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.”

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 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

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


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“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