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

Summer Brennan

256 pages,

Paperback: $18.95

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. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....