Controversy — July 26, 2013, 4:22 pm

The West Coast Oyster War

The campaign to shut down a family oyster farm exposes an unflattering side of the American conservation movement

Low Tide at Drakes Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore, California. ©© David Berry (Flickr)

Low Tide at Drakes Estero, Point Reyes National Seashore, California. ©© David Berry (Flickr)

The Drakes Bay Oyster Company sits on a picturesque lagoon in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a dramatic, windswept peninsula jutting into the Pacific about forty miles north of San Francisco. The setting is pristine, and roughly 2.5 million people visit the park each year to walk its vast empty beaches, birdwatch in its foggy woods, and stroll through its meadows of high grasses. On a clear spring day, you can hike up a rocky bluff and watch pairs of calving grey whales migrate north through the emerald waters below, one blowhole exhalation at a time.

Point Reyes is a hallowed piece of the National Park System, and its history is a triumph of environmental policy over the greed of man. At one point late in the development-happy 1950s, a group of businessmen began to eye the peninsula, with visions of a coastal development featuring shopping malls and parking lots like those that have since bisected much of southern Marin County. Aghast, the area’s ranching and farming families, many of whom had roots there dating to the mid-1800s, teamed up with the Sierra Club and the government to work out a deal. Landowners received long-term leases, renewable for generations, and the National Park Service (NPS) took over a prize piece of real estate. The chapter stands as local folklore, with an evident lesson to the two dozen or so families still working leases in the national parkland: a commitment to the environment is all that stands between Pacific splendor and another Jersey Shore.

But this solution brought its own set of problems. Walled off from market forces, the park became a stage on which endless struggles of environmental law and policy play out: public land versus private business, wilderness versus agriculture, and, in the discouraging case of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, politics versus science. Seven months and four lawsuits ago, then Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered the family-owned oyster farm to clear out of the lagoon — part of an ecologically sensitive bay known as Drakes Estero[1] — where it has been producing oysters since the mid-1930s.

[1] The bay is named for the British explorer Sir Francis Drake, who is believed to have landed here in 1579.

[2] Including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy, and the National Parks Conservation Association.

The environmental establishment[2] cheered the decision, but some influential progressives in the Bay Area were appalled, and when the farm refused to leave, the fight escalated and drew in a peculiar assortment of bedfellows. Alice Waters, California’s culinary eminence and a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, signed on to a federal-court brief filed on the farm’s behalf, putting her on the same side as Louisiana senator David Vitter (R.), who included a clause on a sweeping G.O.P. energy bill — one permitting the Keystone XL Pipeline to be constructed and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be drilled for oil — to grant the oyster company another twenty years on its lease. California senator Dianne Feinstein (D.), the farm’s leading advocate in Washington, co-sponsored a separate Vitter budget-resolution amendment that sought the same lease extension. Shortly before Salazar issued his eviction notice last November, Michael Pollan, the bestselling author and national conscience on sustainable food, wrote in an open letter to Salazar and Feinstein that “it would be a shame — in fact an outrage — if the company were closed down as a result of the Park Service’s ideological rigidity and misuse of science.”

[3] From the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch website: “Farming oysters brings little risk of pollution or escapees, and habitat effects from the farms are minimal. Unlike some farmed fish, oysters minimally impact marine resources as they don’t rely on wild-caught fish — in the form of fishmeal or fish oil — for food. And, thanks to the oyster’s filter-feeding action, oyster farms can actually benefit the surrounding coastal waters.”

For Pollan, Waters, and other progressives, the farm epitomizes an agricultural future in which small, conservation-minded producers build sustainable local food economies.[3] Environmentalism is central to this philosophy, but in an interview with the New York Times,  Bay Area restaurateur Patricia Unterman characterized the environmentalists’ mindset as “doctrinaire and unnuanced.” The farm she described as “a rare and beautiful use of land and water” is viewed by the Sierra Club as an unholy industrialization of a beloved national park.

Though the case will ultimately be decided by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later this summer, the environmental lobby has been waging a public-relations blitz to stir passions among its donor base. In interviews, blog posts, op-eds, and fundraising pleas, the movement has played loose with the facts, its claims becoming enmeshed with the national partisan air war: Thanks to Senator Vitter’s support, the oyster company is part of a “big oil agenda.” Since the company (temporarily) accepted pro bono legal help from a conservative outfit in Washington, D.C., it has “close ties to the ultra-conservative Koch brothers.” Worse still, one editor at the East Bay Express darkly informed his readers, “The farm’s owners, Kevin and Nancy Lunny, also have repeatedly appeared on Fox News to promote their campaign.”

Beds belonging to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Point Reyes National Seashore. ©© Alan Grinberg (Flickr)

Beds belonging to the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Point Reyes National Seashore. ©© Alan Grinberg (Flickr)

Kevin Lunny, the oysterman in question, grew up on Point Reyes, the grandson of a rancher. He stuck with the family business, and when the food movement boomed he was well-suited and well-situated for the times. His livestock were the first certified-organic beef cattle in Marin County, and today you can buy Lunny Ranch grass-fed, organic beef in the area’s Whole Foods markets. He sits on the board of the local organic-producers’ association, earned an award from the Society of Rangeland Management for best practices in California, and, in 2004, with an eye on expanding the family business for his children and grandchildren, bought the oyster farm from an aging neighbor. Oystering was a gamble; there was no guarantee that the government would renew the farm’s forty-year lease, and he knew that Drakes Estero was listed by the Department of Interior as “potential wilderness,” an elastic word of ill portent.

But with assistance from the National Park Service, Lunny invested money and time in cleanup and modernization; in 2007, he was even featured in an NPS booklet called Stewardship Begins with People. “From our house, we look out over the oyster beds and the estuary every day,” he is quoted as saying. “It’s a beautiful view and it’s something that we love and cherish. We’re deeply committed to that ecosystem and its protection.”

Seals, Drakes Estero. ©© Alan Grinberg (Flickr)

Seals, Drakes Estero. ©© Alan Grinberg (Flickr)

Just months after publishing Stewardship Begins with People, however, NPS released a revised edition with Lunny’s image photoshopped out and his quotations redacted. Even as the park service had publicly celebrated Lunny, it was building a case against him. In 2006, it had intensified its scrutiny of the farm, ordering wave after wave of studies and reports on the oyster farm’s environmental impact on the estuary. Two hidden surveillance cameras snapped nearly 300,000 photos over three years, aiming to prove that boats used for gathering oysters from different areas of the bay were disturbing a nearby colony of harbor seals, who had become the focus of the agency’s case. But the seals typically bask on sandbars 700 yards from the nearest farm equipment, and the report raised immediate flags.

On April 28, 2007, a Marin County Supervisor put in a call to Dr. Corey Goodman, a former Stanford biology professor and a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), to review the case. Goodman was shocked by what he found. Data so simple, he told me, “any high schooler or junior high schooler could understand it,” was riddled with errors. When Feinstein asked for a formal NAS review, their verdict was that the park service had “selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented” the science. Gavin Frost, an NPS solicitor who also reviewed the case, found that his agency was “blurring the line between exploration and advocacy.”

With the park service’s science being roundly debunked, Salazar ordered it in October 2009 to conduct an updated Environmental Impact Statement, which it did, and which was later found also to include stunning misrepresentations. One of these involved noise measurements that allegedly proved Lunny’s oyster boats were disturbing the seals, but that turned out to be from a seventeen-year-old study of jet-ski noise in New Jersey. “I have followed this saga for several years now,” Pollan wrote to Salazar and Feinstein last fall, “with a mounting sense of wonder and disappointment in the behavior of the Park Service.” Feinstein has been just as direct. Last spring, she wrote that the Park Service “has repeatedly misrepresented the scientific record since 2006 to portray the farm as environmentally harmful.”

But the time had come to turn “potential wilderness” into the real thing. When Salazar made his final ruling, he sidestepped the thicket of bunk science, acknowledging that it “had generated much controversy,” and claimed that his “decision is based on matters of law and policy” — put simply, the government was under no obligation to renew the farm’s lease. Salazar gave Lunny ninety days to clear out his equipment and assets, including $2 million worth of oysters.

The story of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company is at this point obscured by ideological fog. Even basic facts are being misrepresented. The environmental lobby insists, for example, that Drakes Estero will now become “the first marine wilderness area on the West Coast” outside of Alaska, a claim that has been repeated as fact by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, ABC and NBC affiliates in San Francisco, the local West Marin Environmental Action Committee, most national environmental organizations, and the Park Service itself. And yet according to the government’s own records, this isn’t true. As Salazar noted in his ruling, the Limantour Estero, which is adjacent to Drakes, was converted in 1999 “from potential to designated wilderness, becoming the first (and still only) marine wilderness on the Pacific coast of the United States outside of Alaska.”

[4] To take another example, Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association has sent out literature implying that the harbor seals in Drakes Estero are members of an endangered species, which they are not. Desai told me he used the term “in the context of [the seals] are at risk of harm,” a dizzyingly broad application.

This sort of casual regard for the facts[4] led Lunny to tell Fox Business News that the campaign being waged against him “embarrasses most environmentalists,” and is now describing the action as “wilderness activism.” With a decision from the 9th Circuit expected soon, the environmental lobby has been treating the case like the closing days of an election-season campaign. After contacting several different organizations in California and Washington, D.C., for comment, I learned that many of the country’s oldest and largest environmental groups have agreed that only two people — Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association and Amy Trainer of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee — will speak on the record about Drakes Bay. One person I interviewed for this story, an environmental-law expert deeply familiar with the case, emailed me after an hour-long interview to ask me not to use anything that was said, even anonymously, out of fear of career-ending reprisal.

In Conservation and Local Economy, Wendell Berry writes, “The long-standing division between conservationists and farmers, ranchers, and other private small-business people is distressing because it is to a considerable extent false.” The Drakes Bay oyster war reveals the entrenching of this division thanks to political money and ideology. The oyster farm predates the national park by three decades, but for environmental groups that have invested heavily in the farm’s removal, any negotiation that allows it to remain has become unthinkable, an inexorable step toward strip mining the Grand Canyon. “As much as the Park Service and the Sierra Club would like to pretend otherwise,” Pollan writes, “Point Reyes National Seashore has been an agricultural community for nearly two centuries.” To ignore that entire history and insist on one definition of wilderness would, he said, “consign the place to being a museum to an idea.”

Share
Single Page

More from Michael Ames:

Context October 2, 2015, 11:04 am

Captive Markets

Why we won’t get prison reform

From the February 2015 issue

Captive Market

Why we won’t get prison reform

Postcard July 30, 2014, 6:38 pm

My Un-Private Idaho

Bowe Bergdahl, the political-entertainment complex, and the personal costs of scandal

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2018

There Will Always Be Fires

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The End of Eden

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

How to Start a Nuclear War

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Combustion Engines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
There Will Always Be Fires·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
Article
The End of Eden·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
Article
How to Start a Nuclear War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Amount former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf paid a lobbying firm for access to top U.S. lawmakers:

$175,000

40,800,000,000 pounds of total adult human biomass is due to excessive fatness.

Marvel Entertainment's CEO exerts influence over the VA; Mike Pence lays out plans for The Space Force; Paul Manafort's trial reveals his tax evasion (and much more)

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today