Review: The Oyster War

One of the many strange things about The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, is how little of it discusses its ostensible topic.

The “war” of the book’s title is the decade-long struggle the Point Reyes community fought to save Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, yet that struggle is largely absent from the book. The author seems to want to skirt the issue. For example, on the first page, the struggle is described as a “war between oysters and wilderness.” Obviously, neither oysters nor wilderness were combatants. This is a book that sketches things out in very broad strokes.

Most of the wrongdoing by the National Park Service is not even mentioned. Michael Ames published a significant story in Newsweek in which the scientist whose data was falsified goes on record about that; the Ames story is not mentioned in the book, nor is the data falsification referenced. Nor does the book cover any of the formal complaints of scientific misconduct that were filed against the park service; they are not even referenced in the book’s bibliography (which is extensive, although it is not linked in any way to the text).

Senator Dianne Feinstein was appalled at the NPS wrongdoing, and spoke out against it. For example, the Senator wrote to then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on March 29, 2012: “The Park Service’s latest falsification of science at Point Reyes National Seashore is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I am frankly stunned that after all the controversy over past abuse of science on this issue, Park Service employees would feel emboldened to once again fabricate the science in building a case against the oyster farm.”

The Oyster War does not mention or reference this letter, or any of the other letters and op-eds Senator Feinstein wrote to defend the truth. Instead, the author suggests Senator Feinstein acted to help the Lunnys out of political favoritism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Oyster War is similarly shabby in its treatment of Congressman Pete McCloskey’s support of the oyster farm, sketching a condescending portrait of Representative McCloskey, distorting his involvement, and downplaying its importance.

In 2011, Representative McCloskey, former Congressman John Burton, and former Assemblyman Bill Bagley co-authored a letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Salazar. Senator Burton was the lead author of the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act. (The Oyster War incorrectly credits John Burton’s brother, Representative Phillip Burton, with that legislation.) Bill Bagley wrote the 1965 bill that transferred ownership of waters surrounding Point Reyes to the National Park Service. All three of these men remembered that the oyster farm was meant to be retained at the time the Seashore was formed, but they did not rely only on memory, they also researched the issue for ten weeks. As was reported in the Point Reyes Light in August 2011, the letter “cites numerous archival documents and testimonies—including statements by former National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth, the Sierra Club and former Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife Nathaniel Reed—that the authors contend collectively prove the legal precedent for the continuation of oystering in Drakes Estero.”

This letter was widely reported in the media. The Oyster War fails to mention it, instead presenting Representative McCloskey’s support as if it were simply personal, writing that “He’s written letters on the farm’s behalf…” and as if it were misguided, writing that Representative McCloskey “uses the presence of the ranches to support the notion” that the oyster farm was meant to stay.

But this is not a “notion,” it is a fact of legislative history. Every historian, legal expert, and researcher who has looked seriously at the facts of the Seashore’s founding has come to the same conclusions as McCloskey, Burton, and Bagley. Only the park service and its allies maintain that the oyster farm was originally intended to be removed in 2012; only this perspective is presented in The Oyster War. To make the argument seem plausible, the author indicates that “potential wilderness” has the same meaning as “wilderness.” In fact, the distinction is crucial to what happened here—ignoring it makes it impossible for readers to understand the truth.

The Oyster War also ignores the tireless pro bono efforts of the multiple legal teams who worked on behalf of the Lunnys for a decade. Instead the author gives her readers the impression that the key legal resource was Cause of Action, a group the Lunnys worked with for less than a year. The author vilifies Cause of Action because its founder has a loose connection with Charles Koch. “I don’t think it is a coincidence that a Koch-backed group chose to fund the fight for the farm,” the author says in her conclusion. But this makes no sense. The group is not “Koch-backed” (according to its founder, Dan Epstein, Cause of Action has never received money from the Kochs or the Koch foundation). It did not “fund the fight” (the group provided its services pro bono, for less than a year). But what’s most objectionable here is that The Oyster War fails to mention the sole reason the Lunnys engaged this group:  to file a Data Quality Act complaint about the NPS false science used to support their made-up claims of environmental harm caused by the oyster farm. Brennan omits all mention of this effort, choosing instead to tell tall tales about an imaginary right-wing conspiracy.

Another topic the book hardly touches on is the oyster farm itself. In 2012 the author spent five months in Point Reyes, working for a local newspaper, yet she never once visited the oyster farm to enjoy fresh oysters or to speak with customers and employees. Even after Kevin Lunny invited the author directly, and offered her a personal tour of the operation so that she would have all the information she needed for her newspaper stories about the farm, she never took him up on the offer.

Only about half of The Oyster War even purports to tell the story of the oyster farm. The rest is a wide-ranging, impressionistic discussion of wilderness values, California politics, and the history of the region. An oddity that sticks out in the history section is the author’s assertion that there were never any native oysters in the San Francisco Bay Area, a  claim that has left oyster experts and local historians dumbfounded.

The author has defended her book’s content as “representative.” Central to her narrative are profiles of two people, Sarah Allen and Fred Smith, each of whom worked to eliminate the oyster farm.

Sarah Allen studied seals, and worked for the park service at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) when it began its vendetta against the oyster farm. Allen and then-PRNS Superintendent Don Neubacher kicked off what would become a longtime character-assassination campaign against Lunny and his employees by falsely claiming that the oyster farm’s operations had caused harm to seals.

The Oyster War perpetuates the harm-to-seals myth, even though there was never any evidence for it. Any actual harm to seals would doubtless have been reported to the NOAA Fisheries, the controlling authority with the responsibility for enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This never happened. Not only was there no evidence of harm, there is now ample evidence that there was no harm. The seal population in Drakes Estero is so healthy that it is approaching the estuary’s carrying capacity.

Yet The Oyster War portrays Sarah Allen as a misunderstood scientist who is unfairly vilified. The book quotes Allen selectively, omitting most of her false statements, and fails to discuss her role in creating a body of false science. Instead, the focus is on Allen’s career and her deep love of seals.

Fred Smith is a local activist who worked for the Environmental Action Committee (EAC) from 2006 to 2010. Part of Fred’s job was to make trouble for the oyster farm. His only real contribution to that effort was a trumped-up water-quality complaint. When the State Water Resources Control Board arrived at the oyster farm to investigate the claim, they shared a good laugh about it with the oyster farmers. Not only was there no substance at all to the claim, the photo Fred had provided of the purportedly water-fouling discharge pipe was actually an intake pipe bringing salt water to the facility’s hatchery.

Fred is lovingly profiled in a chapter entitled Friend of the Earth. He is also a friend of the author, although that is not disclosed. Fred apparently represents the good side of the environmental movement, and we learn mostly about his past. He played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, we’re told, and in that game “almost all of the characters that Fred invented for himself were aligned as ‘lawful good.’” He got his start in the environmental activist business with tree-sitting. He cares very deeply about the environment.

Fred Smith may be representative of Bay Area environmentalists or of environmentalists in general, but he does not accurately represent the activists who worked with PRNS to eliminate the oyster farm.

Fred was replaced in 2010 by a much more accomplished activist, Amy Trainer, who was recruited from out of town specifically to create a more robust campaign against the farm. An experienced activist with a gift for PR, Amy created a ruthless, unethical campaign against the oyster farm that was very successful in influencing public opinion and misleading elected officials. As the oyster-farm supporters rallied to save the farm, the anti-oyster-farm activists escalated their attacks, working with the California Coastal Commission to create a second front of baseless accusations that caused heartache and expense for the Lunnys. This well-funded campaign to cement the NPS false narrative about the oyster farm went on under Amy’s direction for four years, until the oyster farm was crushed. The Oyster War does not discuss Amy’s work, and Amy herself is mentioned only in passing, as “Fred’s successor.”

To those who are familiar with the facts, The Oyster War reads as if it were designed to conceal them. The actions that ended Drakes Bay Oyster Farm were so outrageous that they were investigated by Congress no less than four times. The National Park Service destroyed a historic cultural resource, deprived the San Francisco Bay Area of a significant local food source, and deeply damaged the California shellfish market. To the extent that this can be called a war, it was a war by the government against the Lunny family and the Point Reyes agricultural community. That story remains to be told.

Click here for a detailed list of the book’s key errors and omissions.