The War Over Wilderness: Drakes Bay Oyster Company and the Preservation Movement

Clams, once alive, left behind by the owners of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Image by Rachel Merriman-Goldring. United States, 2014.

Ginny Lunny still has a proprietary air about her. As she drives down the bumpy road to Drakes Estero, the site of her family’s old business, she makes calls to ensure that former employees get their last paychecks. Out at the site, she puts down the seat in the old toilet, muttering about how she warned the Park Service about squatters.

Lunny is from Inverness, a small wind-swept town on the Pacific Ocean. Once a modest farming community, the land nearby is being bought up with what Ginny calls “Google money.” We drive past her childhood home, now overgrown, as she reflects on the last decade. When asked what it’s like to go into nearby downtown Point Reyes, she says “I don’t really know anybody there anymore.”

Lunny and her family have been at the center of a controversy that has wracked Marin County, San Francisco, and environmental circles across the United States.

She and her family owned and operated Drakes Bay Oyster Company.


Lunny’s family opened the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in 2005, promising to continue a long tradition of providing fresh, local oysters in the Bay region. They sold oysters to dozens of nearby restaurants, and also sold them onsite at their oyster shack.

With their oysters, customers received free lessons about the area. Says Lunny, “I was the interpretive ranger, without the badge. I’d share the history, answer their questions…when you eat something with a little background knowledge, it almost enhances the experience.”

“Our oysters come from some of the purest waters…you don’t have any worries about toxicity…they’re very salty, very fresh, very crunchy.”


Located in an inlet, Drakes Bay Oyster Company was protected from the rough waves and winds of the Pacific.

But a different kind of storm was brewing.

Looking back, the troubles for the Lunny family began five decades ago, when President John F. Kennedy signed into law the Point Reyes Authorization Act.

The purpose of the 1962 Act was to set aside land to be designated as a national seashore. National seashores, much like national parks, are protected areas, administered by the National Park Service.

Ranchers fought back against the designation of the land as national seashore. They argued that the federal government was overstepping its bounds, and wasn’t taking sufficient care to protect the rights of the ranchers living and working on the land. Eventually Congress decided that, to ease the transition, the government would buy the land and lease it back to the ranchers for agricultural purposes.

In 1972, the National Park Service purchased 1,100 acres on Marin County’s peaceful Drakes Estero from the Johnson Oyster Company. This would be the eventual home of Drakes Bay Oyster Company. The Johnson Oyster Company was provided with a 40-year lease that would end in late 2012.

The 1972 Point Reyes Wilderness Act also noted the presence of ‘nonconforming structures,’ including those associated with the Johnson Oyster Company. These nonconforming structures, also known as buildings, prevented the classification of the area as full wilderness.

While oyster operations continued in the area, the land remained in limbo, an area that could one day be ‘wilderness’, but wasn't yet.


“All leases can be renewed,” said Lunny, when asked why her family bought a lease slated to expire in 2012.

“Anything can change…”


As a college student, conservationist Adam Keats came to California at the end of a cross-country trip, traveling the northern route down the rocky coast. Looking out at the waves that gently struck the Point Reyes shore, Keats spied a seal in the calm waters off Drakes Bay. The area, teeming with life, stayed with him.

“Knowledge that wilderness exists is essential even for those who never go there.”

“Wilderness performs an essential purpose in preserving biodiversity...the existence of wilderness is essential to our humanity.”

Keats is the Urban Wildlands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Keats was intimately involved with the Drakes Bay case, serving as in-house council and monitoring the case on behalf of the center.

Keats first heard about Drakes Bay Oyster Company ten years ago. The potential for controversy was already on his radar in early 2005 when the Lunny family bought the Johnson family’s land, in an area slated to become wilderness. He says that, even then, “there was head-scratching” about the Lunny family’s decision.

“Professionally and socially, this was something folks were talking about a lot,” notes Keats. He mentions a boycott of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, resulting from an ongoing and contentious dialogue about the politics of what we purchase.

“We had conversations in our community, among my family and friends, about whether we could make a difference by buying some oysters and not others”


The debate over how we should interact with our land isn't new.

A century and a half ago, when the U.S. population was just over 38 million, wilderness preservation got its formal start. In 1872, the first national park was established at Yellowstone, with 58 more national parks established in the years since.

The first national seashore, Cape Hatteras, wasn’t established until 1953. Across the United States, there are currently 10 areas formally designated as national seashores. Point Reyes remains the only national seashore on the West Coast.


Wilderness preservation entails setting aside a swath of land to remain undeveloped, untouched by human hands. In the United States, wilderness is legally defined as land where development is prohibited.

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain….an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”

Wilderness preservation is far more extreme than many other forms of environmental protection. Rather than limiting emissions, setting fuel standards, or outlawing certain chemicals, which affect the entire country, wilderness preservation requires total compliance over smaller areas of land.

This all-or-nothing approach is perceived by some as excessive. Lunny spoke of the need to “learn to coexist on government land,” questioning the logic of removing people from land intended to be preserved for humans.

Conservationist Adam Keats disagrees with those that who argue for flexibility and fluidity in defining wilderness.

“There's something important about this being an absolute perspective…I know the rapaciousness of the developers and users of our land. If we start cutting corners, those corners become the whole.”


Ten years ago, in early 2005, the Lunny family took over the Johnson lease, slated to expire in late 2012, renaming the company Drakes Bay Oyster Company and revitalizing aquaculture in the area.

In 2009, Park Service lawyers stated that they didn't have legal standing to renew the DBOC lease. In response, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), a staunch supporter of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, took action. Feinstein attached a rider to a spending bill that gave the Secretary of the Interior the exclusive power to extend DBOC’s permit.

The years between 2009 and 2012 were divisive. DBOC and its allies alleged that the Park Service’s science in the Environmental Impact Statement was faulty and biased. Wilderness advocates argued that the DBOC was provoking controversy for personal gains. Media coverage dwelled extensively on the 30 workers whose lives and livelihoods depended on DBOC.

Debates raged over the ethics, economics, and environmental implications.

Advocates from powerful and wealthy national environmental organizations advocated for the protection of Drakes Estero as a full wilderness area. Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity, came out in opposition to DBOC.

On November 29, 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced his decision to allow the lease to expire at the end of the month.

But the Lunny family wasn't ready to give up on Drakes Bay Oyster Company.


As a child, Melanie Gunn would visit national parks with her family. She always knew that someday she wanted to work for the Park Service.

Gunn has been responsible for outreach regarding the Drakes Bay controversy since 2010. Her roles included coordinating public meetings and working with the media and public stakeholders. She also served as the point person for the Drakes Bay Environmental Impact Statement, a document legally required by the National Environmental Policy Act, intended to aid federal agencies in making environmentally-conscious decisions.

As we sit in her small office, just a short drive from Point Reyes National Seashore, she appears lost in thought.

Despite the controversy of the last decade, Gunn still believes in the power of wilderness.

“I think that sometimes the experience of wilderness can be such a physical experience that I often have trouble putting it into words….we, as humans spend most of our life feeling like we're in charge. Wilderness reminds us we’re but one part of the system; it puts us back in context.”

But Lunny bristles at the suggestion that Point Reyes fits this description.

“There is a time and place for wilderness, but this isn't it,” she says.

“Wilderness is an area that's not inhabited, not a place you're taking away from people”

Loretta Murphy, who managed DBOC until last month, questions the logic of having a pristine wilderness located “30 miles from a major metropolis with power lines, asphalt roads, and infrastructure.”

Gunn disagrees, viewing Point Reyes’s proximity to San Francisco as an asset. Gunn says it's incredible to have wilderness so close to an urban area. “You can have that solitude, that experience, and be home for dinner.”


The concept of wilderness preservation has tremendous support amongst the American people. In an April 2001 poll conducted by the L.A. Times, more than 90 percent of Americans said that preserving wilderness is extremely or somewhat important.

The American people have been a driving force in wilderness preservation. Gunn says that, in the broadest sense, “federal lands belong to them…policy is shaped by public opinion.”

The original decision to designate Drakes Estero as potential wilderness was heavily influenced by public opinion. According to Gunn, the Park Service originally proposed 5 or 10 acres of national seashore, but the public came back and said “that's not enough.”

“People who were put into office represented all of our states and all of our interests and designated this as a potential wilderness,” says Gunn.

More than 2.6 million visitors come to Point Reyes each year, from nearby, across the country, and across the world.


The Lunny family appealed Salazar’s November 2012 decision to refrain from renewing their lease. They fought for their farm through the American court system.

After attempting to get the District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear their case, DBOC tried to bring it to the Supreme Court, which denied their request.

Finally, in early October of 2014, the National Park Service and DBOC reached a joint consent decree. The consent decree settled the case, without an admission of guilt or fault from either party, and ended the ongoing litigation. DBOC was allowed to continue harvesting until December 31, 2014, at which point they would need to cease operations.

In early January 2015, the park service began the process of removing structures from the site, the first step in the process of returning Drakes Estero to wilderness, free from human industry.

“Now they can drive their cars right into the wilderness…they can back their trailers right into the wilderness,” quips Lunny.


The case is closed in America’s legal system, but not in the court of public opinion.

“Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” signs continue to hang in local establishments both in Point Reyes and in nearby San Francisco.


Keats argues that the DBOC case sets an important precedent in putting the interests of the many above the interests of the few.

“Many of the activists don't understand this on a macro level in terms of the conversation about the importance of wilderness nationwide. The tragedy of the commons is that if no one can ever be inconvenienced, we’ll all eventually be devastated.”

Gunn echoes these statements from a more bureaucratic perspective. As a member of the park service, her job is to “follow policy and law as they're written, not how people want them to be.”

This sort of debate isn't a new one, says Gunn. “The push and pull between national parks and commercial use is something that's been going on since the beginning of the National Park Service.”


Despite all the contention over Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Keats remains optimistic when talking about wilderness preservation. His eyes light up as he describes the existential connection humans have with nature.

“We need to move beyond this idea that everything has to be explainable through some gain-loss ledger…we have it hardwired into us to want wilderness.”

Humans haven’t been city-dwellers for a sufficient period of time to have evolved beyond their pre-urban existence. Ultimately, Keats says, this gives him a lot of hope.

“We need to recognize that there's a role for a place where humans don't leave a mark.”


January 8, 2015. The former Drakes Bay site feels like a ghost town, structures still standing, but the life in them gone. A U.S. flag sits on a bench, crumbled under a worn life vest. A clementine is perched on empty clam shells in a square black crate, just starting to mold, turning white with a bit of light blue. A ‘Job Safety and Health Protection’ poster remains on the bulletin board, poorly laminated, edges peeling. A clock on the wall, with hand-painted purple numbers, continues to tick.

The imprints of workboots can still be seen in the uneven soil. Drakes Bay is now officially wilderness, land untrammeled by humans.

Footprints remain.