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Satellites in the High Country
Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man
By Jason Mark
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2015 Jason Mark
All rights reserved.
One of the stranger political controversies of the last decade centered on a little creature whose anus runs through its heart: Crassotrea jurgas, the common oyster.
The fight over Drakes Bay Oyster Farm had all of the plot points you might expect in a good ol' environmental battle. For starters, a beautiful place — Point Reyes National Seashore, a national park not far from San Francisco that, with its rugged cliffs and stormy beaches, is a postcard for the Northern California coast. Second, charismatic wildlife. In this case harbor seals, whose attitude toward the oyster operation was a matter of heated debate. There were also a mind-boggling number of scientific reports, spiked with accusations of flawed evidence and rigged results. Plus the usual bare-knuckle tactics of politics: Capitol Hill maneuverings, copious media spin, character assassinations, legal appeal after legal appeal, and reams of emotional polemics badly disguised as reasoned arguments. And all of it, naturally, wrapped within big claims about what would be in the public interest — to allow the oyster farm to keep operating, or to create the first large marine wilderness area on the West Coast?
What made the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm controversy so weird was that everyone, on all sides, proudly claimed to be fighting for the environment.
Point Reyes National Seashore lies on the far western edge of Marin County. West Marin is a land of rolling hills stitched with creek-bottom redwood groves and ridge tops of live oak and pine. Dairies and cattle ranches — nearly all of them organic — dot the scenery, and the older families, the ones that have been there for generations, are mostly involved in agriculture or fishing. The rest of the local economy is geared toward serving the tourists — millionaire millennials up from Silicon Valley, or the hordes of Lance Armstrong wannabes who pack the country roads on Saturdays. A lot of artists and writers live in the area, many of them back-to-the-land types who settled there in the sixties or seventies. People in West Marin like their food local and chemical-free, they donate to the community radio station, they think of themselves as bighearted and open-minded. Most everyone does yoga.
So it was something of a shock to the area's social ecosystem when, in 2005, the fate of the oyster farm began to tear the community apart. Since the 1970s, the oyster operation on Drake's Estero had been managed (quite badly, most locals agreed) as Johnson's Oyster Farm. Then Kevin Lunny, the scion of a longtime ranching family, bought out Johnson, poured a bunch of money into the place, rebranded it as Drakes Bay Oyster Company, and announced his intention to stay as long as possible. That's when the trouble started.
In 1972, Johnson had sold his property to the National Park Service, which gave him a forty-year lease to continue operating. In 1976, the US Congress designated the estuary at the heart of the seashore as a "potential wilderness area" — meaning that when the lease expired in 2012, the estuary would receive full federal wilderness protection. Kevin Lunny's announcement that he wanted to keep raising oysters in the middle of the national park beyond the lease expiration threw the plan into doubt. The battle lines were drawn: Should the oyster farm stay, or should it go?
Folks in West Marin are an opinionated bunch, and soon enough debates about the oyster farm dominated local conversations. It was all but impossible to go into The Western, the saloon in Point Reyes Station, and not hear talk about the oyster farm. Red-hot exchanges erupted in the pages of the Point Reyes Light and the Marin Independent Journal.
At first, each side made the predictable appeals to science. "Science can be wrong and should be subjected to rigid peer review, but it is never irrelevant," wrote one oyster farm defender. "Those who seek to make it so, or, worse, attempt to suppress it from the record, are either losing a battle where science is proving them wrong, or they are simply intellectual cowards unwilling to sit down and deliberate with someone who has probably studied the situation more." An oyster farm opponent countered: "There are a few scientists who claim oysters are needed for the Drakes Bay ecosystem to function, essentially stating that the ecosystem wouldn't or couldn't function in a pristine state without human intervention. I would respectfully recommend that these individuals review a college-level ecology textbook to see the flaws in their claims." The Oracle of Science is nothing if not cryptic; each side could pick their preferred studies and read them as they liked.
The situation turned nasty. There were accusations of "Taliban-style zealotry." Neighbors stopped greeting each other at the post office. People were disinvited from birthday parties. "The viciousness is beyond anything I have experienced in our community," a reader of the Point Reyes Light complained. "The personal attacks, the politics of personal destruction, the career-ending attacks on scientists — frankly, it's disgraceful," Amy Trainer, an oyster farm opponent (or wilderness proponent, take your pick), told me.
Those, like Trainer, who were opposed to renewing the oyster farm's lease made a classic preservationist argument: the estuary is a special place that deserves the highest protections. Also, they said, a deal is a deal. The National Park Service had given the oyster farm a good forty years to stay in business and now, under the terms of the agreement, it was time to restore the estuary to a condition resembling how it had looked for millennia. Besides, the oyster opponents said, the aquaculture wasn't really all that sustainable. Not with its plastic tubing for cultivating nonnative oysters and clams, not with its motorboats disturbing birds and beasts.
A lot of the oyster farm's backers had solid environmental credentials themselves — people like farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters and Peter Gleick, a leading climate change scientist. They saw the situation differently. To them, the operation represented the ideal of the green economy. Here was a local business, growing local food, and in a way that had a relatively small ecological footprint. Those harbor seals supposedly so inconvenienced by the oyster farm? The farm's defenders liked to point out that they're called harbor seals for a reason — they don't mind a bit of human presence. According to its defenders, the oyster farm was an example of how humans could coexist with wild nature. We could have our wilderness and eat it, too.
"There are some parts of Point Reyes Seashore that are considered wilderness, and appropriately so," Phyllis Faber, a vocal oyster farm defender and longtime Marin resident who has been active in environmental causes for more than forty years, told me. "Some parts of the environmental community, they want the whole place to be wilderness. It's an impossible yearning."
We were sitting in Faber's home, a townhouse in a retirement community that's perched near a wetland called Pickleweed Inlet, one of the San Francisco Bay's hundreds of small fingers. Faber, white-haired and energetic, served me tea. Outside the window I could spot scores of birds puttering about in the saltwater marsh. "I don't think they know what they're talking about," she said. "The environmental community, it's wishful thinking on their part, to think this is wilderness. They have a fantasy of what they would like. It isn't very realistic."
This from a woman who was one of the first members of California's Coastal Commission, a person who describes herself as a great bird lover, who for years edited Fremontia, the magazine of the California Native Plant Society. For such an ardent nature-lover, like many other nature-lovers, to come out against wilderness protection — well, it was bewildering.
As parochial as it seemed at times — a battle royal over bivalves! — the oyster farm controversy had cast into sharp relief some of the most difficult questions about our relationship with Earth. What do we expect from wild nature? Wilderness on a pedestal? Lands that we garden and tend? Or something in between?
Does wilderness have to mean "pristine"? How can we include history and memory in our idea of wilderness? Where do we draw the line between human actions that are beneficial and those that are harmful?
And the biggest question of all: with the human insignia everywhere, is there any place or any thing remaining that is really, truly wild?
* * *
Full disclosure: Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for close to twenty years, and during that time I've explored all the corners of the park. Dozens of times I've climbed up and over Inverness Ridge, where thick forests of Douglas fir trees catch the morning fog to make their own rainwater. I've hiked the aptly named Muddy Hollow trail in the middle of winter, when the paths are thick and soggy. I've covered all sides of the estuary at the center of the park, counting the dunlins in the mudflats and the loons in the shallows. One of my favorite spots is Abbot's Lagoon. There's a touch of everything in the scene: a freshwater pond fringed with tule reeds; a saltwater estuary usually busy with shorebirds; pastureland; and the smash of the surf just beyond the sand dunes.
Point Reyes is a triangle-shaped peninsula jutting into the Pacific Ocean that, from the air, looks as if the coastline is giving a giant hang loose sign. The pinkie tip at the north end is Tomales Point, the thumb at the south end is Chimney Rock, and in between is a fifteen-mile-long knuckled stretch of beaches and cliffs. A large, claw-shaped estuary lies in the middle. This is Drake's Estero, named after the English swashbuckler Sir Francis Drake, who, in the summer of 1579, beached his ship, the Golden Hind, there for repairs.
"A faire and good Baye," Drake called the place, which he christened Nova Albion — "New England." The tall white bluffs above what is now called Limantour Beach do, in a way, resemble the Cliffs of Dover. The peninsula's interior — fog-shrouded, all but treeless — also has a certain English vibe. Arriving as he did in the dense summer fog, it was easy for Drake not to have spotted the opening of the Golden Gate, just miles away. Whether the native people Drake encountered and traded with, the Miwok, tried to tell him of the vast bay to the south is unclear. In any case, he just barely missed "discovering" one of the greatest natural harbors on the planet.
Today, one of the most amazing things about Point Reyes is its proximity to civilization. It can take as little as an hour to get from the middle of San Francisco to a trailhead. In the long light of summer I can spend a full day in the city, cross the Golden Gate Bridge at five o'clock, be hiking through the shoreline grasses by six, and arrive at Coast Camp at dusk, where, if I am lucky and the visibility is clear, I can watch Venus emerge over the silhouette of the Farallon Islands. It's a journey into another world, made in the space of an evening.
This closeness to civilization — which now seems a virtue — was once a liability. In the boom years after the Second World War, the suburbs of San Francisco began to encroach on what had long been a farming community. Real estate interests were carving roads for subdivisions into the headland overlooking Limantour Beach. Logging was under way amid the moss-cloaked fir and bishop pine of Inverness Ridge. People feared the peninsula's charms would be lost to development.
Conservationists, led by the Sierra Club's David Brower, launched a campaign to stop the bulldozers. They won. In 1962, Congress passed and President Kennedy signed a bill "to save and preserve, for purposes of public recreation, benefit, and inspiration, a portion of the diminishing seashore of the United States that remains undeveloped."
The creation of Point Reyes National Seashore was one part of a larger burst of conservation activity that occurred in the mid-twentieth century. In the years following the Second World War, many Americans were starting to feel an uncomfortable sense of being hemmed in. The farms and fields they had grown up with were turning into sprawling suburbs. The country's population had just surpassed 100 million, making some people feel they were being overcrowded. The automobile was reshaping the country as the Interstate Highway System shrank distance, making once-inaccessible places all too close. Because of "the brutalizing pressure of metropolitan civilization," one group of conservationists declared, it was essential to keep some lands "primeval" and "virgin ... free from the sights and sounds of mechanization." By the 1950s, an increasingly well-organized and focused citizens' movement was demanding that the remaining wild places be preserved.
The result was a string of conservation victories unprecedented since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and unmatched to this day. In the space of a decade, the Sierra Club's Brower — assisted by powerful allies such as Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady — protected millions of acres of land. During Udall's tenure, the National Park Service expanded to include Canyonlands National Park in Utah, North Cascades National Park in Washington, California's Redwood National Park, and Cape Cod National Seashore, plus six national monuments, nine recreation areas, and fifty-six wildlife refuges. Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act, which formalized the Appalachian Trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine.
One of the major achievements of the time was the passage, in 1964, of the Wilderness Act, which ranks among the signature accomplishments of the American environmental movement. Howard Zanisher, then-president of The Wilderness Society, wrote the opening sections of the Wilderness Act. The legislation is remarkable for a quiet poetry that is so rare in lawmaking. The act says, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
Those words represent a fundamentally radical and history-breaking change of mind. Here was a nation founded upon an antagonism against the wild — the English Puritans at Moment One declaring a war against "the howling wilderness" — that had come to revere wilderness as something fundamental to its character. A country that by 1964 had gone so far as to codify in law a definition of wilderness as a place that would not be subjugated by human will. The pivot from fearing the wilderness to loving the wild is one of Americans' most important contributions to human thought. Like the national parks system that preceded it (famously, "America's Best Idea"), the Wilderness Act reversed centuries of thinking regarding how humans are supposed to treat the rest of creation. It was a truly original idea, this notion that the land might have its own interests apart from ours.
But the Wilderness Act went much further than the national park ideal. To many mid-twentieth-century conservationists, the creation of national parks wasn't enough to protect the essential character of wilderness. In the fifties and sixties, the park service was dominated by a kind of Disneyland mentality. "Industrial tourism" is how Edward Abbey described what he saw happening in Utah's red-rock country. To park officials of the time, a paved path was better than a dirt trail, a fully equipped cafeteria preferable to a backcountry hut. The parks were being designed mostly to make everything automobile accessible. Still, some people wanted something different. They wanted a guarantee that a few places would be permanently protected from the engine and the asphalt.
One of the most eloquent appeals for the Wilderness Act came from Wallace Stegner, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author. In a 1960 letter to a government official (later published in the Washington Post), Stegner made a forceful case for wilderness as a spiritual tonic, a psychological retreat, and a civic good. "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed. The reminder and reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it." In a jibe at the technocratic thinking of postwar government and business elites, he argued that simply the idea of wilderness — knowing that someplace remains uninhabited and "only a few people every year will go into it" — has a transcendent value. "Being an intangible and spiritual resource, [wilderness] will seem mystical to the practical-minded — but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them." In a now oft-quoted line, Stegner concluded that wilderness is "the geography of hope."
Excerpted from Satellites in the High Country by Jason Mark. Copyright © 2015 Jason Mark. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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