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Mark Dowie: What’s A Park For?

January 10, 2012

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The battle over whether or not to allow the cultivation of oysters inside a California national park.

By **Mark Dowie**

farm_equipment.jpgPhotograph via Flickr from the U.S. National Archives.

“Keep your nature out of my nature”—Aaron Lucich

Parks take many forms, according to Guernica Editor-at-Large Mark Dowie, and in almost every instance they create controversy. But of all the quarrels they create, few match the question of whether or not to allow agriculture in national parks around the world. And in that vein, Dowie says, few match the overheated community battle over whether or not to allow the cultivation of oysters inside The Point Reyes National Seashore on the west coast of California.

First of all, what is a park?

Zion is one. So is Yellowstone, Central, Yosemite, Gramercy, the Maasai Mara, and Golden Gate Park. Most are public but some private (Zuccotti). They’re on every continent and serve many purposes, from entertainment to human refuge, sport, wildlife, and native plant protection, eco-system integrity, as well as cultural, historical and natural preservation. And there are tiny urban parklets created in San Francisco by people who fill a parking meter with coins, lay down some sod in the parking space, set up chairs and relax ’til the meter runs out. They are human creations and are without exception designed and managed primarily for human use.

In their very creation parks invite controversy. While they are ostensibly created for people, parks also piss people off. One of the most heated controversies surrounding rural parks around the world is agriculture and whether or not it should be allowed in any form inside a park boundary. The very sight of grazing cattle, plowed fields, silos, barns, vineyards, and fishing boats inside a national park is horrifying to some nature enthusiasts, particularly those who believe that cultivated land can be stripped of agriculture, crisscrossed with asphalt roads leading to parking lots and tailored trailheads, and declared “wilderness.” Ironically, many of the people who oppose agriculture in parks near their communities also treasure fresh, locally produced foods.

Most rural American national parks that are not historical monuments were created on open, uncultivated land, some in true wilderness. And most of them have remained free of agriculture, although roads, trails, lodges and over 600 commercial concessions have stripped most of them of any semblance of the wild places they once were. A few began their existence on land that had been grazed and cultivated for centuries. In some of those places agriculture has been continued in some form since the park’s founding. In others, the cultural dynamic that created the landscape was replaced with idealized natural settings in keeping with the ideological and pastoral themes of the Park Service and its supporters. “Rewilding” is the word most frequently used to describe this process.

The creation of Shenandoah National Park represents a fairly prevalent American attitude toward the notion of farming in parks. While there were still hundreds of productive farms and plantations in Shenandoah Valley, many of which had been cultivating the land for centuries, advocates for a national park were describing the entire area as “primeval wilderness.” In 1930, the State of Virginia issued a blanket condemnation of the entire area. Eminent domain was challenged by the farmers but failed, and 465 families were evicted from their land. Homes and barns were razed or burned to prevent anyone from moving back in. The National Park Service called for “a quick return to nature while cleaning up the landscape and preparing to receive visitors in large numbers.” In the time it takes to seed, grow and harvest a crop, 300 square miles of diverse and prosperous farmland was taken out of production.

But not all American Parks are created equal. They are in fact remarkably different from one another, run as they are, autonomously by Park Superintendents, who display a wide diversity of attitude toward agriculture and mariculture. Some won’t even consider it, while others are more open to the idea, like John Debo, former manager of Ohio’s 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park who willingly bowed to local pressure from the pro-agriculture Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy and reopened deteriorating but picturesque old farms that once existed in the Park.

The Conservancy was established in 1999 as a cooperating partner with the Park, and for four years after Debo gave a green light to agriculture, focused on rehabilitating and revitalizing the old farms. To preserve the area’s rural landscape, the “Countryside Initiative” invited farmers to live and farm inside the park, but only using sustainable methods appropriate for a nature reserve. Eleven rehabilitated farms were operational by 2009, and two more leases are being offered this year. Citizens of Cleveland and Akron can and do travel the short distance to the Park to buy fresh produce, eggs, cheese, meat, and wines made from restored vineyards. There are also two smaller National Lakeshores on the Great Lakes, Sleeping Bear and Indiana Dunes, that have allowed farms to remain in operation, partly for educational purposes and partly cultural. Delaware Gap National Recreation Area has 3,000 acres in strictly controlled agricultural production. And subsistence farming of bananas, breadfruit, taro, and coconut is allowed on a federally managed preserve inside the National Park of American Samoa.

[T]he idea of combining food cultivation with human recreation, practiced widely on every continent, seems quite reasonable, while paving wilderness to preserve wilderness seems less so.

The Adirondack National Park is experimenting with a fascinating compromise they call “wild farming,” which involves planting native pollinator corridors, building ponds, bird and bat houses, restoring riparian and wetland habitats while adopting non-lethal predator controls on local ranches, and developing cropping systems uniquely adapted to each ecosystem in the bioregion. Those practices are combined with sustainable farming. The protection of biodiversity is the ultimate goal of wild farming, as it is in most national parks. The Adirondack project covers many acres of natural land and farmland, including a once private farm now owned and operated by the Eddy Foundation.

The farm is inside a wildlife corridor called the Split Rock Wildway, which connects the Park to the Lake. Most of the area is covered by forest maintained in or returning to a natural state. The rest is composed of cultivated fields of organic fruits, vegetables, grains and mushrooms. The fields are crisscrossed with hedgerows of native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. By all indications, the experiment is a huge success and could encourage other superintendents to consider similar projects elsewhere in the system, were it not for considerable public opposition to the whole idea of farming in parks.

***

In 1949, when Britain decided to follow America’s example and create a chain of national parks there was virtually no uncultivated land left anywhere in the kingdom. Following the Shenandoah model by kicking thousands of farmers off land that had been grazed and cultivated for centuries to create parks for weary urbanites and tourists would have caused such a national uproar that the idea was dismissed without debate. The result: Parliament passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, creating fifteen rural parks in England and Wales, comprising about 5.5 percent of total land in the UK. Seventy percent of the land is privately owned by about 300,000 people and virtually all the original farmland remains under cultivation, albeit limited by new rules and restrictions. All but one percent of the land inside Snodonia National Park in Wales is private, and 80 percent of it is in agriculture. The aim of the Snodonia is to encourage land management practices that meet the highest stewardship standards. The Park is regarded worldwide as an ongoing experiment in cultural and ecosystem preservation.

Italy boasts the greatest biodiversity in Europe, not only thanks to a wide variety of eco-systems and geomorphological conditions, but more because of an ancient agricultural tradition that considers the land surrounding fields and pasture as vital to the health of crops and livestock as the cultivated soil itself. So the idea of farming in a protected area comes quite naturally to Italians.

Almost all of the country’s twenty-four national parks, encompassing more than seven million acres, about ten percent of the national landscape, contain small farms and ranches, a total of 230,000, about 500 of them organic. Italians go to their parks to purchase fresh food. As it is in Britain, grazing in Italian parks is limited. The average animal-unit on private land in the country is about 2.1 per hectare, for example, while in national parks it’s about .7. So as in the UK, Italian livestock farmers in parks receive a subsidy to cover loss of revenue from reduced herds and flocks. And to encourage conversion to organic production in the parks the government rewards organic farmers with special grants for acting as “guardian stewards of nature.”

Back in America, managers of the country’s national parks remain ambivalent about agriculture. Right now National Park Service officials on both sides of the agriculture issue are focused on one of the most controversial of all lands managed by the Park Service. The Point Reyes National Seashore was created in 1962 on some of the most productive farmland on the American coastline. A current disagreement, which has seriously divided the surrounding community, is over the future of the oyster farm which, like the other food producers, was operating in the Seashore’s Drake’s Estero long before the Seashore was created. In fact local shell middens indicate that Miwok Indians harvested native oysters from the estero for generations before Europeans settled the area. The farm, which produces about forty percent of California’s oysters, was until recently welcomed by the National Park Service, which even considered making it a featured tourist attraction of the Seashore. But in 2009 NPS officials claimed that oyster cultivation was polluting the estero with sediment, introducing non-native species, harming eel grass beds and disturbing harbor seals. When pressed for evidence of those claims, the Service produced data that has since been proven to be scientifically unsound. Moreover, the Park Service deliberately hid strong evidence from their own research (a quarter of a million photographs) that the oyster operation was not disturbing seals. The oyster farm use permit is scheduled to expire in November 2012.

Leasors of the six cattle ranches surrounding the estero that hosts the oyster farm fear that when water-filtering bivalves are removed the estero could eutrophy. High nitrogen run-off from the ranches would surely be blamed for that, and their leases would be jeopardized. That could start a cascade of evictions that would remove all agriculture from the Seashore, adding another American national park to the majority that do not host agriculture inside their borders.

Strangely enough the argument for allowing that to happen is largely motivated by appreciation of “wilderness,” a word that is used frequently by neighboring citizens and National Park Service supporters intent upon removing the oyster farm from the Seashore. That might make sense if what remained after removal of the oysters was anything remotely resembling wilderness, which in America is generally defined as a roadless area untrammeled by humans. Drake’s Estero, however, is bordered on two sides by blacktop highway, down which travel over two million cars a year. And it is surrounded by well maintained hiking trails frequented by visitors who NPS studies say, in addition to kayakers, cause in excess of 90 percent of the harbor seal disturbances along its shoreline. The other ten percent are wildlife disturbances – mostly coyotes. While a few of the Seashore’s visitors come for the oysters, the bulk of them will still be there if the oysters go. It is, after all, a park.

But what is that park or any park really for? That remains a hard question to answer because so many of them are created around the world for so many purposes. While few if any were created to advance agriculture, many were formed to protect it. And the idea of combining food cultivation with human recreation, practiced widely on every continent, seems quite reasonable, while paving wilderness to preserve wilderness seems less so. Whatever becomes of the relationship between farming and recreation in national parks, trying them both at once, in the same place, seems like a worthwhile experiment from which much can be learned about both farms and parks.

________________________________________________________________________

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian and the author of seven books, including Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, American Foundations: An Investigative History, and, most recently, Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict between Global Conservation and Native Peoples. During his thirty-five years in journalism Dowie has won nineteen journalism awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and contributed to the London Times, Harper’s, The New York Times, The World Policy Journal, the Wall Street Journal, The Utne Reader, The Nation, Worth, Resurgence, Ms, the Los Angeles Times, Der Spiegel, and the Washington Post, among many others. He is a contributing editor of Orion magazine and former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine. He has taught science, environmental reporting, and foreign correspondence at The University of California Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in Point Reyes Station, California

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5 comments for Mark Dowie: What’s A Park For?

  1. Comment by Murray Suid on January 10, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    If the National Park Service has the power to close the oyster farm, then that’s what will happen. More often than not, might makes right.

    But to designate Drakes Estero as a wilderness area is to use language in a way that would appall George Orwell. The Estero, which is close to where I live, is beautiful in the extreme, but it is not wilderness.

    Readers interested in learning about true wilderness might read Lynn Schooler’s remarkable memoir WALKING HOME, set in Alaska. On page 145 Schooler describes walking trip of a thousand miles: “Along the entire distance I would cross only a single road…” Now that’s a wilderness area!

  2. Comment by susan ives on January 10, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    Mr.Dowie’s writing and research are impressive, but he has selectively omitted some important information in this advocacy piece for the oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore. The oyster farm is located within the a designated federal wilderness area–an area so biologically rich and fragile that the United Nation’s named it Biosphere Reserve. As a concession to the then-small oyster operation, the family was paid, and given 40 more years to operate. That lease is up in 2012. The current owners of the oyster farm purchased it with that understanding. Then they intensively expanded and are fighting to stay. They have been cited at least a dozen times by federal and state agencies for pollution and permit violations, including illegally expanding onto national parklands. Whatever Mr. Dowie sees as the National Park Service’s shortcomings, the oyster company has proven to be a problematic tenant–especially given the area’s status as wilderness and its recognized importance as critical wildlife habitat. The oyster company was offered a generous buyout in 2009, but refused. Instead they are making their fight a test of the Wilderness Act itself. If they succeed, other federal wilderness will be at risk of commercialization. The surrounding cattle ranches Mr. Dowie refers to in the park are not in the wilderness areas. Their grazing rights are not in any way tied to the oyster farm.

    America’s National parks take many forms and agricultural uses, like those at Point Reyes National Seashore, have a place in this diverse system of national parklands. Oysters can be farmed in many places. As for wilderness, they ain’t making it anymore.

  3. Comment by Peter Brastow on January 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I just have one quick correction for Mr. Dowie. The following statement is incorrect:”In fact local shell middens indicate that Miwok Indians harvested native oysters from the estero for generations before Europeans settled the area.”

    Drakes Estero is not oyster habitat. Archeological, ethnographic, historical and ecological evidence and information collectively demonstrate that Drakes Estero, as a soft bottom estuary, has not been oyster habitat for at least two thousand years. The shell middens contain clams, and other native mollusks. Any oysters are dated as being at least two thousand years old.

  4. Comment by Mark Dowie on January 13, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Susan,

    You are quite right to point out that the current oyster farm lease expires in 2012, which of course the leasors knew when they signed it. But they would not have done so had the NPS not added a renewal clause to the lease agreement, which they did.

    And you are also right to point out that they ain’t making wilderness anymore. In fact wilderness can’t be made, only preserved where it is. Which is exactly the folly of trying to turn a body of water surrounded by roads, trails and ranches into wilderness. Fact is that taking out the bivalves could make it’s waters ecologically less pristine than they are.

    Mark

  5. Comment by Janet Brown on May 23, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I am so pleased to see Mark challenge thinking around the purpose of parks with regard to human patterns of living. I live in and farm in Marin, and I am one of many who, if pushed to choose between the National Seashore concept or reclaim Marin farmland, would not struggle with the choice.
    I am wholeheartedly for the oyster farm’s continuance. It is a beautiful and fascinating, elegant enterprise, an economic generator for our community, a producer of high-quality protein, a job’s center, and a draw for those with an interest in something more than passive landscapes.
    The original deal with the park is that it would co-exist with the farms in an experiment. The farms are one of the best features of the park. The farms are the legacy of the people of Marin and we want them.
    I personally would like to see dozens of more agricultural enterprises in the park including, native plant nurseries, woodworking, berry production, bees, basketry and basket plants, and much more,
    I have done a lot of hiking in Pt. Reyes Seashore and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to come across a little shop or enterprise on some of the trails that worked right from that spot in a careful way. Something elegantly fitted to the landscape.
    I am tired of the “wilderness” argument. It hasn’t been wilderness for a 1,000 years. Read the Olone Way. They were managing the landscape, doing controlled burns on a regular basis, harvesting acorns, propagating basket plants, hunting for generations and changing the landscape back then.
    Wilderness is fantasy. Wilderness is romance at odds with reality. Taking away the oysters will never bring Tarzan back. Sorry.

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