The phrase “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” was all over west Marin County in 2013. Hundreds of hand-painted signs were posted in shop and residential windows, along roads, on bulletin boards, and in and around Point Reyes, a rural coastal enclave 30 miles north of San Francisco. Spearheaded by west Marin’s Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture, the “Save Our Oyster Farm” campaign gave voice to neighbors and local organizations who wanted the family-owned farm in Drake’s Estero to remain open, at its historic location inside the boundaries of the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Back then, the farm accounted for nearly 40 percent of California’s oyster production, and operated the last oyster cannery in the state. Notwithstanding legal proceedings litigated by a Koch Brothers-backed attorney, and support from Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the National Park Service did not extend the farm’s 40-year lease, and Drakes Bay Oyster Company closed in late 2014.
Journalist Summer Brennan stumbled onto the Drakes Bay Oyster Company fracas after being hired as a staff writer for the Point Reyes Light, a nearby local paper, in 2012. In short order, Brennan, a Point Reyes native who now lives in New York, was embroiled in the controversy, working late nights to discern fact from fiction, and clumsy science from sound policy.
“I found myself wedged between the National Park Service, wilderness advocates, and their defenders on one hand, and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, the local agriculture, community and their supporters on the other . . .” she writes in her new book “The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America.”
Written in a style reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit — the San Francisco environmental writer with a keen ability for melding the poetic and the political — “The Oyster War” makes for a fast-paced and dramatic read about a messy situation with no clear-cut “bad guy.”
Geographically, the story’s action takes place on a tiny plot of land — Drakes Estero — in a semi-isolated, rural community in California. Still, it manages to raise questions of interest to anyone concerned with the erosion of wilderness in the U.S. (especially in favor of private business) and whether the natural world should be preserved despite the prospect of jobs and agricultural land.
Additionally fascinating is how an imported farmed food (in this case, Japanese oysters, which were renamed “Pacific” oysters during WWII) became an integral component of the Bay Area foodshed, to the point of being mistaken for, and even defended as, a wild and sustainable food.
The story began, in part, in early 1970, when Richard Nixon signed a bill approving funds for the National Park Service to purchase thousands of acres of land in Point Reyes — the future Point Reyes National Seashore — which included land managed by family-owned dairy and cattle ranches. The legislation was the fruit of a landmark collaboration between environmental activists, Point Reyes community members, and agricultural interests—all united in the desire to protect Point Reyes from rampant commercial development.
An oyster farm had also been established there in the 1930s; it was sold to Charlie and Makiko Johnson in 1957. In 1972, NPS purchased 71,028-acres of pristine wilderness directly north of San Francisco, on the stipulation that they would lease the land in the “pastoral zone” back to the families that had farmed it for generations. Johnson’s Oyster Company, as it was known at the time, was the only farm to receive a 40-year Reservation of Use and Occupancy, unlike the five to 10 year renewable leases given to the ranchers.