When oysters tore liberals apart: Inside the war between sustainable farmers & wilderness advocates

Summer Brennan on science, wilderness and the small oyster farm that became the center of a national debate

Published August 16, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Ted S. Warren)
(AP/Ted S. Warren)

The most controversial oysters you probably never heard of were harvested in California's Drakes Estero from the 1930s up until December 2014, when after years of contentious litigation that eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the National Park Service prevailed in reclaiming the estuary as wilderness.

Whether the government had the authority to shut down the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, whether an area could be open to certain forms of agriculture and still be called "wild," and what "wilderness" even means, anyway, are all questions explored in "The Oyster War," reporter Summer Brennan's account of the very public, often fraught battle, which grew to encompass environmentalists, local food activists, scientists, politicians, federal officials and West Marin County citizens. The lines were anything but clear-cut: the entire ruckus was, in Brennan's words, "a strange political dispute in that both sides seemed to be liberal Democrats -- liberal Democrats who supported organic sustainable farming on the one side, and liberal Democrats who supported wilderness on the other."

Salon spoke with Brennan about how she came to be embroiled in the so-called oyster war, and about the work of sorting through historic accounts, legal documents, scientific reports, strongly held opinions and evidence of misdoings on both sides of the debate to arrive at her version of the story, and about the bigger questions that we, as a society, are still struggling to answer. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you first encounter this story as a reporter?

The main story about the oyster farm hadn't crossed my radar until early 2012, when I pitched a freelance article to my hometown newspaper, the Point Reyes Light. The editor suggested that maybe I'd like to be a full-time reporter, and that's when I found out about the conflict. It was the big story for the paper at the time, and had been and would be for a little while more. And the first story I was asked to write was a short news item that was related to that. So I plunged in right away.

In the book you mention it was impossible to write even that first story without delving into this massive controversy.

Oh yeah, it was just an 800-word, short thing, and actually I wasn't even out in California yet -- I was in the process of moving. One of the people I interviewed over the phone sent me hundreds of pages of documents and all kinds of things, and I was like, okay, this is a big story. But at the time, and for that first story, especially, I had to rely on the newspaper's editor to guide where she wanted the story to go. It wasn't really an investigation, it was just reporting on what was being said by the people involved.

It was fascinating to see you step back and try to approach the story, for the book, from a somewhat neutral position -- or at least, giving fair say to both sides -- especially when people on both sides felt so passionately about it, and didn't seem likely to change their minds. How much of a challenge was that for you?

It was hard, in some ways, and in some ways not. I think it's in my nature to be curious about multiple vantage points to an issue. Even in my own life, when I'm encountering adversaries of some kind, whether it's in work or personally, I do tend to think, "Okay, well what's the other side of this?" But I think the hardest part about it was being in the community, where it was common for people to be very vocal about supporting one side or the other. So to kind of withhold that allegiance, to be clear that I was going to at least attempt to talk to everybody, I think made some people nervous.

I just kept having to check in with myself about it. And there was so much information, on either side, so it is kind of hard to sift through; it's easier to say, "I trust this and this person, and they think this about it, so I'm going to go with what they have to say" -- whether that person is someone you know who works for the park, or a writer that you like such as Michael Pollan, or your neighbor. Not to say that plenty of people didn't themselves investigate it, but I think there's something attractive about that. So I just kept trying to question my own beliefs about it, and even -- as I say in the book -- at the very end, I had moments of thinking, "Wait, am I getting this right? Is there some piece that I'm missing that is totally covering my view of things?" I tried to be transparent about that part, too.

One of the things that really stood out to me was the role that science and scientific studies played in the debate over the oyster farm. Science never really had the final word: people would use research, they would distort it to promote their own agendas -- it reminds me of a lot of other environmental debates we're having, like fracking, or the Keystone pipeline. What did this tell you about the way we use science to these ends? Do you think we generally need to step back and take all findings like these with perhaps a few more grains of salt?

It's such an interesting question, and obviously the use of scientific evidence is and has been immensely helpful and beneficial for putting in stronger protections for people, the environment, or what have you. But not all scientific studies are created equal, and there are a lot of things that are not necessarily strong. In this story, there was also a misunderstanding about the different types of scientific reports that get put out: there are reports that have primary research and new data that's being reported, and then there's a different kind, which is mostly what was used for this story, which were based on findings elsewhere that were being extrapolated to fit a different purpose. That's a common practice that happens all the time, and I think it was confusing for people. So then the question just becomes whether the other studies being referenced are actually representational or not; there was an issue with one of the scientific reports in the book where the readings that they used as a stand-in for the sounds made by oyster boats were more in line with the sounds made by a jet-ski. People were very upset about that.

And so when people are talking about falsifying science, that's not really what it is. It's an evolving thing. Somewhere in the book I have the quote by Richard Feynman: "The scientist is never certain." Of course there are things that we know with pretty absolute certainty to be true because of scientific research, but there's a plasticity to a lot of these types of things, too.

Getting into some of the issues that this case specifically touched upon, I was wondering if you could speak to this idea of wilderness, and what we count as being "wild."

That idea is fascinating to me, and was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to write this book, because it seemed so unclear, was this amorphous idea that had very different meanings to different people at different times, as well as different applications.

In the book, there are at least two types of wilderness that can be referenced -- probably three. One is "legal wilderness": a legal designation of a wilderness area. And even in that, there's wiggle room for what it can mean. It doesn't allow roads or mechanized vehicles of any kind, but sometimes exceptions are made, such as for tourist services.

Then there's what people think of as wilderness, and a lot of those attributes are not things that are part of the legal designation. I was having a conversation with someone, and they were talking about how a wilderness area needs to be remote, and should be a certain number of miles from a major metropolitan area, or from anything you might think of that could be called "civilization," and how it shouldn't haven't sound or light pollution of any kind. I've even heard people say they think there shouldn't be flight paths over it, which is hard to find nowadays, or there should be no sign of man at all. These are very extreme ideas of what wilderness means.

Then there are people who are somewhere in between. The phrasing in the Wilderness Act is, "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

So it's a flexible idea, and it's an idea that's in flux, especially as "the wilderness" comes to mean something very different: it used to be the rule, and now it's the exception. Our older ideas of wilderness were a bit outdated -- they didn't account for indigenous people's voices and contributions or really, even, existence within those landscapes, so I think that we do need a re-evaluation of what that means practically, for preservation.

You went and got the Native American perspective on this question, which hadn't previously been covered much. What did that contribute to the conversation?

When I spoke with the chairman of the Graton Rancheria Indians, he said nobody had contacted him about it. I did actually find a letter that the park had sent to his tribal committee, so I guess there at least were attempts to speak with them. But anyway, like what I was saying about ideas of wilderness, it was a really eye-opening moment for me to talk to him about his tribal roots and the role that those people had played in the area for thousands of years. He said, "This wasn't a wilderness, this is where we lived, this was our home. It's more of a garden." And he talked about how even if they weren't practicing agriculture, they were still...

You write about how there's a false dichotomy between wild and cultivated landscapes -- does this play into that idea?

Absolutely, and maybe there's more of a spectrum than we think. Of course the words are antonyms, so you do have to be careful there -- you can also go too far and say, "Oh, well, it can still be wild and we can have a farm there." And I think that cultivated land and wild land have things to learn from each other, in terms of how we manage both of them. Wild places still exist, but there aren't so many left on Earth that we haven't put our fingerprints on in some way. Especially in America, there aren't many places that don't require some degree of management, just because we have issues with invasive plants and animals. There's an aspect of cultivation that has found its way into our understanding and management of wilderness. And likewise, there's a lot to be learned about the way wild systems work and function and flourish that can be applied to agriculture. People are seeing the need to avoid monoculture and to cut down on pesticide loads, for example.

Going beyond this very small community with strong stakes and opinions about the oyster war, what are you hoping other readers take away from the story, and seeing how it all played out?

I would hope they'd be drawn into the story for the reasons I was. I came to care about the people that were involved, and I was swept up in their passion about whatever it was they were passionate about, be it their agriculture practice or saving the environment. I hope that it can provide a window into both of those worlds. And I think some of the more personalized stories may change perceptions: when you talk about a government scientist, for example, it's maybe easy to villainize them a little. But then when you meet them and spend time with them and hear about their work, it's a bit of a different experience.

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Agriculture Conservation Food Oysters Wilderness