The Oyster War

the true story of a small farm, big politics, and the future of wilderness in America

Oyster War cover.jpg

Publication date: August 11th 2015

Shortlisted for The Orion Book Award

Finalist for The Northern California Book Award

A Men’s Journal Best Book of 2015

A Guardian Best Food Book of 2015

Awarded the Kirkus Star for Books of Exceptional Merit

it all began simply enough.

In 1976 the Point Reyes Wilderness Act granted the highest protection in America to more than 33,000 acres of California forest, grassland and shoreline—including Drakes Estero, an estuary of stunning beauty. Inside was a small, family-run oyster farm first established in the 1930s. A local rancher bought the business in 2005, renaming it The Drakes Bay Oyster Company. When the National Park Service informed him that the 40-year lease would not be renewed past 2012, he vowed to keep the farm in business even if it meant taking his fight all the way to the Supreme Court.

Environmentalists, national politicians, scientists, and the Department of the Interior all joined a protracted battle for the estuary that had the power to influence the future of wilderness everywhere for decades to come. Were the oyster farmers environmental criminals, or victims of government fraud? Fought against a backdrop of fear of government corruption and the looming specter of climate change, the battle struck a national nerve, pitting nature against agriculture and science against politics, as it sought to determine who belonged and who didn’t belong, and what it means to be wild.

Listen to an npr interview with the author

Praise for The Oyster War

"In The Oyster War, Brennan writes with clarity and grace about an environmental conflict centered on an oyster farm in one of the most beautiful preserves in America, the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, as the forces of history, culture, and politics converge to decide the farm’s fate. Her saga raises the question: How far can one go to return a land to ‘wilderness,’ when throughout its history it supported all manner of human endeavor?  It’s a compelling and evocative read for anyone who, like me, shares Brennan's belief that this territory is, in fact, ’a little bit magic.’" — Erik Larson, author of Dead Wake and Devil in the White City


"Written in a style reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit——the San Francisco environmental writer with a keen ability for melding the poetic and the political——The Oyster War makes for a fast-paced and dramatic read about a messy situation with no clear-cut “bad guy.”[...] In all, The Oyster War is essential reading for anyone interested in a tumultuous chapter in the history of food systems and environmental activism in the U.S." - Civil Eats


"Brennan's prose comes alive while detailing the environmental histories of Point Reyes and Northern California that lead up to the oyster years ... The book is filled with surprises that complicate our thinking about the value of nature, the meaning of 'wilderness,' and the local and national political efforts that concern them." — High Country News


"An absorbing account of the clash between environmentalists and oyster farmers in the coastal towns north of San Francisco... [Brennan] offers a well-crafted narrative exploring every aspect of the controversy... interweav[ing] the stories of oyster pirates, cattle ranchers, Native Americans, scientists, and species ranging from exotic deer to harbor seals ... Well-written and superbly reported." — Kirkus Starred Review

"Brennan is a natural storyteller who makes a tough tale——which many locals and visitors winced through and tiptoed around——into a narrative celebration of the striking landscape of the Point Reyes Peninsula, and the spirit behind the oyster war itself." — The San Francisco Chronicle


"A remarkable writer ... If you're looking for great nonfiction to read that will hold your attention like a novel does, then read The Oyster War by Summer Brennan." —Book Riot


"In these times of crucial need to protect both wild places and working landscapes supporting real people, difficult decisions must be made about who gets to stay and who must go. But we quickly find ourselves in a hall of mirrors. This is a devoutly honest book whose author recognizes that sometimes the closest we can get to truth is a matter of opinion. Her self-questioning integrity is a compass that can help us all steer a wiser course when we find ourselves in a tangle and the right direction is not easy to discern." — Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel and Song for the Blue Ocean