The Wilderness Illusion

As Drakes Bay Oyster Farm fought to stay in business, a group of anti-oyster-farm advocates worked for its eviction. These anti-oyster-farm advocates claimed they were advancing the cause of “wilderness.” But the estero was already managed as wilderness. Creating a paper wilderness designation did not make Drakes Estero any more wild. The oyster farm was removed to serve an illusion.

sea kayaks drakes bay

The estero is a major destination for hiking and paddling. Four commercial kayaking firms ply its waters regularly, putting in at the tip of Schooner Bay from a gravel parking lot formerly shared with the oyster farm, at the end of its winding gravel road.  That unspoiled location is shown in the photo above. All four of these kayaking firms supported the continuation of the oyster farm. In its infamous environmental impact statement, the Park Service at Point Reyes misrepresented the views of these four firms — see this story in which they correct the record.

The estero is also visited regularly by birding enthusiasts. Point Reyes National Seashore gets roughly two million visitors a year. As a set of Amici said in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in March 2013, “the sounds of motorcycles racing by Drakes Estero on the adjacent highway will not cease if the Oyster Farm is closed.”

The wilderness illusion has a powerful appeal. It’s a deeply ingrained romantic ideal. A generation of environmentalists has grown up believing that nature must be protected.

Yet much has changed in the decades since the first Earth Day. Modern environmentalists are increasingly likely to appreciate that humans are part of the natural environment.

Modern environmentalists

Writers like Emma Marris contend that the illusion of wilderness is damaging to our ability to actually protect the environment. In her book Rambunctious Garden, Marris argues:

“A paradigm shift is roiling the environmental world. For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature. “

The Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva has also championed a less-alarmist environmentalism based on sound science.

Author Michael Ames makes this point in the subtitle of his Harper’s story about Drakes Bay Oyster“The campaign to shut down a family oyster farm exposes an unflattering side of the American conservation movement.” (“The West Coast Oyster Warnote that there is a mistake in the second footnote; the Nature Conservancy is not one of the groups working against the oyster farm.)

Tom Knudson reported that “environmentalism” is not always what it seems over a decade ago in his groundbreaking five-article series in the Sacramento Bee, Environment, Inc.  Knudson examines the “high-powered fund raising, the litigation and the public relations machine that has come to characterize much of the movement today” and points out that fear-mongering is a way of life for these groups. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” he says, “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

Drakes Bay Oyster supporter Sarah Rolph quoted Knudson extensively in an essay at the West Marin Citizen outlining how little has changed in the intervening years:

Knudson’s meticulously researched series points out that many of these groups spend about half of their money on fund-raising, far more than the philanthropic guideline of 35 percent. The Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) are cited as the two biggest offenders.

A lot of the money goes to the people who run these groups. When the NPCA fired its president Paul Pritchard, in 1997, it paid him $760,335 to settle his contract. Salaries for the heads of these groups rival those of the biggest commercial firms. Knudson quotes Martin Litton, a former Sierra Club board member as saying: “Those salaries are obscene.” Litton’s important work—he helped bring about the creation of Redwoods National Park and Sequoia National Monument—was unpaid.

Paid professional activist Amy Trainer is skilled at creating alliances with other groups. From Big Environment stalwarts like the NPCA and the Sierra Club to tiny groups like Save Our Seashore (a very small group indeed—it seems to consist solely of Gordon Bennett), Trainer has coordinated efforts against DBOC using the same tactics outlined in Knudson’s expose’ – scaremongering, manufactured crises, and the use of slogans and soundbites masquerading as fact.

The record is clear

The anti-oyster-farm activists falsely claim that Drakes Estero was promised to the public as wilderness. Yet except for one much-quoted out-of-context sentence from a House report, nothing in the legislative record supports this claim.

And there is much evidence to the contrary. As historian Dr. Laura Watt argues in her Amicus brief in support of Drakes Bay in the Ninth Circuit court of appeals:

“Nowhere in the legislative history does anyone make a specific objection to the oyster farm or discuss an end to its operation in the future;” the brief argues, “nor did Congress or the public give any indication that wilderness designation would be hindered by the farm’s continued presence.”

Soon, Dr. Watt will publish the eagerly-awaited book about the history of Point Reyes, an outgrowth of her thesis on the topic. Until then, Watt’s brief is probably the best source of information about the legislative history of the Seashore. Read the brief here.