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How do we define wilderness?

Earlier this month Drakes Bay Oyster Company,  in the Point Reyes National Seashore, closed its doors. That was after a long legal battle with the federal government that ordered the company to close so that Drakes Estero, which has been a commercial oyster farm for nearly 80 years,  could become the first fully protected marine wilderness area in the continental United States. The fight over Drakes Bay has stirred up a heated philosophical debate about how we want to interact with wilderness.

In the meantime, the bigger philosophical questions remain: what does it mean to enjoy wilderness, and how do we protect it from ourselves?

Heading north out of San Francisco in a car, it doesn’t take long to leave the city behind. You’ll drive through the dense, urban landscape of the Richmond and cross the Golden Gate Bridge, taking the 101 Freeway north. You’ll exit and slow down to meander through the woodsy suburbs and cutesy main streets on Sir Francis Drake. The road will get rougher, the buildings fewer and further apart. The hills will take over the landscape, then the redwood trees, until you feel like the metropolis is a million miles away.

This is the route to Point Reyes – more accurately, the Point Reyes National Seashore. The National Seashore is run by the National Park Service. It includes a federally protected wilderness area. The 1964 Wilderness Act defines a wilderness area, “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape … as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Point Reyes is filled with visitors – over two million each year. They contribute $85 million per year to the region’s economy, through things like camping fees, kayak rentals, and stopping in at local businesses.

For the most part, the relationship between Point Reyes and its visitors is mutually beneficial. But there’s also a tension between preserving a natural area for its own sake, and encouraging people to interact with it.

To see this tension playing out we went to the Seashore’s northwestern edge – to Drakes Estero and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company.

The Oyster Company doesn’t look like the site of a battle. It’s a small shack at the end of a windy road, the ground scattered with shells. People sit at picnic tables, eating baskets of fresh oysters and looking out over Drakes Estero, a saltwater estuary that’s home to thousands of birds, fish, and harbor seals. It feels quiet, even when there are a lot of people around, which lately, there have been.

Drakes Bay Oyster Company has always been popular. The owners say it provides over a third of the state’s oysters, including the state’s only oyster cannery. But since late December, customers have wandered in with a little more purpose.

“I think of myself as usually on the save the seals team, but this feels different. It does feel like it’s impacting the community,” says Nadia Yavorsky, sitting at one of the tables on an overcast day not long after the business got word that it would have to close.

The Oyster Company is located in a “potential” wilderness area within the Seashore. Forty years ago, the government granted the company a special lease to continue operating, but that lease expired in late 2012. The farm’s owners sued the government, and the case is still going through the courts. But the government maintains that it’s time to turn this potential wilderness area into a fully protected one.

“It’s something we’re happy to be a part of and sad to see go,” says Yavorsky. “From what I’ve seen it feels like they’re calling themselves a sustainable farm, and I’ve always seen it that way. It doesn’t seem like it has a negative impact on the environment here.”

“No one cares more deeply about this ecosystem than we do. I was born and raised on the ranch next door,” says Kevin Lunny, whose family has owned the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm since 2005.

The way Lunny sees it, the farm is as integral to Marin’s ecosystems, both human and natural, as the birds and the harbor seals.

“The people opposing us are a very few, very extreme wilderness activists,” says Lunny. “They represent a small, loud, well-funded well-organized group that’s in favor of hands-off preservation, a human-less landscape. They can’t tolerate a working landscape in a place like this.”

Ten miles away, in Point Reyes Station, is Amy Trainer’s office. Trainer chairs the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, one of the groups that pushed hardest for the oyster farm’s closure.

“I am pretty new to West Marin, but people have been telling me for the past couple of years that there's not been a fight like this in well over three decades,” says Trainer.

Behind Trainer’s desk is a framed poster showing an aerial photo of Point Reyes and the Estero.

“When you look at this photo you really kind of see how magical and really amazing and special this place is,” says Trainer, “and why Congress chose to protect it as wilderness.”

Point Reyes has long had elements of both Kevin Lunny’s “working landscape,” and Amy Trainer’s wilderness. There are historic working ranches throughout the park area, including right next to Drakes Estero. There are also elk preserves and redwood groves near the Estero – areas that people visit, but ultimately leave. Then there are areas that have transitioned from one use to the other, like the Giacomini wetlands, just a block away from Trainer’s office.

The wetlands are almost 600 acres. Ducks and migrating birds all pass through here. There are kites and hawks, and even have a pair of bald eagles that have been hanging around the last month. This whole area used to be a dairy ranch, and is named for the family that ranched it.

Trainer says it’s a perfect example of what Drakes Estero could become. “It's just really special to be able to come out and have access to this pristine area that's been restored that's so close to town.”

A pristine Drakes Estero would be hard to see, a lot of the ecosystem is underwater. If the oyster company closed, it might look much the same, but Trainer and other activists say it would be very different because the human influence would be gone.

But can years of human influence ever fully disappear? That’s what Valerio Salgado wonders.

“We see places like in Canada, places where even you don’t see anything for miles and miles and miles. Here, you find cows. What that means, there is a person feeding. You can, you find…. A raccoon, killed by a car, many things happens,” he says. 

Salgado works at Drakes Bay. He’s one of about 30 people who will have to find new jobs if the farm closes. He and his wife have worked on farms in the area for more than two decades. Sitting and eating his lunch with her, he theorizes about what they might do if the farm closes.

“We are willing to take the first job we can perform. So as I tell you, I will try driver, and she said maybe working in a hotel or a job she can perform,” he says.

What will happen to workers like Salgado has been a big question, both for the farm’s owners, and for local environmental groups. Farm advocates say there’s no sense in shutting down a lucrative local food business and putting people out of work. Amy Trainer takes issue with that characterization.

“There's no question everybody supports local, sustainable food operations and agricultural production, but that's not the issue here,” she says. 

For one thing, she says the Lunnys always knew the farm’s lease would expire and that they should have planned better for its closure. She also says the oyster company’s not sustainable, that it actually harms the environment. Of course, the oyster farm and its supporters refute those claims.

There has been a lot of back and forth over this question, for years. Scientists and government agencies have done studies, released reports, and found flaws in each other’s reports. Both sides have accused each other of bad science. In the end, though, the government didn’t base its decision to close Drakes Bay on science. It based it on a principle.

“I think that we’re really blessed out in West Marin that we can have it all,” says Trainer. “I also think that you know we have to just say no, sometimes. There are places that nature absolutely has a right and should just exist in its own right. And if we start compromising our very special places that it's a really slippery slope.”

This, Trainer says, is what the federal definition of “wilderness”, really means. It shouldn’t matter whether a particular business is sustainable or unsustainable, good for the local economy or not. It’s still a business, and it doesn’t belong in a place called a wilderness. Trainer says deciding anything else undermines the whole idea of preserving public land.       

Jayni Hein, executive director for law, energy and the environment at UC Berkeley’s Boalt school of law, says, “We can’t have commercial activities in our wilderness lands, I think that would change their character too much.”

In full disclosure, a few years ago, Hein worked on a legal team that represented the Oyster Company pro bono. She says a law like the Wilderness Act, which is what protects Point Reyes, is unique and critical, but it can also have unintended consequences.

“It’s really trying to look for untrammeled areas, pristine areas of wilderness, which maintain their wilderness character even now. But the irony there is that can frequently put high wilderness value on … areas that are simply hard to reach, like the very top of a mountain peak or a very sparsely populated area,” says Hein.

In other words, we put wilderness in places where people can’t go. Hein says that at a time when habitats are shrinking, and we need to convince people to care about nature, we might want to seek a third way – a way that doesn’t see humans and wilderness as incompatible.

“More and more, I think people don’t want to see this black and white, wilderness versus non wilderness. In a way, I think we’ve almost evolved beyond that,” says Hein. “I think it’s time for creative approaches to think about how can we both incentivize and protect the development of our local sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, but at the same time preserve these wild areas for future generations.”

An example of how this could work is at the Rogers Ranch, just up the road from the Oyster Company. The ranch is one of the historic cattle ranches that are all over Point Reyes. Now, the ranch land was never designated as a potential wilderness – it was created as a pastoral zone, and was the National Seashore always intended it to be working land, nestled in between wilderness and local towns.

On a sunny day, Domingo Rogers is finishing up a welding project at the ranch.

“This used to be my ranch but I retired and my nephew has it now. I stop by when I need to use equip in the shop,” he says.

Rogers is 63 years old. He grew up here, and he loves it. Looking out across the ranch, he can name all the plants he sees, and the birds flying by. He’s spent his life both admiring the land and running a business. He thinks it’s possible for them to coexist.

“Why can’t you have business and people and still have the wildlife?” he asks. “The wildlife is here, it’s been here for years.”

When you’re in Point Reyes, there’s no denying that Rogers is right. There’s wildlife everywhere, that’s why people like to visit. In some ways, that’s what this whole controversy is about.

If the Oyster Company leaves Drakes Estero, the Bay Area would gain a truly unique space: the only marine wilderness area on the continental Pacific Coast. In a world with ever more people, more cars, more noise, that’s increasingly precious. But it’s also possible that this place could never be a true wilderness again. In the 50 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act, our idea of wilderness has changed. It’s still somewhere you can seek solace or personal challenge, but it’s also somewhere you can drive to, bring your iPhone, or maybe your dog.

The case of Drake’s Bay Oyster Company is just one example of a question we’ll face over and over again: how to preserve a wilderness for visitors, while fully considering the footprints we’ll leave behind.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Drakes Estero is the first fully protected marine wilderness in the continental U.S. In fact, it is the only one from Washington State to the Mexican border. There are 11 fully protected federal marine wildernesses in the U.S.