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

Wednesday, May 15 2013

Page 5 of 5

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.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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