Her battle for small agriculture

David Briggs
Scientist, conservationist and publisher Phyllis Faber sees a brewing disaster for sustainable local agriculture in the closure of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.
03/14/2013

When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar made a “fact-finding” trip to Drakes Estero late last November, Phyllis Faber unsuccessfully attempted to join a meeting between him and a group of environmentalists at Point Reyes National Seashore headquarters. A series of photographs taken at the entrance to the Red Barn show the diminutive but fearless Ms. Faber surrounded by four looming, uniformed and well-armed National Park Service officers who recognized her by name but barred her from the meeting. It is not surprising that she was excluded. No one was allowed to attend who spoke in defense of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.

No one at the table had better credentials than Ms. Faber as a professional environmentalist. None of them has done more to protect the rural environment of West Marin than she has. And no one contributed the information and point of view that she was prepared to offer.

A brief look at some, but by no means all, of Ms. Faber’s major accomplishments demonstrates how fiercely she has fought to protect the California coast—especially West Marin’s part of it. She was the Marin County co-chair of the campaign to enact Proposition 20, the landmark initiative that established the California Coastal Commission in 1972. State Senator Peter Behr appointed her to the North Central Coastal Commission where she served for eight years, two as the chair. She was a co-founder of the Environmental Forum of Marin, and, along with Ellen Straus, she formed the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), and served on its board of directors. For over 20 years, she has been a member of the board of the California Planning and Conservation League, a leading statewide environmental lobbying and research group.

On top of all this, she has managed to maintain a professional career as a teacher and author of important environmental impact reports. Add to that her publishing activities. For over a decade she has been the series editor of the Natural History Guides Series for the University of California Press, and recently her own publishing company released An Island in Time, John Hart’s history of the Point Reyes Peninsula and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

What could she possibly have to say to Secretary Salazar or anyone else about the inter-relation of wilderness, agriculture and aquaculture in West Marin? It would seem a great deal. Her most recent salvoes took the form of testimony on behalf of oyster farm owner Kevin Lunny at coastal commission hearings and an op-ed in The Marin Independent Journal, in which she offered a withering condemnation of the commission’s cease and desist order and other actions against the oyster farm.

Ms. Faber hoped that the coastal commissioners would be interested in what she had to say because of her own experience as one of them. Instead, she later reported, they ignored her observations about commission policies that support aquaculture and visitor access to the coast and disregarded the Marin County Local Coastal Program. To the contrary, the commissioners, including County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, unanimously approved cease and desist and restoration orders. Among other things, the commission rejected the submissions by Mr. Lunny’s attorney, criticized Mr. Lunny for six picnic tables he brought to the site—which they labeled development—and castigated Mr. Lunny for repairing an electric line for which he had a county permit.

Ms. Faber worries about the cumulative effects of the simultaneous actions by the park service and coastal commission against the oyster farm. Selflessly, she says that, “they are worse than my troubles.” Among the troubles she is prepared to discount is losing her Mill Valley home in a recent fire that destroyed the computer that contained her scientific and professional records. She has put those difficulties aside to soldier on in behalf of the Lunny family and other West Marin ranchers.

Ms. Faber fears that if Mr. Lunny is forced to close—and remove 47, OOO feet of oyster racks and eradicate the pervasive tunicate in the estero, per the coastal commission restoration order—the best thing may be for him to declare bankruptcy. And she believes removing the invasive didemnum, which most scientists agree is harmless and which inhabits marine areas along the entire California coast, would be impossible, anyway. The effect of Mr. Lunny losing the farm could have a devastating effect on his extended family, she says, including his parents, who are also ranchers. Furthermore, other ranchers in the seashore are watching to see what transpires, and if the Lunny’s are unable to survive, others may decide to end their operations.

The cumulative impact will be significant for agriculture outside of the park. Ms. Faber points out that the seashore ranches represent 22 to 23 percent of Marin’s agriculture. “The infrastructure for agriculture is wobbly as it is. The milk trucks, the repair people, and so on,” she says. “I think the loss of that acreage in the park will severely affect Marin’s agriculture.”

Ms. Faber feels that even the protections offered by MALT may not be adequate for ranchers outside the park. The land trust has protected the land, and as a result “the ownership of the land is secure. You don’t have developers nipping at your heels to buy your land and get you off….” she explained. But “it certainly has not protected agriculture. Whether these guys make enough to stay on the land is an entirely different matter. So [the seashore ranches] going out of business leaves [Marin] agriculture in a very threatened place.”

If this happens, she says, “MALT [would have] done a disservice.”

As her history demonstrates, Ms. Faber is a problem-solver by nature. Nevertheless, she does not have a comprehensive solution for the challenges facing the Lunny’s or agriculture in the seashore or in the rest of West Marin.

The upcoming Geography of Hope Conference, which takes place this weekend in Point Reyes Station, will offer an opportunity for public discussion about the relationship of wilderness preservation and food production in West Marin and beyond. The theme is “Igniting the Green Fire: Finding Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.” Conference organizers have promised to “examine Leopold’s legacy as a foundation for hope and for future conservation ideas and action in working landscapes, wilderness areas, forests, farms and ranches.”

Ms. Faber plans to attend and to contribute her thoughts. An open exchange of ideas may generate solutions to the problems this community faces.

This dilemma is not unique to Marin County; there are challenges to food production throughout California and the rest of the country. In Ms. Faber’s view, “This nation has been strong and successful because we have always been food successful, food independent. Nations that cannot feed themselves don’t survive.” Marin can provide a laboratory to demonstrate how the country can continue to be “food successful.” Ms. Faber is certain to continue her work as an environmental scientist in this laboratory.