On a map, the rambling 2,500-acre inlet known as Drakes Estero looks like a chicken foot, its bony fingers pointing north from the larger Drakes Bay. In person, the estuary is strikingly beautiful: calm water protected from ocean waves by sand spits at its mouth, flanked by headlands and low, grassy hills dotted with cattle and a few trees tough enough to withstand the wind. It's also an ecological jewel, a stopping point for dozens of species of migrating birds, host to a thriving eelgrass population, a favorite sunning spot and pupping ground for harbor seals. There are signs of civilization, though: Hiking paths traverse the estuary on both sides and it's a peaceful destination for kayakers. The air is bracing, briny, restorative. It's hard to believe even the most heartless capitalist could do it harm.
The debate over who is the best steward for this piece of land could be settled this week in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Drakes Bay Oyster Company, the only commercial business in Drakes Estero, has been ordered by the federal government to leave the estuary after its 40-year operating permit expired in November 2012. Drakes Estero is protected federal land — part of the Point Reyes National Seashore — and the National Park Service wants the oyster farm gone so the estuary can become the first marine protected wilderness on the West Coast.