How the Point Reyes oyster battles challenged our idea of wilderness
Review of a new book, 'Oyster War' by Summer Brennan.
The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America
Counterpoint Press, August 2015.
The Point Reyes National Seashore is shaped like the head of a seahorse. Sir Francis Drake spotted the underside of the cape’s hooked snout while sailing up California’s coastline in 1579, stopping there in what is known today as Drakes Estero, the exact site where a little oyster farm would sit nearly three and a half centuries later.
A few miles north of San Francisco, the Point Reyes peninsula itself is a treasured wilderness area with a peculiar environmental history. Many of its “wild” acres have been home to dairy farms since 1863, operations that were grandfathered-in, along with the oyster farm, when the Point Reyes Wilderness Act passed in 1976. Long before that, the local Miwok Indians encouraged Tule Elk to graze the open plains of the cape by burning the grasslands to increase seed production and ease their own hunting. Though the details are unique, this human interference is typical of many of the places we call wilderness.
Summer Brennan’s The Oyster Wars, looks closely at the decade-long kerfuffle between the National Park Service and The Drakes Bay Oyster Company that quickly swelled into national news a few years ago. The often nasty public debate concerned a small mariculture outfit’s lease in the heart of the National Seashore and the threat it posed to the local harbor seal population, but more so, the possibility that its mere existence in the protected land undermined the NPS’s goals to preserve the terrain’s original state.
Brennan’s prose comes alive while detailing the environmental histories of Point Reyes and Northern California that lead up to the oyster wars. She uses them to lay bare the contradictions in what we mean when we use the word “wilderness.” The dissonance of the word and its politics are no better personified than by the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing, opportunistic congressman Philip Burton, who fought to protect Point Reyes and places like it, less for his love of the environment and more for his career and legacy. When asked if he’d like to visit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, land which he had worked to preserve, he replied “Why the fuck would I want to do that?” and stamped his cigarette out in the gravel.
The preservation effort at Point Reyes has been full of foibles. An attempt to address overgrazing by endangered Tule Elk within the park’s boundaries lead to an official cull instituted by the NPS, enraging local environmentalists while placing the park administration in desperate need of a local “win” when the issue of the oyster farm presented itself. Likewise, some people saw the oyster beds as valuable to the bay’s natural balance and cited the need to maintain the native oyster populations, which in fact is wrong. As Brennan explains, there were no oysters in Northern California prior to the Gold Rush, in this millennium at least. She uses these facts and political concerns to remind us that this battle, one that has helped shape how we think about “wilderness” is being fought between two opposing groups of environmentally conscious, privately concerned liberals: “When conservationists talk of returning Drakes Estero to its ‘original’ wild state, to what state are they referring?” she asks.
Brennan — who was raised in the area and worked for the local Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper, the Point Reyes Light — manages to avoid spouting her personal opinions while exposing the faulty science, the obvious sidestepping, the money spent, and the broken promises made by the NPS and advocates of The Drakes Bay Oyster Company alike. The local drama hits its peak when it becomes clear that the NPS had hidden cameras trained on the oyster operation, documenting every movement and possible harbor seal molestation, but it quickly crumbles into uneventful legislation and glacial bureaucratic action plans.
This book is filled with surprises that complicate our thinking about the value of nature, the meaning of “wilderness,” and the local and national political efforts that concern them.
Note: The Drakes Bay Oyster Company was officially shut down in December 2014 when the NPS declined to offer them a new lease. The buildings, and any trace of the operation along the shore of Drakes Estero were removed mere weeks after in an effort to return the site to its “natural” state.
Jeffery Gleaves is digital manager of The Paris Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.