As fantastic as it may sound, an Israeli-American company is actually splicing the DNA from a firefly into a plant, to create plants and trees that may prove to be the sustainable streetlights of the future.
Film a fracker, go to jail?
It could become illegal to document many of the fracking operations in Pennsylvania under an ag-gag bill being considered in the state House.
Ag-gag laws have been introduced or passed in more than a dozen states, aiming to prevent animal-welfare activists from documenting systemic abuses at corporate farms and slaughterhouses. They do this in a variety of ways, mostly by making it illegal to film such abuse; by requiring any such footage be handed over immediately to law enforcement officials (thereby hobbling activists’ ability to document patterns of abuse, rather than one-off instances); and/or by requiring job applicants to reveal any activist affiliations.
But experts warn that Pennsylvania House Bill 683 would go further by also protecting frackers from unwanted scrutiny when they operate on farmland. A fracking spree is underway in the state, which sits atop the natural-gas-rich Marcellus Shale deposit, and much of the fracking is conducted on agricultural lands.
Ross Pifer, director of the Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center at Penn State University’s Dickinson School of Law, said hydraulic fracturing operations could be protected under the bill because gas companies often lease land from farmers.
“If you view it expansively, you’d have to view it as: Anything that takes place on that land (is protected),” Pifer said.
Melissa Troutman, outreach coordinator at Mountain Watershed Association, which investigates and records fracking activity, said the law would open the door for gas companies to hide activities legally.
“If it passes, what’s next? No documenting commercial or recreational activity?” Troutman said. “Right now it’s legal to photograph industrial operations on public lands. Will that be illegal next?
“If you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to hide. So why is there a need for this bill?”
A historic but cautious attempt to force food manufacturers to label products containing genetically modified ingredients passed the Vermont House by an overwhelming 107-37 vote last week.
If approved by the state Senate and signed by the governor, the bill, H. 112, would make Vermont the first state in the nation to require labeling of genetically modified foods.
But the measure likely wouldn’t go into effect for two years, and it would not apply to meat or dairy. That means it would not mandate the labeling of AquaBounty fish, a transgenic Atlantic salmon that could receive U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval this year. And it would not affect Vermont’s celebrated dairy industry.
From Vermont Public Radio:
No representatives on Thursday argued against the concept of more transparent food labeling. The most frequent point of opposition voiced on the floor concerned a likely lawsuit from the biotech or food industries that the Attorney General’s Office estimates could cost the state more than $5 million.
Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre, reasserted that he thinks the state would lose a lawsuit on constitutional grounds. He said the law runs afoul of the First Amendment by compelling speech, and it could pre-empt federal authority under the constitution’s supremacy clause by enacting a law that the Federal Drug Administration has not.
“Nobody else has passed a similar bill. They all seem to be waiting for Vermont to go first and lead the nation,” he said. “What they mean is they don’t want to risk their taxpayers’ money; they want us to risk Vermonters’ money. That is a $5 million to $10 million risk, and one I am not willing to take.”
A ballot initiative that would have required GMO labels in California was defeated last year after Monsanto and other corporations spent nearly $50 million on ads opposing it. A national GMO-labeling bill was introduced recently in Congress, but it has little to no chance of becoming law.
Most of the corn, soy, and sugar beets grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, and they’re widely used in processed foods. But shoppers who want to avoid them have no good way of doing so. Requiring food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods would allow people to say “no” to such products.
Big Ag and its supporters resist labeling, likening informational labels to warning stickers on cigarettes and liquor, saying such labels could “alarm” shoppers. Because activists fighting for mandatory labeling often oppose genetic engineering altogether, GMO supporters dismiss their arguments. Take a recent post on the Discover magazine website as an example (the contributor has previously ridiculed GMO-labeling campaigns, but in this post describes himself as ambivalent on the issue):
The “Right to Know” people … say they just want to know what’s in their food. This is a specious argument. The truth is they think there is something harmful about GMOs. Why else would they feel so strongly about labeling genetically modified foods? Yes, the Just Label it Campaign is couched as a consumer rights issue, but really it’s based on fear. Everybody knows this, so pretending otherwise is silly.
That would mean there are a lot of silly people in the world. As the Center for Food Safety points out, 64 countries including China, Russia, and all European Union nations currently have GMO-labeling laws in place. Vermonters could be the first Americans to join the trend.
In a blow to opponents of GMOs and Monsanto, the Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that an Indiana soybean farmer violated the company’s patent by saving its trademark Roundup Ready seeds.
Every time a farmer buys seeds from Monsanto, she or he must sign a contract agreeing not to save seeds from the crop. Monsanto’s many vociferous critics condemn this practice for the way it traps farmers in a costly cycle of dependence on the company’s products. The farmer in this case, Vernon Bowman, signed such an agreement when he originally bought Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans. But he found a clever way to get around the restrictions. Tom Laskawy explains:
For years, Bowman would grow a first crop of Monsanto seed, which he would purchase legally, and then would buy some commodity seed from his local grain elevator for his second crop. While aware he could not save seeds from the first crop he grew, Bowman would later plant the commodity seeds, spray the plants with Roundup, and was then able to identify which were resistant to the herbicide when they didn’t die. Bowman saved those seeds and saved money, since he had bought the commodity seeds for his second crop at a steep discount without paying Monsanto or signing its licensing agreement.
Farmers can sell saved seed to local grain elevators, which often resell the mixed seed packs for animal feed or industrial uses. In buying these so-called commodity seeds from the grain elevator, Bowman rightly assumed, as The Washington Post explains, that “those beans were mostly Roundup Ready — resistant to the weedkiller glyphosate — because that’s what most of his neighbors grow.” Bowman saved and replanted the Roundup Ready seeds from his second crop for eight years before Monsanto caught on and sued.
Mr. Bowman’s main argument was that a doctrine called patent exhaustion allowed him to do what he liked with products he had obtained legally. But Justice Kagan said it did not apply to the way he had used the seeds.
“Under the patent exhaustion doctrine, Bowman could resell the patented soybeans he purchased from the grain elevator; so too he could consume the beans himself or feed them to his animals,” she wrote.
“But the exhaustion doctrine does not enable Bowman to make additional patented soybeans without Monsanto’s permission,” she continued, “and that is precisely what Bowman did.” …
Accepting that theory, she wrote, would create an “unprecedented exception” to the exhaustion doctrine. “If simple copying were a protected use,” she wrote, “a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the item containing the invention.”
Sustainable-farming advocates and GMO critics intensely followed the case in the hopes that a ruling against Monsanto would finally put some limits on that company’s power in the agriculture industry. But the case was also “closely watched by researchers and businesses holding patents on DNA molecules, nanotechnologies and other self-replicating technologies,” the Associated Press reports.
Indeed, it seems the Supreme Court was more concerned about patent law than agricultural issues. The Washington Post reports:
While the case was about soybeans, the broader issue of patent protection is important to makers of vaccines, software and other products. Corporations were worried about what might happen if the decision had gone the other way.
But, as the justices had indicated at oral arguments in the case, they believed Bowman’s practices threaten the incentive for invention that is at the heart of patent law.
The court’s decision crushed the hopes of many in the anti-Monsanto camp. The Environmental Working Group’s General Counsel Thomas Cluderay said it “tightens the seed giant’s stranglehold on American agriculture” and “will no doubt pave the way for greater use and development of genetically engineered seed products and use of toxic pesticides, such as Roundup, on our farm fields.”
But sadly, the fact that the ruling was unanimous indicates that there probably never was much of a chance of it going the other way.
You’re probably not clueless enough to think real life hippos are cute and cuddly, but did you know hippos are Africa’s deadliest animal? Paul Templer, a river guide showing tourists the sights near Victoria Falls, near the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia back in 1996, found this out the hard way when he almost lost his life inside a hippo’s mouth.
Templer had taken a couple people out on the river. They were just chilling, drinking wine, eating snacks. They saw some hippos. Templer went to paddle around the hippos, and then, all of a sudden, he saw one of his party flying through the air. He went to save him, and then, found himself in darkness. He tried to figure out where he was. He was down a hippo’s throat. The rest of the story is in this video.
So Templer, having survived the attack and the “excruciating agony” of having his arm crushed and his body mauled, is now a motivational speaker. He takes pretty weighty long pauses and he’s a little self-important. But hey, he survived a hippo attack, and now, he’s got some advice for people trying to get from where they are to where they want to be. (Hint: The answer to the second one is NOT “inside a hippo.”)
The historic rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million in the atmosphere has many people thinking about climate change’s Brobdingnagian impacts. And right on cue, new research indicates that huge numbers of people, animals, and plants can expect to find themselves ejected from their homes because of global warming over the coming years and decades.
An estimated 32.4 million people were forced to flee their homes last year because of disasters such as floods and storms, according to a new report released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre — and 98 percent of that displacement can be blamed on climate- and weather-related events. That includes not just people in poor countries but also many Americans displaced by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters.
Also picking up the homeless theme is Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist famous for a groundbreaking 2006 report on the costs of climate change. He warns that hundreds of millions of people will likely be displaced in the near future. From The Guardian:
Massive movements of people are likely to occur over the rest of the century because global temperatures are likely to rise by up to 5C because carbon dioxide levels have risen unabated for 50 years, said Stern, who is head of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.
“When temperatures rise to that level, we will have disrupted weather patterns and spreading deserts,” he said. “Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homelands because their crops and animals will have died. The trouble will come when they try to migrate into new lands, however. That will bring them into armed conflict with people already living there. Nor will it be an occasional occurrence. It could become a permanent feature of life on Earth.”
Meanwhile, a study published Sunday warned of far-reaching impacts of the changing climate on the world’s plants and animals. From Reuters:
About 57 percent of plants and 34 percent of animal species were likely to lose more than half the area with a climate suited to them by the 2080s if nothing was done to limit emissions from power plants, factories and vehicles, [scientists] wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Hardest hit would be species in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, the Amazon and Central America.
“Climate change will greatly reduce biodiversity, even for many common animals and plants,” lead author Rachel Warren of the University of East Anglia in England said. The decline would damage natural services for humans such as water purification and pollination, she said.
But the scientists said governments could reduce the projected habitat loss by 60 percent if global greenhouse gas emissions peaked by 2016 and then fell. A peak by 2030 would cut losses by 40 percent.
Only 4 percent of animals, and no plants, were likely to benefit from rising temperatures and gain at least 50 percent extra territory, the study said.
Nowadays, in an age of rising population and scarcities of food and water in some regions, it’s a wonder that humanitarians aren’t clamoring for more atmospheric carbon dioxide.
No, it’s not The Onion. It’s the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which nowadays is much the same thing.
Once again, the country’s leading financial newspaper is recycling long-debunked myths from disinformers with PhDs posing as climate scientists — in this case, Harrison H. Schmitt and William Happer, “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide: The demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life and has little correlation with global temperature.”
But what nefarious forces have been demonizing CO2? Let’s see:
Darn you, major international financial institutions and the paper’s own reporters!
Sure, the Journal’s editorial page has long been part of the effort to advance the pollutocrat do-nothing agenda.
But this piece is a new low. “It’s shameful even by the dismal standards of that page,” as Columbia Journalism Review puts it in their piece, “The WSJ editorial page hits rock bottom.”
The entire piece is devoted to one of the most risible logical fallacies pushed by the deniers — that because CO2 stimulates plant growth, lots more CO2 must be great for plants. It’s like arguing that because humans need water to live, floods must be a great thing.
This myth has been widely debunked by Skeptical Science and a Climate Denial Crock of the Week video. In their extended debunking of the piece, Media Matters compares the argument to Idiocracy’s fictional Brawndo.
You may remember Schmitt and Happer as two of the 16 authors of a 2012 WSJ op-ed who were labeled “dentists practicing cardiology” by three dozen top climate scientists. As Media Matters explains:
Only the WSJ could hold these two up as climate experts.
The notion that CO2 has little correlation with temperature is pure anti-science (see “How carbon dioxide controls earth’s temperature” and “The Biggest Control Knob: Carbon Dioxide in Earth’s Climate History”).
Schmitt and Happer say our current CO2 levels are “low by the standards of geological and plant evolutionary history,” they pine for the days when “Levels were 3,000 ppm, or more,” and note that commercial greenhouse operators boost CO2 levels to “1,000 ppm or more to improve the growth and quality of their plants.”
The recent scientific literature is beyond crystal clear that 1,000 ppm — which is where we will end up this century if we listen to disinformers like these two — would result in multiple, simultaneous catastrophes for humanity, including widespread Dust-Bowlification.
Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, explained that we’re headed for 11 degrees F warming, and “everybody, even school children, know this will have catastrophic implications for all of us.”
Yes, even school children know more than Schmitt, Happer, and the editors of the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, sure, fine, it is possible to get a somewhat healthy sandwich at Subway. It will have watery, shredded lettuce on it, and peppers, and maybe avocado. It will taste like nothing. And let’s be real: That is not what people are ordering at Subway. They are ordering the foot-long Italian sub, with its layers of (relatively) delicious, fatty meat. Or they are ordering the Big Philly Cheesesteak.
The result of these choices is that, despite Subway’s enormously successful advertising campaign pitching it as a healthy fast-food alternative, the chain is feeding just as much crappy food to people as McDonald’s is. Or, as the New York Daily News reports:
“We found that there was no statistically significant difference between the two restaurants, and that participants ate too many calories at both,” public health scholar Dr. Lenard Lesser, who led the study, said in a statement.
The study sent 100 kids to McDonald’s and to Subway and tracked what they bought. The calorie count for the McDonald’s meals came in ever so slightly higher — but not enough to make a real difference. And, even without a side of salty, salty fries, Subway meals had higher sodium content.
Moral of the story: If you want to eat healthy, it doesn’t matter which chain restaurant you go to. What matters is what you order, and you’re not that likely to order the gross salad when the salty, fatty alternative is right there.
UPDATE: Call off the snail-hunting committee! The giant snail in question is not a giant African snail but a rosy wolfsnail, which is considerably more benign and also sounds more like a Doctor Who reference.
Houston, Texas, is the latest place to find itself the unlucky host to a rather large African snail, which, sadly, does not have any plans to benefit its newly acquired habitat. A woman working in a Houston garden stumbled on a single snail, but officials fear this was only one snail among more, and possibly many.
In case you were under the misapprehension that being a giant African snail involves a minimum of nefarious activity, well, sorry. These snails are pretty evil, even if they don’t mean to be. Here’s what we wrote about them back when one showed up in Australia:
It can lay 1,200 eggs a year, and those 1,200 babies are so ravenous that when Florida suffered an infestation in 1975, it caused an estimated $11 million a year in damages. It’s the size of a baseball generally, but can grow up to a foot long and weigh 2.2 pounds. It snacks on 500 different crops, but in a pinch it’ll also eat your house — at least in Florida, where a lot of the houses are made out of stucco. Oh, and it carries a parasite that can give humans meningitis. But other than that, they’re great neighbors!
So how, exactly, did these house-eating, disease carrying vermin get here? Some of them came attached to cargo ships. Others may have been imported as pets and then released into the wild. One thing about them that is for sure: You should not touch them. Meningitis is NOT GOOD.
(And if you live in the Briar Forest neighborhood of Houston: heads up. That snail got away. Be on the lookout for him, or one of his 7,000 potential snail brothers.)
Although shared value is not always intuitive at first blush, below the surface there are exciting matches to be made on big societal challenges where new thinking and risk capital is badly needed. The represents an opportunity for condom companies.
The post Condom Companies Should Focus on Violence Against Women appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
Barely one month after it launched its first advocacy campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new Fwd.us political action committee has already shed two key, high profile members over a controversy involving the Keystone XL pipeline. The two now-former members are none other than Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and David Sacks, founder of Yammer.
On May 8th, Tesla published its Q1 results, showing a profit for the first time ever in the company's history. In a letter to shareholders, the company announced a profit of $11.2 million (on a GAAP basis) with record sales of $562 million, up 83% over the prior quarter.
The post Tesla’s Q1 Results Reveal First-Ever Profit – What’s Behind The Numbers? appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
A few weeks ago, Noluck Tafuruka was arrested by police in Zimbabwe for possessing a rifle, without a license. But he’s doing better than his partner, Solomon Manjoro. The two men allegedly snuck into Zimbabwe’s Charara National Park with the intention of bagging some valuable wild animals.
But one elephant that they tried to take down had had it up to here with poachers — and when you’re an elephant, “up to here” is pretty high. The elephant charged Monjoro and trampled him.
Treehugger points out:
In recent years, poaching of elephants and rhinos in wildlife reserves in Africa has spiked dramatically, fueled largely by demand for their prized tusks and horns. Meanwhile, both conservationists and wildlife officers have struggled to protect these animals from hunters, a daunting task given the vast areas to be protected and the stealthiness of poachers who often enter the parks under cover of darkness.
Given the lack of human protection, the elephants are doing it for themselves.
When people camp, they often turn into even bigger slobs than they are in real life. Between the beers, flashlight batteries, water bottles, and marshmallow packaging, they generate and leave behind a lot of crap. So, Glad, who makes trash bags, thought to themselves, “how might we enhance the camping experience, encourage people to pick up after themselves, and also, let’s be honest, promote our brand?” The result: a tent that can be turned into a garbage bag.
No, it’s probably not a tent you’d want to use if you were climbing Everest. But for a couple days at a music festival — Glad promoted the trash bag tent at this year’s SXSW — it will do just fine. You can sleep in it, throw all your trash inside, and then throw it away like a good boy. Here’s a video Glad made about their nifty creation.
Of course, this does nothing to keep camping-generated waste (or plastic bags) out of landfills. But you know. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. Next year, a sleeping bag that recycles!
After working for the biggest car brands in Italy, Israeli car designer Amir Zaid decided to shift his focus towards urban transportation and created the MUVe – a foldable scooter that may be the next Segway.
The post MUVe: The Next Urban Vehicle that Might be Segway’s Successor appeared first on Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit.
It’s springtime at the Point Reyes National Seashore, about an hour outside of San Francisco, and the cold wind whips off the sea and through the tall grass along the cliffs. Cows wander and graze along the fingers of land that reach out into the estuary’s tiny bays, an area altogether encompassing just over three square miles.
Beyond the estuary, at the outer edges of the seashore, seals sun themselves on the beaches, packed in tightly and squirming along the shoreline.
From March through June, the estuary is quiet. The seashore boasts more than 28,000 acres of agricultural land, most of it for beef and dairy production — but it’s pupping season for the seals, and the National Park Service has instated its annual ban on the motorboats that usually zip around the estuary, planting and harvesting millions of oysters for the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.
These estuary oysters have been here for decades, but their lease has run out. If the National Park Service gets its way, this estuary will soon be protected as pure wilderness, with no oyster farming allowed, and those seals will never hear a motor in this water again.
The Lunny family, which owns the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, has been fighting for years to stay put — the family’s appeal is due to be heard in court this week. But recently, this dispute has gotten caught up in national environmental battles, including the fight over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Members of Congress and national green groups have weighed in. And what ultimately amounts to just two square miles of “potential wilderness” have split the environmental movement right down the middle, locally and nationally.
The battle for this estuary has become far more than a fight about an oyster farm — it’s become a flashpoint in the debate over what we want out of the natural world, and what we can afford. At a time of both economic and ecological crisis, how much sense does it make to put a fence up around nature? How much sense does it make to let business interests capitalize off public lands? And who gets to decide?
This is not a wholly unique dispute — conservation and agriculture have come to blows in the past, and often. But this fight has torn at one of the greenest communities in the country, a place where the local town center is papered in anti-Keystone XL posters and fliers for classes on switching to solar power.
Marin County, where Point Reyes is located, is the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area’s eco foodie obsession. The county was the first in California to offer a local organic label and is now home to over 20,000 acres of certified organic agriculture.
Proponents for sustainable, local food systems argue that local oysters are a healthy, ecologically friendly source of protein, grown close to home, with the added benefit of filtering the local water. Among them are critically acclaimed restaurateurs such as the owners of the Hayes Street Grill and celebrity chef Alice Waters, who have aligned themselves with the Sonoma and Marin County Farm Bureaus, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and Marin County’s agriculture commissioner.
Backing the National Park Service in its efforts to oust the oyster farmers are national conservation and parks protection groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the California Coastal Commission. Notable conservationists including oceanographer Sylvia Earle have also weighed in to support increased protections for the shoreline and the ouster of the farm.
Both sides say they are motivated by a desire to protect the environment and be responsible stewards of the land. Both sides claim broad support, say science is on their side, and blame one another for campaigns of misinformation. From personal attacks to falsified reports to piles of lawsuits, it’s been salty and slimy, and it’s far from over.
It’s a Sunday morning and Bridget Lunny pushes up the sleeves on her Drakes Bay Oyster Company sweatshirt. She’s manning the register at the oyster shack, the spiffiest of a cluster of small buildings on a teensy plot of land perched on the shore of an inlet along the estuary. The farm’s workers live in the houses nearby — you can see their gardens and hear their backyard chickens.
According to local farm groups, the beds these workers tend in Drake’s Bay produce nearly a third of all oysters grown in California. The oyster shack and picnic grounds along the shore also draw tens of thousands of tourists each year.
Starting early this morning, customers stream into the little white shack, coolers in hand, asking about the state of things, offering their support.
“How’s the fight going?” one man asks.
“Pretty good,” says Bridget, the granddaughter of owner Kevin Lunny, as she piles oysters into bags. “We have another court case in May, and who knows what that will bring.”
“Well I hope they go in your favor,” the man says, grabbing the bags. “This seems kind of ridiculous.”
“If anything was to go wrong with the environment because of the business here, it would’ve done so a long time ago. Not now,” Bridget says, shrugging.
She points to the nearby roads and the gas-guzzling tourists driving along it, to the ranches nearby, to the kayaking businesses that operate in the same waters. “For me, that’s not wilderness,” she says. “It’ll never be wilderness.”
Almost 40 percent of the Point Reyes National Seashore really isn’t wilderness — it’s a “pastoral zone” in Park Service parlance, set aside for agriculture. The park was established in 1962, more than 100 years after many of the ranches on these lands were first started. It was a big conservation win during a time of development, but it was still an odd one. Existing ranches were allowed to stay by selling their land to the government and leasing it back.
The Philip Burton Wilderness Act of 1976 protected more of the seashore, but was no less confusing. While the act designated much actual and “potential” wilderness in the area, it also called for the preservation of other significant land uses: “recreational, educational, historic preservation, interpretation, and scientific research opportunities as are consistent with … preservation of the natural environment.”
In addition to the cattle ranches, there was also an oyster farm in these waters when the park was established — it had been there for almost 30 years. In 1972, the federal government bought out the Johnson’s Oyster Farm, offering a 40-year lease and a “conditional use” permit. But before that lease ran out, in 2004, Point Reyes rancher Kevin Lunny purchased the farm, expanded oyster cultivation to the other small bays in the estuary, and said he wanted to stay.
The Park Service has allowed for “non-conforming” uses in other wilderness areas – motorboats in the Grand Canyon, for example. But the Department of the Interior warned Lunny that the government was required by the 1976 act to convert the area to wilderness “as soon as the non-conforming use can be eliminated.” President Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, had the authority to extend the Lunnys’ lease, but declined, based on the 1976 “potential wilderness” designation and a controversial environmental impact study. On December 4, 2012, Salazar officially deemed the estuary protected wilderness. The oyster farm would have to go.
The Lunnys sued to overturn the decision, and the farm has continued to operate these past few months thanks to an emergency injunction from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District in San Francisco, which stated that “the balance of hardships tips sharply” in the Lunnys’ favor until the court can address “serious legal questions” about Salazar’s decision.
But it’s been the serious environmental questions swirling in the estuary that made this fight a national battle over how we use and protect public lands.
The dispute over the estuary is, in simple terms, a dispute over the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company’s expired lease. But that doesn’t account for the cultural, philosophical, and scientific issues at play in Drakes Bay.
The Lunnys and their supporters contend that the oyster operation is completely sustainable and that the bivalves even help filter the estuary’s waters. Moreover, they say that Salazar, who recently left his post at Interior, had an “obsession” with getting rid of the farm. “In their obsession to eliminate the oyster farm, [Interior Department officials] abused the law, the facts, the science — and especially the oyster farm, its employees, and their families,” their lawsuit reads.
“Closing the Oyster Farm would have a broad, negative and immediate impact, on the local economy and the sustainable agriculture and food industry in the San Francisco Bay Area,” the farm’s supporters wrote to the court in March, adding that advocates for Drake’s closure are “stuck in an archaic and discredited preservationist paradigm.”
Local biologist Phyllis Faber said the California Coastal Commission “has ‘lost its way’” in working with the National Park Service to remove the farm. “It has engaged in an inexplicable campaign – exceeding its charter – to bureaucratically smother – to drive out of business — a working family farm.”
“I’m not going to say that it makes no impact at all,” says Bridget Lunny, leaning against the counter, oyster knife in hand. “But having these buildings torn down seems like more of an impact than just leaving them, you know?” When she talks about the hypothetical end of the farm, she tears up. “We’re a good family, we’re stewards of the land.”
This kind of talk rankles Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.
“Not only is this operation wholly incompatible with wilderness, to say it’s sustainable is just a joke,” says Trainer, pointing to a bevy of charges against the farm, from non-native oysters choking protected eelgrass, to motorboats running seals off the shoreline, to farm waste dumped in the estuary. “I think those claims are hollow, and it does a real serious injustice to the number of truly great sustainable agricultural operations in Marin.”
From the conservationists’ perspective, this isn’t about food versus wilderness — it’s about a business versus the people.
“Every piece of land can’t be everything to everyone. That’s not what national parks were created for,” says Neal Desai, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Pacific regional office. “We can grow oysters elsewhere. But we can’t have another place to protect the marine wilderness.”
“There’s no question that the environmentally preferred alternative for this area is for it to be restored to wilderness,” Trainer tells me. “Get the 19 million non-native oysters out. Get the pressure-treated wood racks out. Get all the plastic bags out. Stop the motorized boat trips. Stop the disturbance of harbor seals. Stop all these adverse impacts.”
Two blocks from Trainer’s office, a storefront window proudly displays this bumper sticker.
For nearly ten years, each side in this debate has thrown whatever they can at the other. Every environmental impact report, every scientific study, and every claim has been debated. The National Park Service itself reprimanded some of its own scientists for biased and even false reporting aimed at booting the farm.
But as nasty as the local fight got, no one expected the conservative D.C. political machine to jump into the Drake’s fray.
In late 2012, the relatively new government watchdog group Cause of Action offered pro bono legal assistance to the Lunnys. Cause of Action says it is non-partisan, though critics point to the fact that the executive director formerly worked with the Koch brothers. (The group’s donor list is secret.)
“We have an interest in exposing how the Department of the Interior used taxpayer dollars to purposefully misrepresent science in an effort to harm an existing small business,” says Cause of Action spokesperson Mary Beth Hutchins.
Other support has been even more problematic. Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana recently tacked a proposal to extend the farm’s lease to a bill that would expedite the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in Alaska. The Lunnys have readily accepted Cause of Action’s assistance — hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal aid help — but have distanced themselves from Vitter’s bill, emphasizing their ethos of sustainability.
Conservationists, though, see a slippery slope: Let the farm stay on the public lands, and that could give legal precedent next time for an oil company. “It’s been very interesting to see the company that this business is keeping in trying to achieve its agenda,” says Trainer. “Their agenda is clearly free-market fundamentalism — open up public land, anti-regulation, anti-restrictions on use of public property.”
There are multiple outstanding lawsuits seeking to save the farm, with the first set to be heard in court beginning May 14. This battle could rage all year, and beyond – enough time for the Lunnys to grow another crop of oysters.
But regardless of whether this oyster farm goes, the Point Reyes National Seashore will not ever really be wilderness — the pastoral lands are here to stay. When Salazar decided to give Drake’s Bay Oyster Company the boot, he also extended all ranching leases from 10 to 20 years. Conservationists point to the powerful shellfish lobby that’s rallied to save the oyster farm, but the big agriculture muscle here is clearly in the cows.
One quarter of the county’s cattle live on this land, overrunning the park trails. Standing water pools that reach down into the mudflats are full of acid green algae. Run-off from the cliffs above flows down onto the beaches in slimey green trickles.
“If the ranching has impacts, those should be managed to the extent possible,” says Desai, with the National Parks Conservation Association. “Can more be done? I’m sure. Has this actually been addressed? Probably not. The park has been focused on this oyster farm issue.”
The park has been focused on other threats, too — far greater ones. “Rising sea levels impelled by melting glaciers and polar icecaps will likely dramatically change this coastal park’s environment upon which animals have come to rely and humans come to enjoy,” reads the park’s mission statement on climate change. This is the horrific future fate against which both sides of this battle are ostensibly trying to hedge. If we stand to lose it all, maybe we should build that tall fence — but how much does it matter if we save it but can only appreciate it from distance?
The green movement is arguably bigger and more diverse than ever, and our wild places and arable lands are fewer and further between. The battle for Drake’s Bay might be a small one, but it could be indicative of how these fights will continue to play out on public lands, from now until this estuary has all slipped under the rising tides.
It’s a fact of life that how much money you make often determines other life decisions, like where you can afford to live. But what if we reimagine what wealth means…what if wealth is an abundance of what you value?
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