"Oyster War" book sides with park, through a narrative lens

08/27/2015

In a book chronicling the years-long controversy over Drakes Bay Oyster Company published earlier this month, author Summer Brennan—a former Light reporter raised in West Marin—concludes that the federal government made the right call when it forced the farm’s closure in 2012. 

“I say that I have tried to stay neutral, but when presented with the facts, it’s hard not to come to a conclusion,” she wrote in the prologue. “I’ll let you decide for yourself. To those who have already taken a side, from you I would urge patience. Basically: Hear me out.”

“The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America,” published by the Berkeley-based Counterpoint Press, is meant for a broad audience. It offers lyrical, moving meditations on wilderness and makes some important points about the history of oyster farming and other issues. Yet the book also makes notable errors and omissions. Some could be seen as minor, but others feel more central to the story.

For this article, Ms. Brennan, who worked at this newspaper for five months in 2012, declined to comment on anything but her opening scene, which describes a boat tour she took of the oyster farm that year. She wrote that one of her guides, dubbed Oscar, was fired for it. Kevin Lunny, the owner of the farm, has asserted that his former employee quit. (Mr. Lunny connected the Light with the man he said is the real Oscar, who, reached by phone, also said he quit.) Asked about Mr. Lunny’s claim, Ms. Brennan stood by her story, saying she had been in regular contact with Oscar and that he knew about his inclusion in her book.

The author was denied interviews with key players, such as Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. Ms. Brennan did not interview leading park critic Corey Goodman, he said, though she had previously interviewed him for stories written for this newspaper. She also stated in the book that Mr. Lunny stopped responding to her emails two years ago; he told the Light he agreed to meet with his lawyer present and questions sent in advance.

Despite having no bearing on the central question of the book, easily verifiable errors involving the Light don’t generate a sense of confidence in the author’s reliability. Chapter 12 claims the paper’s business status as a low-profit limited liability company was never approved, but it was, by the Vermont Secretary of State, in April 2010. Ms. Brennan also erroneously reports her salary as almost 25 percent less than she was paid. 

The book also alleges that Mr. Goodman was “by far the largest donor” to Marin Media Institute, the nonprofit that facilitated the purchase of the newspaper in 2010. But he was one of five donors in 2010 who each contributed $50,000, according to the nonprofit’s chair, Mark Dowie.

Although the book ultimately concludes that policy issues trumped scientific ones in the battle over Drakes Bay, it does touch on the thorny environmental questions and the reports they generated. Though oyster advocates have criticized the book, not all of her examples antagonize the farm; for instance, she references the federal Marine Mammal Commission’s finding that human visitors (and birds) were more likely to disturb seals than were oyster boats. 

But other issues around the data on seal disturbances sometimes feel glossed over or misunderstood. The book downplays public outcry over the discovery of hidden cameras that photographed oyster activities, while sidestepping that the park did not disclose the existence of the images during the Marine Mammal Commission’s investigation. 

The book also characterizes a comprehensive National Academy of Sciences review as “fatally flawed” on the basis that it assumed the historic existence of native oysters. 

“The Oyster War” asserts that historical records and ethnographic literature show there were no oysters in Drakes Estero—or in greater the Bay Area—when Europeans arrived. Oyster magnate John Morgan, she wrote, couldn’t find them in San Francisco Bay or Tomales Bay. The assertion is also based in part on a 2011 Sonoma State study, commissioned by the federal government, of two middens near Drakes Estero. She stresses that it found only nine Olympia oysters in one midden, carbon-dated to between 220 B.C. and 800 A.D. Yet the study extracted samples from the middens rather than undertaking a complete survey, and those nine shells comprised 26 percent of the shells in that midden. Still, the report postulated that the estero didn’t support a significant oyster population. Instead, it concluded that the shells likely came from Tomales Bay or elsewhere through trade. 

Despite its compelling story and research into the history of the seashore and wilderness, in places “The Oyster War” appears inaccurate or incomplete in its description.

The book asserts that the government initially gave ranchers short-term leases of five or 10 years, while the oyster farm was granted a 40-year reservation of use and occupancy (with the possibility, though not the guarantee, of renewal). 

Yet almost all the ranchers received reservations of use and occupancy, according to multiple sources including a 1994 study by then-park historian Dewey Livingston and a 2007 history of the seashore commissioned by the park service. Both Mr. Livingston and Laura Watt, a professor at Sonoma State University working on a book about the history of the seashore’s management, both adamantly stated that Ms. Brennan’s description is erroneous. (It is unclear where she obtained her information, as she cites the sources above in her book.)

Another puzzling omission is that of a public letter supporting the farm written in 2011 by Representatives John Burton and Pete McCloskey, who sponsored the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, as well as former state legislator Bill Bagley of California.

Ms. Brennan does not mention Rep. John Burton at all, yet she devotes an entire chapter to his brother, Senator Phillip Burton, a fierce park advocate. 

Near the end of the book, Ms. Brennan writes that during the original 1976 committee hearings for Point Reyes Wilderness opinions varied on whether the oyster farm was compatible with wilderness, and she presents both sides as roughly equal. Ms. Brennan also refers to key legislative language voiced by wilderness supporters, calling for the government to “steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status.” 

But Ms. Watt described the 1976 hearings differently. Discussion was limited to whether the state’s reserved fishing rights in Drakes Estero were an impediment to the wilderness designation, she said. One senator from Wyoming expressed concern that the sum total of exemptions and nonconforming eroded wilderness designation, but not really any specific one.

The book also focuses on the fact that the author could find no documentation that the park service ever told Mr. Lunny he could remain past 2012, referring to documents to the contrary. Mr. Lunny has asserted publically that then-superintendent Don Neubacher said it would “be a dream” if he bought the farm. But he told the Light that he also does not think there was documentation about a promise of remaining.

Ultimately, “The Oyster War” finds the policy issues around wilderness to be perhaps the most important factor, arguing that it’s not a coincidence that a conservative organization supported the cause. She adds, “I do not see how a government solicitor could recommend renewing the lease of a commercial operation inside wilderness when that lease was set to expire.”

The book is not meant as a scholarly work. Understandably, Ms. Brennan had to choose what to include and what to leave out. Not an easy task, especially when it comes to Drakes Bay. Is there any right conclusion? Probably not. And at times she evinces sympathy for Mr. Lunny, even if it wore away over time. But the story, told through her eyes, isn’t the only story that could be told. 

 

Beau Evans contributed reporting to this article.