An Open Letter to the Members of the New National Academy of Sciences Panel on NPS Science at Drakes Estero

We wish to share with you our experience from nearly 6 years of covering the story of National Park Service Science at Drakes Estero. Our purpose is to provide you with an understanding of the stunning arc of NPS unethical conduct disguised as science.   It is important for you to know as much as you can about the context of this conflict, as the NPS has created multiple generations of hypothesis of harm which when subjected to scientific scrutiny, have been shown to be based on fraudulently applied data, withholding of key information, obtuse statistical manipulations and misrepresentations to public officials.   We are restricting ourselves to the NPS’ scientific conduct, though their behavior in the political and regulatory arenas are equally unacceptable.

If the Panel is to properly advise Congress and the American public on this matter, it is vital for you to understand the source and selection of not only the data, but the manner in which it has been manipulated, beginning in 2006.   In January of that year, the Park Service began their politically-motivated attempts to close Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (DBOC).  In the 2006 “Sheltered Wilderness Report” (withdrawn from the NPS website at the direction of then-NPS Director Mary Bomar at the recommendation of Senator Feinstein)  NPS made undocumented claims of serious environmental damage. NPS also claimed to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey that they had data to prove criminal environmental behavior by Kevin Lunny of DBOC.  As the NAS determined in its study, no such data existed at the times these claims were first made, nor does it exist now, despite the NPS’ subsequent attempts to manufacture data and create controversy over the contents of the NAS report.

For NPS to establish one of its major claims of harm–that the oyster operations were the principal source of sedimentation in Drakes Estero–the NPS literally ‘imported’ irrelevant data from 6,000 miles away from intensive oyster culturing in Japan, conflating it with a deliberate misquote from a USGS researcher who had studied sedimentation in the estero. Further still, even though the California Department of Health and the USGS researcher pointed out to NPS the falsity of their claims, they presented it to the public as if the data had come from Drakes Estero . (See pp7-30 of the first IG report) and subsequent reports, wherein they find that not only has the NPS deliberately misled the public and Marin County officials concerning alleged harm from oyster operations but failed to ensure that ethical and integrity standards were met.

Now, five years later, you must evaluate a disturbingly similar situation, in which the NPS has taken data from a different situation on the other side of the country (decades old jet-ski noise data from 3,000 miles away on the New Jersey shore) and knowingly used it to prepare the Environmental Impact Statement as if it were actual sound data collected at Drakes Estero, using it as the basis for NPS to fabricate yet another claim of serious environmental impact from the oyster farm. The behavior of the NPS and their Virginia based EIS contractor VHB ( led by the recently retired NPS official responsible for compliance with environmental protection laws) is stunningly similar to the  unacceptable manipulation of the sediment data that started this chain of deceit, contributing to Congressional demands that NAS investigate the highly questionable EIS.

The divergence between the actual sound data and the jet ski data represents a greater than 300 times overstatement of impact by NPS and its consultants. (Click on image for larger version) This graphic from an earlier article shows the footprint of sound claimed by NAS, which covers approximately 4000 acres.  The Estero itself is approximately 2200 acres, while the green circle which represents the actual recorded  sound levels, covers approximately 12 acres. The sound levels of the Environ data are confirmed by data from the NPS Volpe microphone as cited in the DEIS and by the Russian River Times informal tests.  It appears that neither NPS, VHB or Atkins compared their jet ski  noise claims with the Volpe data they themselves cited in the DEIS. 

As panel members, you would do a great public service were you to ask the NPS:

  •          why the noise issue never surfaced in the first NAS study (or anywhere else in the             preceding five years)
  •           why NAS chose to hold your recent field meeting in Los Angeles, rather than in Point Reyes, where you could have visited the estero. As possible explanation, we offer this graphic from an earlier Russian River Times article, showing the enormity of the NPS’ distortion of fact which would have been audibly and visibly apparent if you had visited.
  •           why did the NPS find there was no need for an EIS in a total rebuild of the oyster farm. In 1998, the NPS signed a negative declaration, finding that no EIS was required for a complete upgrade of the oyster operation. What subsequent scientific data justifies this complete reversal of position?

When the first case of fraudulent claims about sedimentation surfaced, we were amazed at the NPS’ disregard of its own procedures to insure scientific integrity. In 2006 our reporter, then writing for the Point Reyes Light, consulted with Dr. Brian Schrag, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions. Schrag commented: “Some have charged that under the current (Bush) administration, government scientific research has become politicized. One of the things that is worrisome, if that happens, is that normal checks and balances of scientific research can be compromised. In such circumstances, appealing to internal procedures of a particular government agency may turn out to be futile.” We find his word to be particularly true at Drakes Estero. The NPS has ignored its own procedures and standards not only scientifically, but in conducting the EIS itself, as is made clear by many of the informed comments on the draft EIS, such as that submitted to your panel by Dr. Laura Watt.

You are dealing with a threatened NPS bureaucracy that has been unable to duck responsibility for its actions and subsequent cover-up and is squirming under a Congressional microscope. Here, we can draw a parallel with the experience of retired Navy Admiral Hal Gehman, who headed the investigation into the Columbia Shuttle disaster (as a senior admiral, he had led other major investigations, including investigation of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole). Speaking to writer William Langewiesche during the investigation, Gehman said: “It’s been scorched into my mind that bureaucracies will do anything to defend themselves. It’s not evil–it’s a just a natural reaction of bureaucracies and since NASA is a bureaucracy, I expect the same from them. As we go through the investigation, I’ve been looking for signs where the system is trying to defend itself.

Initially, NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe formed his own parallel, internal investigation team, which included Linda Ham, a Shuttle program manager who–it later turned out–played a key role in events leading to the disaster.  They tried to deflect investigation from the actual cause. Gehman wrested control of the program from O’Keefe. “I’m not going to get rolled by the system…Now, when I hear NASA telling me things like ‘Gotta be true!’ or, ‘We know this to be true’ all my alarm bells go off.” In a key move, Gehman established direct support from Congress for his independence, rewriting the stated mission to include “root cause and circumstances” which turned out to be NASA’s politicized misuse of science and engineering.

The NPS has already ‘rolled’ the NAS, manipulating one investigation and now, they appear to be trying to do it again. Many in our community wonder why the NAS has let itself be drawn into another NPS-controlled investigation, especially on such an unrealistic time schedule. One of the many NPS hypotheses of harm discredited in the NAS report was alleged patterns of disturbance of harbor seals by oyster workers. The NAS report concluded that the volunteer observation database was inadequate to support the NPS conclusions and was never intended to be a regulatory tool, but a way of detecting long term trends.  The NPS report stated that that date-stamped photos [of worker activity and seal disturbance] would be needed to support such claims. During the entire NAS investigation, the NPS deliberately concealed the fact that they had undertaken three years of minute-by minute-photographs during the pupping season in an attempt to prove harm.  It is important to note that this data revealed zero oyster farm disturbances, and that some claimed disturbances were attributable to kayaks, yet NPS failed to share this exculpatory evidence.

We believe that the careful wording of the NAS ‘Statement of Task’ is designed to emasculate your review, down to the careful choice of language that avoids an evaluation of ‘data.’ We urge you to follow Admiral Gehman’s example and include “root cause and circumstances” and a specific evaluation of data and its appropriate use in your report if the NPS is to be held to any level of scientific integrity and follow the procedures described in its own manuals. (Apparently for legal reasons, senior NPS management vociferously opposes characterizing the concealed photographs and other information as data, as shown on p29 of the Frost report.)

Now, you face the same circumstances in the NPS’ use of obsolete jet-ski data imported from New Jersey as representative of the actual DBOC sound levels.   The Russian River Times investigation shows that the NPS and its consultants not only failed to follow NPS policy and directly measure DBOC-generated sound levels but knew that the outdated jet-ski data were not representative of the modern DBOC four-stroke outboard motors, built to current regulatory standards.  We urge that your report clearly analyze the NPS’ behavior, starting with the sedimentation issues, following through failure to reveal the existence of the exculpatory photographs and ending with the misleading ‘importation’ of the jet-ski data in the over-all preparation of the EIS.

Previously, NAS staff was far too solicitous of the National Park Service. Evidently several of the previous panel members were of the same opinion, as there were multiple leaks of drafts of their report and other documents. The  draft outline report contained the directive: “Sloppy use of data, but forgive the troops.” What ‘data? Who are the ‘troops’ and for what are they being forgiven? Worse still was the editorial input that reduced the comment on the NAS harbor-seal papers from “so biased as to be meaningless” to a final version that relied on highly obtuse discussion of statistics and causality, inaccessible to the general public.

Science is being distorted to justify an NPS political decision that has already been made.  Starting in 2006, we have observed multiple generations of hypothesis of harm, presented as Federally measured scientific fact. Yet, as each successive hypothesis of harm is discredited, the NPS creates a controversy over an insignificant point in an attempt to deflect the criticism and fabricates a new hypothesis that in turn–as with the use of New Jersey two-stroke jet-ski sound data–proves to be false.

Science is an intensely human endeavor, whose success rests to a large part on trust that the data has not been manipulated.  Here,we show two clear examples where the NPS has been caught violating this basic bedrock of scientific ethics, first with the sediment data and now with the noise data, yet the staff, consultants and peer reviewers working for NPS and DOI failed to fulfill their responsibility under the DOI ethics and scientific integrity policy, which covers all employees and consultants and volunteers.  We realize it is distasteful to have to deal with unethical behavior by ones scientific peers, but under the DOI science integrity policy manual, obligations are clear.  NPS is obliged to have notified you of your responsibilities, incorporating such language into your contract.  If in the course of your study you find evidence of scientific misconduct, section 3.6 (H) 4 defines your obligations.  You are responsible for, “Reporting to the appropriate officials, as described in Section 3.8 of this chapter, knowledge of scientific misconduct that is planned, is imminent, or has occurred.”  Without your panel’s intervention, the NPS and its EIS process will continue in violating all three.

We cannot overemphasize how damaging NPS behavior has been to the local public’s perception of federal science and policy, not only regarding the oyster farm, but a host of other issues.  NPS and its consultants are asking us to believe that a 300-fold error in sound footprint, as shown in the previous graphic, makes no difference to the conclusions of the EIS.  This is clearly stated in a May 7, 2012 letter from  peer review consultant ATKINS to Dr. Ralph Morgenweck,  DOI Scientific Integrity Officer.   Essentially, having been caught with their hand in the data jar, the NPS consultant abdicates responsibility by saying that the EIS is fine, no one is wrong, its too complicated and repeats that tired, over-used scientific excuse, ‘further research is required’.  It never addresses the huge errors caused by the bogus NPS data nor its origin. The citizens of West Marin and the general public know when they are being lied to by NPS and its consultants.  We look to your panel to protect us from this kind of scientific dishonesty and abuse of policy.

Loss of trust in science damages not only our coastal communities but the the entire Nation and is a clear and present threat to the future of our environment.


About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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