Friday, December 11, 2015

Oyster Wars

When I first saw the title of Summer Brennan’s book (The Oyster War, Counterpoint: 2015) about the conflict in the Point Reyes area over the fate of the commercial oyster company in Drake’s Estero, I thought it was a bit of hyperbole. Yes, I knew there was controversy over whether to allow the relatively new Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (its owners, the Lunnys, bought the business from the older Johnson’s Oyster Company in 2004) to continue raising oysters in the Point Reyes National Seashore, or enforce the agreement Johnson had signed years earlier to stop operations in 2012 and allow the area to revert to the wilderness status demanded by the Wilderness Act. I had seen the hand-painted blue and white signs urging locals to “Save Our Drake’s Bay Oyster Company” displayed in front of dozens of homes and along highways near my home town of Bolinas. My neighbor Walter, an avowed conservationist, had talked to me often about how this exhortation should not be followed, and that the Lunnys should be forced to close the business to preserve the wilderness of one of the great stretches of wild seashore still left in America. But I had never been involved in any real discussions of the pros and cons, nor had I read all that much about it either. I just knew that in years past, no family gathering at my brother’s place was complete without a trip to Johnson’s to get a carton of oysters for barbecuing. And I really liked having barbecued oysters available locally—as many West Marinites clearly did. They were standard fare at local restaurants and at street celebrations. Almost an emblem of the place. So I was initially inclined to support the continued raising of the oysters, though I knew little about them or the cost they might present to the environment and nearby wildlife.
            Once I read Brennan’s in-depth account, though, detailing the history of oyster growing in the larger Bay Area, and outlining the reasons and rationales and strategies of the embattled sides, I was pretty convinced that right had prevailed. In 2014, as I finally learned in the last pages of Brennan’s book, the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was forced to shut down its operations, and clean up after itself. By the November 2012 order of the Interior Department, the term of lease for the Oyster company was allowed to expire, with no new lease forthcoming, and the whole place was bulldozed, the waters cleansed of all detritus—mostly plastic bits from the oyster racks upon which local oysters must be cultivated—and all signs of the operation disappeared. Drake’s Estero—the small estuary at the head of which Johnson’s and then Lunny’s operations had been located—was returned to its “natural” state as a federally-designated wilderness area, as provided for in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all subsequent rulings.
            The problem, of course, was that the order by Interior Secretary Salazar, like all previous orders to suspend operations in 2012, was not obeyed without a fight. The war and the oyster operation would continue, because the Lunnys and their supporters decided to exhaust their last option and take their cause to court. Though in the end this proved futile when the courts yet again ruled against them, this last development typified the case: it was not just a struggle by a commercial oyster grower to continue operations in a National Park, but a much larger ‘war’ symbolic of both the business vs. government battle that has come to signify our era, and as a more local contest between usually allied neighbors in the entire area around Point Reyes. In other words, as I would come to discover, the title of Summer Brennan’s book was no hyperbole: this was a real war and its effects are still being felt in bruised and broken relationships throughout West Marin and beyond.
            What Summer Brennan does in her book is provide the background for the “war” that is still ongoing. She informs us that oysters have been ‘grown’ in Drake’s Estero mostly since 1957, when Charlie Johnson started his operation (a small oyster ‘farming’ operation had been there since 1925). More importantly, she points out clearly that, unlike the insistence of Lunny supporters that Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. was reviving the “natural” oyster habitat that had existed at Point Reyes since Indian times, oysters have never grown naturally in or around Point Reyes: not in Drake’s Estero, not in nearby Tomales Bay where two more oyster operations still exist, not even in San Francisco Bay where John Stillwell Morgan had a large oyster operation in the 19th century. All these operations had been forced, like the Johnsons, to import the “spat” or seed, and hang them on wire or plastic “strings” hanging from wooden platforms so they can feed on nutrients in the waters. The reason stems from the sandy conditions of the shorelines in and around San Francisco Bay and Point Reyes. To establish themselves naturally, oysters require a rocky substrate on which to fasten their shells—like the ones that exist in New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers that, before industrialization polluted them, spawned a cornucopia of oysters. Thus unable to get oysters to grow naturally, Johnson imported his oyster spat from Japan, and with tutelage from his Japanese wife, used the platform-and-string technique Japanese oyster growers had long used. Morgan, despite determined efforts to grow oysters in San Francisco Bay, had done something similar: he imported young oysters from Washington state and the East where they grow naturally, and raised them to maturity here. One more important fact: the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, had mandated that the National Park Service implement “wilderness” within its borders—and Drake’s Estero had been designated as “potential wilderness.” In other words, it was to be restored to actual wilderness status whenever possible—by eliminating the oyster farm. Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, decided that the forty-year lease that in 1972 had granted the Johnsons their right to grow oysters should not be extended. He re-emphasized that the termination date was still 2012, and notified Johson’s heirs. Johnson’s son Tom, who’d been having trouble with pollution from an inadequate septic system, soon thereafter sold his oyster operation to Kevin Lunny, a longtime rancher on Point Reyes. Though Lunny knew of the plan to terminate the RUO (Reservation of Use and Occupancy) in 2012, he bought the oyster operation anyway, positive that by solving the environmental problems he could persuade the Park Service to renew the lease.
            Lunny was wrong. There had been continuing complaints about the environmental mess (the pollution from the septic system, running motor boats in the Estero, plastic detritus) created by the Johnsons’ oyster operation, including the problem of disturbing the harbor seals that traditionally use Drake’s Estero as a resting and spawning spot. The National Park Service wanted to make Point Reyes as “natural” as possible for visitors, though it concluded that the ranching/dairying operations that had long thrived there could continue within limits. The problem, of course, arose with the notion of restoring any environment to its “natural” state. The concept was commonly understood but plagued by problems of interpretation, and into that dubious area sprang Lunny supporters, especially a nearby resident and prominent neuroscientist named Corey Goodman. Goodman inundated newspapers and government officials with reports questioning the Park Service data about harm to harbor seals and government misuse of what he called “false science”. Beyond that, the Lunny camp recruited local Supervisor Steve Kinsey to its ranks, and managed to get U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein to lobby on behalf of extending the lease of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Feinstein managed to push a Special Use Permit through the Congress, stipulating measures the oyster farm was to take to not disturb either seals or eelgrass, and the Lunnys signed it in April 2008. But the fight was far from over. Lunny and his supporters rallied everyone they could, as did the opposing side—so that by now the local community was split into such fiercely opposed factions that neighbors and even families split over their differences. On the one side were those officials and scientists from the Park Service, many local residents among them, who saw the dispute as putting all national parks at risk. As one resident wrote, the dispute was simply a “shell game” carried on by a local business enlisting major politicians to allow it to do what the lease termination and a respect for wilderness forbid it to do. If an exception was made for Drake’s Bay, he wrote, all national parks would henceforth be in greater danger from commercial operations seeking to take private advantage of land set aside for the public. On the other side were many local residents and some national organizations who viewed the dispute as an emblem of a larger conflict, pitting excessive government authority against private enterprise. On this side were not only local residents who saw the oyster farm as promoting a local business (good) over mass chains (bad), and as promoting good local jobs for oyster farm workers, but also national conservative organizations. A Washington, DC group named Cause of Action entered the fray, with its executive director, Dan Epstein, drawing the connection between the heavy-handed National Park Service lease denial and the plight of small businesses everywhere harassed by environmental regulations. But when it turned out that Epstein had once worked for one of the infamous Koch Brothers, and that Koch Brothers money was financing Cause of Action, many local supporters expressed dismay and disavowed their support.
            What I did not understand until recently, however, was how such a dispute could rip chasms in local communities that would linger even after the dispute was finally settled, and the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was closed. In recent weeks, after having read Brennan’s book and been impressed by it, I thought to mention the book to a friend I knew who lived in Inverness (the tiny community adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore), and who I was sure would favor the closure and want to read it. I mentioned the book, and walked into a mini-volcano of vituperation. ‘The book is totally biased,’ she began; and then proceeded to attack the author as having been ‘hired by the Sierra Club to do a hatchet job,’ and as a ‘blonde chippy with her New York hairdo.’ I was stunned. My friend then insisted that the oyster farm had been there for over 100 years (she was close, if we count from the first operation in 1925), and that there was tons of evidence that Native Americans had eaten oysters, thus proving they had grown in the area all along (Brennan actually does concede that a very few oyster shells have been found in middens, but reasons that they were probably traded from groups farther north where they do grow.) I dropped the subject, not wanting to initiate a new war over something I didn’t truly have a stake in, but the incident puzzled me. When I asked my local librarian, who lives in Point Reyes Station, what could prompt people to defend a business that violated the clear law about not extending the permit, she indicated several reasons: people favoring a local business growing local food (but the oysters are NOT local; they have to be imported from Japan or Washington or elsewhere), people upset at the loss of so many jobs by mostly Hispanic workers, many of whom lived on the site, and friends who had known the Lunnys for years.
            These are all sound reasons, I suppose. But still, it is fascinating to me—again with no dog in this fight; I haven’t eaten oysters in years—that such a dispute could cause so much passion and anger that my librarian actually said she can’t even mention the word “oyster” in public any more. After all, the end result is that Drake’s Estero is now as clean and pristine as the rest of the National Seashore and can be enjoyed by millions. Is that not what most people out here want? Apparently not when it conflicts with their version of what’s right. Indeed, the same is true of disputes that have arisen among locals over what to do with the fallow and axis deer that have, since their introduction years ago, begun to overrun the native herds on Point Reyes. When the Park Service decided that it had to cull the herds by shooting some of them, residents went crazy. Killing those sweet deer. But the deer, without any natural predators, have spread like the European grasses they feed on. They menace any local garden not fenced in. They overrun their natural habitat to the point that they can begin to starve (as they did recently on Angel Island) for lack of food. What is one to do? Brennan has a chapter on this problem in her book—the problem of invasives such as grasses and eucalyptus trees and flowering plants and many types of fish and rodents and other mammals. What is to be done? Without natural predators, and with invasives from all over the globe having been moved randomly with our ships and goods, we are drastically altering environments everywhere by upsetting the balance between predator and prey built up over millennia. What is to be done?
            But of course, this is a related but fairly separate matter. With respect to the oyster farm in Drake’s Estero, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have made their decision. Oyster farming on Point Reyes no longer exists, and I, for one, think the decision made was a good one—one that benefits far more people (and the local ecology) than it hurts. But clearly, many many others disagree and given the signs will likely nurse their grievance for years. And this makes me wonder: when it comes to the far more disruptive measures needed to mitigate runaway climate change, can we ever get agreement on what to do? Can we ever get over the battles that will ensue? Once I might have said that rational humans could agree, especially in a crisis as potentially catastrophic as global warming and sea-level rise. After the oyster wars, though, I’m not so sure.

Lawrence DiStasi

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