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Why There's a Firestorm Surrounding This Book About an Oyster Company

Drakes Bay Oyster Company and the National Parks Service have been in a political battle since 2012, but journalist Summer Brennan’s new book on the subject, The Oyster War, is just as controversial as the feud itself.

by Abby Carney
Aug 21 2015, 10:25pm

Photo via Flickr userPaul Wilkinson

Perhaps you're not familiar with the 2012 political feud between the Drakes Bay Oyster Company and The National Parks Service. It made national news and nearly reached the ears of the Supreme Court. And if the small family-owned oyster farm in California had won its case, it would have set a dangerous precedent for overruling the protection of designated wilderness areas against private enterprises. A protection granted to the farm's land under the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act to be enacted in 2012, when the farm's lease expired.

READ MORE: Thousands of California Oysters Will Die in a Dump

But you might have noticed journalist Summer Brennan's newly released and highly-controversial book, appropriately titled, The Oyster War. It's made its rounds onto a few notable "must read" lists. Research-heavy yet lyrical, the book recounts her move back to her hometown in 2012 to work as a staff reporter at the local paper, The Point Reyes Light, during the height of the contentious land dispute.

Summer relinquishes her stance as a neutral party, dives deep into the area's history, and gets to the sandy bottom of the costly case still pitting neighbors against each other. We caught up with Summer during her book's official launch to get a gauge on what's been going on in Point Reyes since the DBOC lost their case, reabsorbing their farm by the National Park Service as a designated wilderness area, resulting in thousands of oysters being dumped into a landfill.

MUNCHIES: How would you describe the controversy over the farm's closure? Summer Brennan: An oyster farm was being forced to close down at the end of its 40-year lease inside a national park to make way for a wilderness area that had been designated there 36 years prior. But the oyster farm's owner did not want to go. Those in the "pro-oyster" camp tended to believe that there had been a bait-and-switch somewhere and that the National Park Service had committed scientific misconduct in its attempts to falsely show that the oyster farm was harmful to the estuary. Those on the "pro-wilderness" side argued that there had been no bait-and-switch, that the farm owners were clearly told they'd have to pack it up in 2012, and that attempting to prove good environmental stewardship was nothing but a strawman argument to distract from what was ultimately a decision based on policy, not science.

What motivated you to write this book? Both sides were so incredibly entrenched and passionate about it. I've rarely encountered that outside of an actual armed conflict and I wanted to know what was both motivating it and stoking the flames. I expected there was more going on for people than just oysters or a particular wilderness area and I think I was right. I was also drawn to the story because I did not understand who was in the right. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors.

In one of the opening scenes of the book, you describe going out on a boat with two of the farm's workers to toss oysters in the water. What was that process about? There needs to be shallow water and hard bottoms for the oysters to adhere to the bottom, and when the tides come in and out, they are sometimes uncovered so it needs that back and forth flow. Drakes Estero doesn't have a hard bottom—it's soft bottom bay. You can't just put the oysters on the bottom to grow or they'll sink into the mud and die, so they put them in these mesh bags which kept them from sinking.

It's been a full year since the final decision was made. What's happened between the ruling and finishing your book? What are things like in Point Reyes now? Apparently with the publication of my book, everything has kind of flared anew this week. But at the time of finishing my book, the DBOC announced that what they were going to open a family restaurant in addition to their portfolio of businesses, which include a composting business, a cattle ranch with grass-fed beef cattle which they've had since the forties, and a mining quarry. Although I don't know what's going on with the restaurant now. They had a big booth for DBOC right at the entrance to the Marin County Fair this July, and I was there and saw it. They don't exist anymore, and I was like, how do they have a Drakes Bay Oyster Company booth? They'd been working as distributors of oysters from other places and I found out recently that they are actually about to open a new oyster farm. But they won't tell me where.

So it's still TBD? Exactly.

How did the community react? It's mixed. Some people are like, "I still do not want to discuss it." Sometimes you can lose just as many friends if not more just by not choosing to take a side. People are like, "How could you not be on my side?" And I'm like, "I'm not on anyone's side." There's people who thought the decision was absolutely fair and were very pleased with it, and there were people who just think it's the worst miscarriage of justice they've ever seen.

So it sounds like it's still split down the middle? Just as vitriolic and ugly. I just want to say that I love oyster farms and oyster farmers, and disagreeing with what an oyster farm does doesn't have anything to do with how I think of oysters or oyster farmers. I love them.

A case like this is clearly not as simplistic as farm versus environmentalists. How can the laymen see beyond what they're told about these issues? This whole thing was like a master class in political spin. I think the story was hijacked by people with larger agendas and more power and money than these cattle ranchers-turned-oyster farmers quite knew how to handle. I think that to a large extent, the layman is at the mercy of the media, and our democracy is only as strong as the integrity of our press corps. That is why I think standing up to bullying elites as a journalist is so important.

Now that you've finished this oyster chapter—so to speak—will you continue to pursue similar topics? I actually have two books in the works, one definite and one likely. The definite one concerns an art mystery but has to remain top secret at the moment. The other would actually bring me right back to oysters. The full story of the rise and fall of the West Coast oyster empire of the 19th century has never been told, although we get a glimpse of it in The Oyster War. I want to dig in and tell the full, crazy story.

So what does it mean to be pure/wild? That issue of what's wild and what's not wild, I think it is really about what we're gonna protect and not protect. This purity issue that came up—because one of the arguments for not protecting the area—was that, "Well it's not really pure." They were like, "There's been farming there, so it can't be a wilderness area." There was this kind of idea actually used on both sides of this. Even Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to people about her decision to try to help them extend their lease and said it was not a wild area. But you can Google pictures of this place and it's gorgeous. You know it's worth saving. People argue all these purity ideas such as, "Man has been there, therefore it's no longer pure and there's no point in saving it or restoring it." I think as we move forward, especially with increased climate change, we need to be more practical. What I'm getting at is that people are so enmeshed in nature everywhere that we need to let go of this purity idea, that if we touched it, we might as well destroy it. It's like, It's OK if it's kind of fucked up, we can fix it.

Thanks for speaking to me, Summer.

Dianne Feinstein
Summer Brennan:
oyster war