Investigating the National Park Service

From the Russian River Times, October 2011

Are the National Park Service really the ‘good guys’ in the dispute over the future of oyster harvest in Point Reyes National Sea Shore?  To understand the situation, consider the nature and history of NPS investigations in general, rather than the NPS results and statistics, which–as one high ranking Department of Interior official noted–are “not worth the paper they are sent in on.”

Thanks to the University of New Mexico Press and the National Parks Traveler, one can see the stunning parallels between events surrounding an investigation of the National Park Service Hubble Trading Post and Drake’s Bay Oyster Company, operating within Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Traveler reviewed “The Case of the Indian Trader,” written by Park Service investigator Paul D. Berkowitz. Rather than reporting NPS corruption and perversion of law to his superiors, many of whom were directly involved, he took his findings directly to the Inspector General. The review describes the book as telling three stories: “one that details what seems to be a grave injustice done to a man, Billy Malone, many describe as the last and one of the best of the country’s true-to-life Indian traders; a second on mismanagement within one of the National Park Service’s largest co-operating associations; and a third that reveals an incredibly dark side of the National Park Service. Read the Park Traveler review at: http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/review/2011/case-indian-trader-billy-malone-and-national-park-service-investigation-hubbell-trading-post8015

The National Park Service acquired the Hubble Trading Post with the understanding that a recognized Indian trader, integrated with the Navajo community, would operate it in the traditional manner. This exactly parallels the situation in Drake’s Estero, where the park (the Point Reyes National Seashore) was formed with the understanding that within the historic pastoral landscape, ranching and the oyster farm could continue to play their roles within the community. The authors of the Point Reyes National Seashore legislation, including environmental icon Congressman Pete McCloskey, who talked the Nixon Administration into funding for the seashore as well as authoring the Endangered Species Act, recently reaffirmed this fact.

The parallels continue with Berkowitz’ documentation of NPS behavior, including Park Service agents making false statements to obtain search warrants of Malone’s Store, unlawfully seizing the majority of his personal property and wrongfully claiming that Malone had stolen federal funds. He also describes the improper collusion between NPS officials and Western National Parks Association, when newly appointed WNPA Executive Director LeeAnn Simpson became convinced that Malone had stolen millions of dollars and insisted that the NPS investigate.

Once again, the history closely parallels that of Drake’s Estero. Gordon Bennett of the Sierra Club launched an attack on Kevin Lunny, whose family had recently acquired the oyster farm from the failing Johnson Oyster company. In a May/June 2006 article in the Sierra Club Yodeler, he claims that Lunny was disturbing harbor seals, poisoning the estuary, importing invasive species, violating his permits and failing to meet the terms of a California Coastal Commission consent decree with his predecessor, the Johnson Oyster Company. None of these charges have been shown to have merit.

Because of newly surfacing NPS intransigence, Lunny could not obtain the necessary approvals from NPS to comply with the consent decree and finally asked Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey to intercede.  Kinsey told the OIG, in its subsequent investigation, that Don Neubacher, then Superintendent of the Point Reyes National Seashore, stated he would not negotiate further with Lunny, because of his civil and criminal liabilities and that he was bringing charges. Lunny asked the NPS to document those charges, but no response was forthcoming.

Just as in the Indian Trader case, the NPS, acting in concert with Sierra Club, through their then-spokesman Gordon Bennett, made unsubstantiated claims of misconduct, apparently to remove someone who did not agree with their (NPS and Bennett/Sierra Club) new policy position. The policy to demand removal of the oyster farm represents a complete reversal of the NPS and environmental group’s positions from 1998. At that time, the NPS and the Johnson Oyster Company jointly prepared a plan for completely rebuilding and expanding the entire shore facility, including preparation of drawings, surveys and a finding of negative environmental impact (No need for Environmental Impact Statement) under Federal and State regulations, signed by Park Superintendent Neubacher.

Neither the NPS, or the agencies and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, the West Marin Environmental Action Committee who all signed off on the plan, have ever explained this about-face, or what changed in the law or science to justify it. Because of financial difficulties in the Johnson family, the plan did not move forward, and the Lunny family acquired the oyster operation in 2005.

The significance of this reversal becomes apparent in the light of following events. As a result of NPS obstructionism on permits and Neubacher’s claims of criminality, Kinsey asked Senator Diane Feinstein to intercede. The Senator responded that she would investigate only if the members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors were in unanimous agreement, which they were.

This led to a public meeting where Neubacher and his scientists made misleading presentations, clearly designed to convince the public that the oyster farm was causing severe loss of seal pups and damage to the environment in Drake’s Estero. The meeting in the Marin Supervisors Chambers was fully recorded on video, and the manner in which the Park service attempted to portray the oyster operations is unambiguous, despite subsequent attempts by NPS and environmental groups to distance themselves from the misleading NPS presentation (see videotaped archives at http://www.co.marin.ca.us/depts/BS/Archive/Meetings.cfm )

In addition to the videotaping of the Park Service attempts to mislead the public, the 8 May 2007 Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting is significant, leading to a meeting in Olema between Feinstein, Mary Bomar, then Head of the Park Service, other NPS and local officials and Kevin Lunny. More importantly, it establishes the approximate date at which NPS began to create new, supposedly scientific underpinnings for their attempts to get rid of the oyster farm.

Bomar and Feinstein agreed that local scientist and NAS member Corey Goodman and Tom Moore, of California Fish and Game, would work with Western Regional Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to design a program under which the National Academy of Sciences would specifically investigate the integrity of the NPS science, presented in a report on the NPS website that contained false information, revealed when contradictory research reports were leaked to local scientists and journalists. Just as Berkowitz documented in the Indian Trader case, NPS’ superintendents overlooked NPS policy and directives. Jarvis ignored Bomar and Feinstein’s orders and negotiated directly with the National Academy to divert the investigation away from the integrity of NPS science and towards an investigation of Lunny, evidently in the hope of finding potential evidence that might substantiate Neubacher’s charges.

A clear pattern in NPS behavior emerges. When Berkowitz was assigned to take over the Hubble case, he conveyed to Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob Long that he was told by his NPS Washington superiors, “I want this guy arrested,” and “I don’t care what we charge him with.”  In the case of Point Reyes, NPS senior officials evidently directed their staff to produce results to back their claims against Lunny and support their policy position. This started immediately after the 2007 Board of Supervisors meeting, when they placed hidden game cameras to observe the oyster operations and take date and time stamped evidence, and prepare statistical studies of existing data to show harm to seals from the oyster operation, generally referred to as the Becker papers

NPS failed to notify the DOI IG of these programs during his investigation, failed to inform the Marin Mammal Commission scientists, and failed to notify the NAS scientists of the existence of the photos, even when the NAS report clearly stated that resolution of disturbances by oyster workers could only be resolved “by a data collection system that could be independently verified, such as time and date stamped photographs. This verification is especially important in circumstances where there is an indication of a source of disturbance that could lead to a regulatory action, as was the case with disturbances attributed to DBOC.” (NAS report Shellfish Mariculture in Drake’s Estero p47). The films showed no disturbances by oyster workers. In fact, NPS scientists apparently never even bothered to check them against disturbances their volunteer survey program claimed to have seen.

It would take an entire book to document the similarities between the NPS Indian Trader investigation and the campaign against the Lunnys. So many of the things that Berkowitz documents also show up in the Drake’s Bay matter. The NPS never bothered to interview Malone as to the charges against him. The NPS never bothered to ask Lunny for the data on oyster harvest and boat operations, and as a result made serious errors in their analyses. The Hubble investigation was instigated by individuals outside the NPS in the Western National Parks association, who then participated in the investigation. The current Marine Mammal Commission investigation was triggered by two individuals, Gordon Bennett of the Sierra Club and Neil Desai of National Parks Conservation, with the support of the NPS.

Incredibly enough, it appears that the MMC has received no documentation from Desai and Bennett beyond two sentences in the original letter of complaint against Lunny alleging error by the National Academy of Sciences. As in the case of the Indian Trader, where WNPA received insider information and participated in the investigation, NPS has consistently given information to friendly local factions such as Bennett of the Sierra Club and his supporters before releasing it to the public.

In the most blatant recent case, Amy Trainer of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee released the latest version of the NPS/Becker paper alleging seal harm to the local press before the Marine Mammal Commission had even received it!  It appears that the NPS even withheld this paper from the DOI solicitor investigating scientific misconduct. This repeats the pattern with the 2006 Sheltered Wilderness report, handed out to the public by Gordon Bennett of the Sierra Club, documented in the IG report.

In addition, with every critique of the Park Service,  their supporters in the local environmental movement launch highly inaccurate broadsides, run misleading public surveys gathering signatures based on fabricated claims that  the oyster ‘factory’ is killing seals, has wiped out the eelgrass and imported non-native species.  They then send their calls-to-action to some 50 plus national environmental groups, most of whom take the claims at face value, thus totally distorting the public debate. A recent survey by the Marin Independent Journal, which serves all of Marin, showed that the local populous, who are considerably more aware of the tactics of Bennett and EAC’s  Amy Trainer, voted 90% in favor of the oyster farm continuing to operate, whereas the majority of national public comments appeared to stem from ‘click-the-button’ e-mail responses to the false claims against the oyster company.

However, what is most striking in both the case of the Hubble Trading Post and the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company is the stunning unresponsiveness of the NPS to outside authority, be it Department of the Interior, or even Congress. Berkowitz, discussing ethics and values in the NPS, quotes DOI Inspector General Devaney in his 2003 testimony to congress on failure to implement mandated reforms: “Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I have served in Federal Government for a little over 32 years. I have never seen an organization more unwilling to accept constructive criticism or embrace new ideas than the National Park Service. Their culture is to fight fiercely to protect the status quo and reject any idea that is not their own.”  There is no more perfect example of this than the just-released NPS Environmental Impact Statement on Drakes Estero. (Remember that just a few years ago, the same Park Superintendent signed a negative declaration on rebuilding the Johnson oyster, i.e. no EIS necessary.)  The Park Service has never accepted the critique of its first document, the 2006 Sheltered Wilderness report withdrawn when Senator Feinstein stated that the scientific errors must be corrected.

Now, five years and several million public dollars later, we have findings by the Inspector General that NPS scientists deliberately misled the public, NAS findings that the NPS had failed to demonstrate their claims of harm from oyster operations and had exaggerated and misrepresented their science, DOI solicitors’ findings that NPS officials and scientists violated NPS’ Code on scientific and scholarly conduct, and an upcoming report from the Marine Mammal Commission.

So, what’s in the new Environmental Impact Statement? With the boldfaced lie about oysters being the main source of sediment being removed, the NPS simply says “We’re right and everyone else is wrong,” and thumbs its nose at Congress, the DOI Inspector General and the National Academy of Sciences and all scientific criticism.  The EIS, prepared by the same NPS staff members, merely restates the false claims of the long-discredited Sheltered Wilderness report, which they themselves fabricated.

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About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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