Day 6: Oysters
I finally made it to Sonoma County, land of rolling hills, coasts and vineyards. For me, it conjures images of handsome, vaguely rugged-looking white folks riding horses along the sand, with a blanket and a nice bottle of chardonnay in the saddle bag. Walking into Bodega Bay, looking for a map of the area, I picked up a brochure titled with the catch phrase, “do you speak SONOMA?” I don’t, but I learned a few key words inside, including “Coasting: v. Strolling, surfing, and staying where the sand meets the sea, the vistas are endless and the experience a natural wonder.” Ignoring the questionable grammar, it sounds like I’m in for a good visit in my new county! And my favorite: “Bodayglo: adj. The bright and sunny disposition one exudes after spending a summer afternoon on the Sonoma Coast.” I’m pretty sure it should actually be a noun, but then, I don’t speak Sonoma.
Language barriers aside, I’m very glad to be here, because it means my 32-mile hike along Highway 1 is finally over. That boat ride I mentioned across the mouth of Tomales Bay, allowing me to hike along the coast most of the way? Apparently nobody around here has ever heard of it, so I was diverted inland for a couple of days along the highway shoulder. It’s actually not half bad walking — pretty straight, and lots of beautiful, under-appreciated wildflowers adorn the side of the road — lupine, daisies, and poppies, as well as wild fennel and miner’s lettuce for the occasional snack. I walk on the left shoulder, facing traffic, as it’s a lot safer that way — the only problem comes on the blind curves to the left. Oncoming drivers tend to zoom pretty fast around these curves, hugging the inside, so you’d better not be anywhere near that white line. Making my way cautiously around the curves, sometimes I’d hear the car coming, and frantically look to squeeze myself onto the 2-foot wide shoulder, only to find it a thicket of poison oak. Still, I made it safely, and Sonoma will surely now reward me with some lovely Sunsettling (“v. Relaxing on a Sonoma County beach to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean”).
Throughout the Point Reyes area, I kept seeing dozens of hand-painted signs reading “Save our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm!” I finally stopped in at the Point Reyes Station thrift store to ask what all the fuss was about. The elderly volunteer told me in no uncertain terms that “We’re saving the oyster farm from that damn Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar!” She explained that the National Park Service wants to remove the oyster farm from Point Reyes National Seashore, a designated Wilderness area, where typically such commercial enterprises are not allowed. But it turns out that the oyster farm long predates the Wilderness area, and the oysters are a beloved local staple and pillar of the economy. The Park Service is leveling charges of environmental harm from the oyster farm, but the locals don’t buy it. (Salazar doesn’t know what he’s talking about — he’s probably never even been west of the Mississippi!).
The oyster fight is symptomatic of a larger struggle: all across the country, citizens and land managers are in tug-of-wars about what uses are appropriate for our public lands. Whether it’s snowmobiles in Yellowstone, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), or grazing cattle on BLM land across the American West, controversies abound over the appropriate uses for our government’s land. At the heart of the debate is an old philosophical divide going back more than a century. The two key characters framing the debate were John Muir, famed naturalist and writer, and Gifford Pinchot, America’s first great forester. The essential question over the use of public lands came down to this: do you embrace Muir’s preservationist impulse, locking up land in its natural state and throwing away the key? Or do you subscribe to Pinchot’s conservationist strategy, arguing for wise use of the land, seeking to draw from it the greatest good for the greatest number of people? This fundamental divide climaxed in the early years of the Twentieth Century with the City of San Francisco’s proposal to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park — pitting one of the great natural wonders of the West against a potential water supply for millions. Muir and those on the preservationist side of environmentalism ultimately lost this battle: in 1913, Woodrow Wilson signed the Raker Act authorizing the damming of Hetch Hetchy.
The preservationist/conservationist schism pervades environmentalism to this day. The divide can be seen in the different approaches of the National Park Service, which tends to favor pure preservation of wild lands (no oyster farms allowed!), versus the National Forest Service, which tends to favor the use of its natural resources. Passing any National Forest sign, you may have noticed the phrase “Land of Many Uses,” which comes right out of the Pinchot book. And while in the 1950s and 1960s “Many Uses” generally meant logging, logging, and more logging, today our National Forest managers are increasingly incorporating recreation, tourism, hunting, wildlife, and traditional practices into their management plans. Slowly, ecosystem-based management, recognizing the needs of the ecosystem together with multiple user groups, is taking hold.
The Hobbit Hole presents an interesting case for managers of the Tongass National Forest, our nation’s largest forest by three-fold. The Hobbit Hole is a “private inholding,” meaning it’s a private property surrounded by public land. When the foresters came along in 1990 to create a 23,000 acre Wilderness area in the northern Tongass, they found the Hobbit Hole, a private home with a long history. So, the foresters simply carved a 5-acre private block our of their Wilderness area, and thus the Hobbit Hole was allowed to continue on, much as it always had.
Now that the Hobbit Hole is for sale, what is the right use for this special property, surrounded by Forest Service Wilderness land? Although it is technically outside the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, it somehow seems only right that the Hobbit Hole’s future mission should be consistent with the Wilderness area in which it is ensconced. Some would say that it should be reverted back to Wilderness — that the inholding should be eliminated, so that the Inian Islands can be 100% wild. There’s a certain logic to this, and in fact, at least one group, the Wilderness Land Trust, is specifically dedicated to eliminating private inholdings across the country, in order to make Wilderness areas contiguous. But the Hobbit Hole doesn’t really fit the bill — at 5 acres, it’s too small to make much of an addition to the 23,000 acres already protected, and its buildings and dock have value too that shouldn’t be lost.
If not Wilderness, should the Hobbit Hole become some sort of fancy private sport fishing lodge, bringing wealthy guests to seek the big halibut and king salmon, as many locals fear it will? Or would it be more fitting as a public institute for ecological education and research?
Eating my sixth Drakes Bay oyster on the half-shell that evening, with a little butter and cilantro, I reflected that things can get pretty confusing when there are a hundred competing interests for a given patch of land. I suppose that my thoughts on the right use of our public lands are pretty well summed up by Aldo Leopold:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
By this definition, I believe Inian Islands Institute is right. A public space within public lands, exposing students to our great national heritage. So I’ll keep fighting to make the dream happen!