fighting to reclaim Drakes Estero as wilderness want you to know that they aren't anti-oyster. They're not trying to deprive anyone of local shellfish; they support aquaculture overall. Just not aquaculture here. Not in this particular estuary that Congress set aside 40 years ago to become a preserved area, which would make it the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

“I think the most critical part of this issue for our organization is that there was a contract, and as taxpayers, we all bought this property 40 years ago with the vision of it being protected,” says Neal Desai, associate director of advocacy group the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is a national park, and this is a wilderness area, and people value these places because they stand the test of time. In theory, they shouldn't be subjected to the business plans or taste buds of today.”

The law may be on the government's side, but it hasn't been easy for the Park Service to gain the support of the community, due in part to a 2007 report issued as Lunny was ramping up oyster production at his company. It claimed that the farm was disturbing harbor seal populations, creating dead zones underneath the oyster bags, damaging eel grass with motorboats, and generally having a troubling effect on the delicate ecology of the estuary.


Lunny says he was shocked by the report when it first came out. “Frankly I looked at it and believed it. I thought, 'Are we doing this?'” he says. But as he started look deeper, he wondered if something was amiss. He asked Supervisor Steve Kinsey to help him loop in the Marin County Board of Supervisors to ask California Sen. Dianne Feinstein to step in on the farm's behalf.

Kinsey tapped Corey Goodman to review the science. A former UC Berkeley neuroscience professor and member of the National Academy of Sciences who now works in the private sector from his family ranch in Marin, Goodman says he had never met the Lunnys and was doing the review essentially as a favor to Kinsey and for the public good. But as he started digging, he found what he believed to be inaccurate conclusions made by the Park Service that weren't supported in the data. “Policymakers should be making decisions based on good science and not pseudoscience,” he says. “There is no scientific evidence of environmental harm, and I'll put my reputation on the line for it.”

He presented his findings at the Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting in May 2007; the Park Service presented its side. The board unanimously agreed to request that Feinstein step in. She facilitated a meeting between the Park Service and the Lunnys in which both sides agreed to let the impartial National Academy of Sciences review the report. In findings presented in May 2009, the academy found that the Park Service had “selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation.” Another study from the Marine Mammal Commission found that there was some evidence that the mariculture and movement of harbor seals were related, but there was not enough data to prove a causal relationship one way or another.

The National Park Service eventually apologized for the 2007 report, but the damage had been done. Those who had reason to mistrust the Park Service — and there is no shortage in the ranching community — now thought that the report had been deliberately deceptive, and the whole affair took on the air of an Us vs. Them government conspiracy. Ranchers were worried they were next.

The environmentalists felt under siege, too. In 2009, Feinstein attached a rider to a bill which said the oyster company's lease could be continued for another decade if the Secretary of the Interior, then Ken Salazar, decided to keep the farm open. Though there was specific language in the rider that said this was a special case without precedent, environmental groups went on the offensive, accusing Feinstein of being in bed with private interests. Op-eds were traded in local newspapers like the Point Reyes Light and the West Marin Citizen.

Feinstein's legislation passed, and an Environmental Impact Statement was commissioned by Salazar summarizing the oyster company's operations in the estuary. It was released in 2012, just before Salazar's final decision, and touches on disturbances to harbor seals and eelgrass, the proliferation of an invasive species colloquially nicknamed “marine vomit,” and other environmental harms. Goodman, Feinstein, and others said that it, like the 2007 report, was full of holes and riddled with inaccuracies. In a letter to the California Fish and Game Commission, Feinstein expressed her concern.

“The Park Service's repeated misrepresentations of the scientific record have damaged its trust with the local community, and stained its reputation for even-handed treatment of competing uses of public resources,” she wrote in the May 2012 letter.

In the end, Salazar's decision didn't have to do with whether Drakes Bay Oyster Company was a good steward of the land or not. The farm was in a potential wilderness, and had to get out. In his decision memo, he acknowledged that “there is a level of debate with respect to the scientific analyses of the impacts of DBOC's commercial mariculture operations on the natural environment within Drakes Estero,” but says that regardless of it, Congress specifically designated this land “potential wilderness” and thus it would become one. Drakes Bay Oyster Company was to cease operations by Nov. 20, 2012, following which it had 90 days to vacate the premises.

Lunny is now working with four legal firms, all working pro bono, suing the federal government to allow his permit to be extended and the farm to stay open, on the grounds that the science Salazar based his decision on was faulty. Though on Feb. 4 a judge in Oakland sided with the eviction, saying that the decision to keep the farm open was the “complete discretion” of Salazar, later that month the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in San Francisco ruled that Drakes could stay open until the court decided whether the company's lawsuit was viable or not. That hearing is scheduled for May 14 in San Francisco.

Salazar's wording in his decision was clear, but less so is the exact goal of setting aside the land for preservation. The very idea of returning the estuary back to “wilderness” is uncertain, because humans have shaped the land for millennia. Commercial oyster farming predates the park by about 30 years, and before that, there's evidence in midden piles that coastal Miwok tribes had cultivated their own oyster beds in the estuary.

In fact, the sweeping coastal plain of Point Reyes that looked like paradise to the first Marin dairymen was itself a byproduct of Native American tribes burning and pruning the land.

“'Wilderness' as everybody knows it is not some perfectly preserved pristine landscape. It's a jurisdictional category that the Park Service and others will administer,” says Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford who often uses the park as a case study for his students. “Every part of this continent has been affected by human land use. The question is, what kind of land use are you going to permit?”


There is also some legitimacy to the idea that the oyster farm was meant to be preserved during congressional hearings establishing the park in the early '60s. In 1961 testimony on the economic feasibility of the Point Reyes National Seashore, former Park Service director Conrad Wirth said “[e]xisting commercial oyster beds and an oyster cannery at Drakes Estero, plus three existing commercial fisheries, should continue under national seashore status because of their public values. The culture of oysters is an interesting and unique industry which presents exceptional educational opportunities for introducing the public, especially students, to the field of marine biology.”

And when Lunny starts explaining how the farm works to tourists, and you watch their eyes light up as they put together the oysters they just ate with the water and the man who produced them … it's heady stuff. Fifty thousand people visit the farm every year, including several school groups.

If Drakes Bay Oyster Company closes, it will likely never reopen — the cost of destroying the stock in the estuary alone would put the farm financially underwater, and finding another bottom lease is difficult. The company produces about 8 million Pacific oysters a year, shipped only to the Bay Area and North Bay; of the oysters grown on state land, Drakes produces 40 percent of California's total.

Eric Hyman, purchasing manager at the popular raw bar Waterbar, doesn't think that prices will go up if the Drakes supply is removed. But for him, it's a question of losing access to local oysters. Waterbar buys between 400 and 1,000 oysters every week from Drakes depending on the weather and time of year, and Hyman praises them for their locality as much as their flavor. “For me, the biggest disappointment if they were to close down results from the fact that there are two places to buy 'local oysters' in the San Francisco Bay area: One is Tomales Bay, one is Drakes Bay,” he says. During the rainy season, runoff from the dairy farms closes Tomales Bay for oyster production a few weeks during the year. “If [Drakes] gets shut down, in the winter a good percentage of the time we won't be able to feature local oysters,” he says.

Of course, it depends on your definition of “local.” Humboldt Bay is stepping up its oyster population after it was decimated in the 19th century, and both Oregon and Washington have thriving oyster traders (Drakes only accounts for 3.4 percent of the Pacific region's oyster output, which includes Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska).

Still, there's something special about oysters that come from our native waters. The local food movement is about more than just eliminating carbon footprint and shipping costs; it's about following the seasons and contours of the land where you live. In a place like the Bay Area, where local ingredients are the rule, not the exception, the farm-to-table distance carries a lot of weight.

It also helps that oysters from Drakes Estero are excellent — just the right balance of salt, sweetness, and brine — thanks to the pristine nature of the estero. (Oysters take on the unique flavor of the water around them; like wine and terroir, the same species can taste different grown in another location.) For those passionate about local food, the farm is an important link to our past and to our sense of place that can't be recreated if it's broken.

“[Drakes Bay oysters are] a real local, delicious, irreplaceable food,” says Patricia Unterman, co-owner of Hayes Street Grill, food writer, and vocal advocate of the farm. She laments the fact that she'd have to import canned oysters from Washington for dishes like fried oysters and oyster stew. “They aren't as fresh, they aren't as small, they aren't ours.”

The fight over the fate of Drakes Bay Oyster Company has become about more than just oysters; it's become an ideological battle over the best use for land in 2013. Both sides see a dangerous precedent being set, whether the Lunnys end up successful or not. This particular case has brought a lot of issues bubbling to the surface and has divided Marin County and alienated the Park Service from the ranchers.

To the Park Service and environmental advocacy groups, allowing land that was to become designated wilderness go to commercial use could open up a loophole for other wilderness to be chipped away by private interests. “It's a broader issue than the impact of one oyster company,” says Desai. “The precedent it could set … the agenda of some people associated to open up public land across the country for more development and industry use. It's unfortunate that foodies or people who see this as a narrow issue don't see the bigger picture here.”

For their part, the sustainable food advocates think the environmentalists are the ones looking myopically at the issue. “I really think that the very hardcore radical environmentalists should take a look at this as a special case, because if anything, the United States has been encouraging shellfish farming,” Unterman says, citing recent government projects using water-filtering oysters to bring back dead zones in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf Coast. “This is the kind of aquaculture and agriculture that promotes the health of the environment. To try and shut down one of the few of these — I mean, there aren't very many in the U.S. — to shut one down is madness.”

Unterman signed an amicus “friend of the court” brief with Chez Panisse owner and local food champion Alice Waters, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, the California Farm Bureau Federation, Marin County Farm Bureau, advocacy group Food Democracy Now, and others in the food and agriculture community siding squarely with Drakes, in part because of the changing environmental movement. “Closing down the oyster farm in Drakes Estero, which has existed since the early 1930s, would be inconsistent with the best thinking of the modern environmental movement that the Point Reyes National Seashore was created to help preserve,” it reads.


Opponents of the farm submitted their own documents to the court on the importance of the estuary as an ecological zone and the necessity for it to be preserved. One was from Sylvia Earle, oceanographer and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society. “Delaying the long-planned cessation of mariculture activities will continue the resource damage, facilitate the proliferation of invasive species, and increase risk to permanent impairment of the estero's natural resources,” she wrote in January 2013. “I strongly believe the protection of Drakes Estero as wilderness is essential immediately and will beneficially impact the greater marine environment and the wildlife species that depend on it.”

The case is also getting interest from Tea Party and other groups in favor of small government — attention Lunny says he never meant to draw. A 10-year permit extension for the farm has been attached to an energy bill in Congress introduced by Republican senator David Vitter of Louisiana that includes offshore drilling, the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for development, and an expedited timeline for the Keystone XL pipeline. Cause of Action, a government watchdog group in Washington whose executive director has past ties to the conservative Koch Brothers, has also entered the cause on behalf of the oyster farm.

Which brings up the question of whose side to be on if you're liberal, pro-environment, and also pro-local agriculture. Farmers whose families have lived for generations on the land have a vested interest in tending it well for future generations; to equate them with oil drilling is to do them a disservice. Strict environmentalism isn't an either/or proposition anymore; as uncomfortable as it may be to some, it's possible for capitalism to be environmental.

The idea of enviro-capitalism isn't exactly new — it's been a necessary element of the historical and cultural fabric of Point Reyes. The continued collaboration between the park and the farms is crucial to the future of the park/farm hybrid that Point Reyes exemplifies so beautifully.

Sam Dolcini, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau and former chairman of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, compares the collaboration between ranchers and environmentalists in the 1970s as putting together a tapestry. “Clearly agriculturalists and the environmental community come from two opposite directions, but we weaved our needs and desires together and built something pretty strong and pretty spectacular,” he says. “Today it seems like the environmental community is pulling really hard at the strings around the edges, and I'm afraid if they pull too hard the whole things's gonna just fall apart.”

Local ranchers worry that ruling against the Lunnys could open the door for the federal government to further regulate land in the name of conservation, land that the ranchers need for their livelihoods. Even though Salazar explicitly extended ranch leases for 20 years in his decision — writing that “these working ranches are a vibrant and compatible part of Point Reyes National Seashore” — many worry that the National Park Service could regulate their land to the point where it becomes impossible to make a profit.

“Ultimately the more regulations and restrictions you have on a piece of land, it devalues the potential,” says John Taylor, a seventh-generation Marin dairy farmer and owner of the organic Bivalve Dairy. He mentions the layers of bureaucracy that a rancher has to go through now to make changes to the property — things he's working through now as he expands production: buffer zones, building restrictions, permit approvals, and other complications that he's worried the government could expand.

And the future of the park's unique relationship between farmers and the government depends on the continuing commercial viability of these small farms. To Stanford's White, the main danger to the park is that that these ranching families will have trouble convincing younger generations to stick around. “Small dairy farms are under tremendous economic pressures. And it's really hard work … Maintaining these farms as viable economic enterprises seems to be to be the real challenge to the park,” he says.

Meanwhile, Point Reyes National Seashore continues to greet 2.6 million visitors per year — driving on its roads, kayaking on its waters, walking on its footpaths, reading its interpretive signs. Nature is something we work with and engineer on large and small levels on every acre of this country, but the fight over the best use for Drakes Estero has suggested that the old concepts of environment, wilderness, and land stewardship need to shift to accommodate our changing definitions of sustainability and agriculture.

“Wilderness is not necessarily something that looks back, it looks forward,” says White. Government-designated wilderness is about preserving something for the future, not trying to reclaim the past, and it can require tough decisions. “To preserve one thing you very often have to eradicate something else,” he says.

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