It’s difficult some days to not become discouraged.

That’s how I felt when I heard the news that the Obama Administration had decided to evict the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company from Point Reyes National Seashore, near San Francisco. It was the culmination of a bitter fight between the historic oyster company and the National Park Service over the company’s soon-to-expire lease, which Drake’s Bay wanted to extend for another ten years. The fight pitted a local, sustainable food enterprise, employing thirty people, and its many friends in the region against the federal government and three national environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, who wanted the park returned to a “pristine” wilderness condition, whatever that means in the 21st century. The Park Service and environmentalists, in other words, weren’t trying to take down Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Shell Oil, or Weyerhauser – they were trying to kill an upstanding, profitable, popular, and eco-friendly example of sustainability.

They apparently succeeded when U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced last Friday that the lease would not be renewed and the oyster company had 90 days to clear out. 90 days! Not a year from now, or two, even though the company has been in business for decades. Now. Couldn’t “pristineness” wait a while longer?

Complicating the issue – in a bad way – was the conduct of the Park Service during this whole ordeal. It tried to make an ecological argument for the company’s removal but then was caught manipulating the data in a dismaying display of unethical behavior. This led to a review by the National Academy of Sciences which harshly criticized the Park Service for its poor science – heartening supporters of the oyster farm who suspected all along that the science was on their side. However, the government and its allies remained undaunted. They shifted their battle plan, arguing that a 1970s-era law prioritized wilderness protection over “commercial” use of the bay, even if it was by a locally-sourced, ecosystem-friendly food company that predated the creation of the park.

In fact, when Secretary Salazar issued the eviction notice on Friday he cited “policy” instead of science as the reason for his decision, essentially acknowledging that this fight was about values from the start, not ecology. As if on cue, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director, Michael Brune, said the Club was “thrilled” by the decision. The bay would “finally get the protections it deserves,” he said.

 Whatever that means under climate change.

Speaking of values, this discouraging affair raises important questions:

  • Are we ever going to get serious about sustainability?
  • Will we actually mend our ways to confront the challenges of the 21st century, or are we going to stick to 19th and mid-20th centuries ideas about the world?
  • When will people understand that coexistence between conservation and sustainable food production is both possible and necessary, or are we stuck forever with zero-sum thinking – that one value can only advance as far as the other retreats?
  • Why doesn’t the environmental movement read its own press releases about sustainability and climate change?
  • Why doesn’t the Sierra Club realize how foolish and irrelevant it looks?
  • Why do we continue to hold out hope for the Obama Administration on forward-thinking of issues of sustainability and conservation?
  • Why has the Park Service switched from a being a hero to a bully?
  • And most importantly: why aren’t we looking down the road at what’s coming instead of continuing to stick our fingers in our ears?

Here’s a photo of the oyster operation that I took:

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I became interested in this fight nearly three years ago while visiting the headquarters of the Marin Carbon Project, which borders the National Seashore. The contrasts were illuminating. The goal of the Marin Carbon Project is to sequester carbon dioxide in soils via sustainable agricultural practices, which means its vision is squarely focused on the future, while the brawl between the oyster farm and the Obama Administration and its environmental allies is squarely focused on the past. I drove out to the farm, took pictures, spoke with employees, and bought some of their oysters. I was upset by what I learned, especially about the bad behavior of our government, so I signed a petition and later wrote comments to the Park Service on their Draft Plan of Eviction (as I saw it) in support of the oyster company. I spoke with local food advocates about the fight and followed key developments as they unfolded.

I learned, for example, that 40% of all oysters consumed in California today come from this one farm! That means – since Californians are not about to stop eating oysters – if the farm is shut down, all those oysters will have to some from somewhere else, possibly far away. That’s not very sustainable.

Support for the farm was a no-brainer. The operation was exactly what everyone said was needed, from locavores on up to academics and policy wonks working on ways to get landowners paid for ‘ecosystem services’ (oysters filter impurities from water).  

This was a living, breathing family-run, local food company that was being paid by their customers to provide a variety of sustainable services to a variety of communities, including ecological ones. I viewed the fight as a litmus test: were we going to walk the sustainability talk or not? Were we going to stay stuck in the 1970s or were we going to start thinking about the 2070s?

On Friday, I had my answer.

I’m especially disappointed with the National Park Service and the Sierra Club, both of whom have been my employer. Growing up, I fell in love with our national parks and I idolized the Park Service, who I always considered to be the good egg in the federal basket. No longer. Today, I’m sad to say, the Park Service has suffered a precipitous fall from grace. So too the Sierra Club, once one of the Good Guys when it came our public lands. No more. How can the Club talk about sustainability out of one side of it mouth while working hard to evict a local, sustainable food company? It can’t. There’s word for this type of behavior: it’s called hypocrisy.

I won’t go on. I wrote a long analysis of the shortcomings of federalism and environmentalism in an essay called the Fifth Wave. Take a look, if you want: http://www.awestthatworks.com/2Essays/Fifth_Wave/The_Fifth_Wave.pdf

This situation reminds me of another discouraging fight involving the Park Service, environmentalists, and local economies. It happened in the Valles Caldera, north of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the U.S. government purchased a 90,000 ranch in 2000 with the goal of demonstrating that conservation values were compatible with a working cattle operation and directed the property’s federally-appointed Board of Directors to manage the property toward this goal. The Preserve was supposed to be a new model of doing business on federal land – blending profit and conservation sustainably. Quivira was part of the livestock team on the Caldera in 2007, so I had an opportunity to see the model up close, and here’s what I learned: it could have worked. To make a long story short, when unimaginative early management by the Board slowed the model down, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups decided to move the goal posts. Today, they are pushing for the Valles Caldera Preserve to become a national park (without cattle sooner or later). It is a return to 19th-century magical thinking about conservation in an age of rapidly changing ecological, economic, and climatological conditions.

The episode led me to make up a new slogan for environmental activists: “We support sustainability – just not here. Or in this other place. And definitely not here because we’d rather have a national park. But we support sustainability, honestly!”

Just not in the Valles Caldera. Or Drake’s Bay. 

Fortunately, not all the news is bad. The oyster company has just announced that it will sue the Obama Administration to overturn Salazar’s bad decision. To learn more, cheer them on, or help, see the company’s website: http://www.drakesbayoyster.com/

Meanwhile, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed, and my spirits up.

Here’s a photo from the Valles Caldera in 2007:

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