A Decade of NPS Deceit in Drake’s Estero

The value of local news….

A decade of NPS history just repeated itself in Drake’s Estero, and unless Interior Secretary Zinke takes decisive action to root out the entire toxic NPS management culture, we can look forward to a further decade of cover-ups, ethics scandals, sexual harassment and an agency that considers itself above the law and accountable to no one, least of all our local community. Asked to editorialize on the RR Times reporting on NPS and Drakes Estero, I recalled the circumstance when we wrote the “About” page for the then-new website. Tess Elliot, editor of the local Point Reyes Light, wrote a 2009 article for the Nation entitled ‘Scientific Integrity Lost on America’s Parks’ documenting why the Interior Secretary needed to clean up the NPS mess surrounding new National Park Service Director, Jon Jarvis, then poised for Senate approval. The article detailed how Jarvis, in his role as head of NPS Pacific West region had lied to local government and “demonstrated contempt for “truth, transparency and scientific integrity”.

Years later, here the community is again, with a new Secretary of the Interior, awaiting the appointment and Senate approval of a new NPS chief. Last time, the NPS old boy’s club PR machine and beltway politicking overcame objections to Jarvis, an already flawed candidate. Who will Zinke turn to for his sources of information this time? Many people responded to Elliot’s ‘Nation’ article, including our RRT editor who wrote about the role of the local press. “We provide an absolutely critical journalistic function, especially when reporting on local stories that have direct relationship to national issues. Reporting on the concerns of local citizenry, local papers have the luxury of continuing to report on an issue. As editor, I get immediate feedback about the real concerns of my readers–at the post office, at the grocery store and when I deliver papers (admittedly a less glamorous aspect of the rural editor’s job). Continued local concern enables us to cover issues in great detail and over time in a manner simply not possible in the major daily press.”

While NPS scandals were hot topics last year, the ever-shrinking news cycle hides the true arc of the story. Local papers create an important record by covering stories like Drakes Estero over its entire history, from the first revelations to the last oyster harvested in December of 2014 and the subsequent NPS behavior, not only for their own communities but to define a history founded in reality rather than soundbites. The first revelation: NPS was deliberately misleading the community, distorting science and rewriting history to support an entirely ideologically-based  attack designed to cast a well-respected local family, the Lunnys, as environmental criminals and remove their historic Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (DBOC). Over a decade, I have documented the NPS lies, both sins of commission and omission. In many ways, what happened is a microcosm of reasons the Federal government and its agencies have eroded so much of the public trust.

It is axiomatic to a functioning democracy that citizens must be able to trust that government employees, from Washington on down, will speak the truth and follow the law, policy and procedures that govern their jobs. That didn’t happen for the citizens of West Marin. In February of 2006, Don Neubacher, then Superintendent for Point Reyes National Seashore, told the local Press that Congress prevented him from renewing the lease for Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Not true, just the first of more than a decade of lies, documented first with the Point Reyes Light, where I was a columnist, later with the Russian River Times. You may recall Neubacher’s sudden resignation from NPS following last year’s congressional hearings on hostile workplaces and sexual harassment. Retired NPS director Jon Jarvis, disgraced in his own NPS ethics scandal, was also a key player in the smearing of the Lunny family.

NPS vs. the oyster farm and the community.  

In 2006-2007, one of the first revelations was that Point Reyes National Seashore scientists had knowingly misrepresented a US Geographic Service scientist, claiming that his research showed the oyster farm to be the major cause of sediment in the Estero. I wrote a column for the Point Reyes Light entitled “They are Either FOIA or against YA,” essentially accusing the NPS of deliberate lies. Before doing so, I called Dr. Brian Scrag,  now retired, of the Poynter Center for the Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University, an expert on ethics in institutions and research. The Institute was founded with a grant from famed newspaper man Nelson Poynter, who endowed the Institute to study the causes for declining public trust in government and societal structures.

I asked Dr. Schrag, in light of NPS’ failure to comply with FOIA and Data Quality Act, if it was reasonable, based on my reporting experiences so far, to expect Department of the Interior and Congressional oversight committees to force the Department of the Interior and the NPS to follow their own rules, regulations and scientific procedures. Asked for a quote for my 2007 article, he stated: “Some have charged that under the current administration government scientific research has become politicized. What is worrisome, if that happens, is that the normal checks and balances of scientific research can be compromised.” The claims of NPS’ scientists lying about research in Drakes Estero were confirmed by DOI Inspector Devaney’s October 2008 Semi-Annual Report to Congress, where the section on the National Park Service was entitled, “NPS Scientist Misrepresents Research.” Under Jarvis, the NPS promoted that scientist to a senior position overseeing marine research.

A most damaging lie was the claim first made to a May 2007 meeting of the Marin County Board of Supervisors by Don Neubacher, former Point Reyes Seashore superintendent and key player in the Yosemite scandal, that DBOC was causing a massive loss of hundreds of seal pups. This was patently untrue, and attempts to erase this lie show the Jarvis administration obsession with wiping out all memory of the oyster farm. A secret camera program, designed to ‘prove’ seal harm from DBOC, showed the exact opposite and was hidden from the DOI IG, the National Academy of Sciences and the Marine Mammal Commission. After being caught with the secret photos, NPS claimed that an independent scientists’ retained by NPS to review of the previously concealed photographic evidence concluded oyster boats caused seal disturbances.  But in 2015, Newsweek reporter Michael Ames revealed that the scientists’ report was altered to show that disturbances had been caused by the oyster boats

It is worth quoting a few lines directly from Ames report: “In 2012, with the end of the farm’s lease approaching, the DOI ordered the USGS to complete a definitive study of the seal photographs. Stewart, a respected 37-year veteran in the field, was called in as an independent authority to determine whether the photos were sufficient for scientific research and whether, after years of internal recrimination at DOI and the Park Service over the issue, DBOC boats had disturbed the creatures. On May 3, 2012, Stewart filed his reports, determining there were no disturbances attributable to the oyster farm’s boats. (There was one case, however, where a curious kayaker caused several seals to flush into the water.) But when the USGS published its final report that November, Stewart discovered that his findings had been altered and that the study reached conclusions his research directly contradicted. “It’s clear that what I provided to them and what they produced were different conclusions and different values,” says Stewart. “In science, you shouldn’t do that.”  Lacking any respect for the law and ethics, NPS included the false data in documents provided to Department of Justice lawyers, who quoted it in their arguments against DBOC in the federal court case. The Jarvis/NPS pattern of withholding information, altering reports and editing history to cover lies and falsehoods is pervasive.

The Russian River Times thought that the oyster-farm story was over until a whistleblower  contacted the paper revealing serious environmental, safety and payroll violations in the 2016/17 $4 million dollar Estero Restoration project. A FOIA request confirmed that the NPS had withheld information on toxic waste from permitting agencies and flagrantly violated regulations on handling toxic material. The FOIA material revealed that Jarvis had received a Nov 29, 2017 DOI OIG memorandum that showed, among other significant issues, that NPS had classified the waste to be removed in the Estero as toxic, containing heavy metals. It also stated that the whistleblower had followed the correct protocols in his complaint regarding salary and safety, both upheld subsequently by the Department of Labor, and OSHA.  The DOI memo returned the investigation to NPS control, giving it 90 days to complete its investigation and respond to the IG. The deadline was the end of February, yet as of mid-April, a DOI IG investigator in contact with the whistleblower claimed that NPS had yet to respond. If the Department of the Interior can’t get a straight story from NPS, what chance does the victim of an NPS smear campaign to get a response from NPS?

This NPS behavior was very much evident in Drakes Estero. In 2007, after a meeting between Senator Feinstein, local officials, Mary Bomar, (then NPS director), Kevin Lunny  and others, the NPS was forced to withdraw a report on Drakes Estero because of scientific error.  This meeting lead to a 2009, National Academy of Science report on NPS scientific  studies which stated  “NPS selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available (as of 2007) scientific information on potential impacts of the oyster mariculture operation” and essentially denied all Jarvis’ (then NPS regional director)  claims of significant harm from DBOC. Jarvis initially said that ‘mistakes had been made’ and also  claimed that the NAS report would be used to improve management.’  Instead he made statements to the Press that essentially reinstated all of the claims. DBOC’s Kevin Lunny wrote two letters to Jarvis, asking that he define the unidentified ‘mistakes’ in the first report, and after Jarvis reinstatement of the falsehoods, a second Dec 31, 2009 letter pointing out the falsehoods in Jarvis actions and demanding an explanation.  The Russian River Times has obtained Lunny’s permission to publish both letters.

Jarvis and NPS have, to date, ignored the OIG’s 29 Nov 2016 IG memorandum, ironically addressed to Jarvis shortly before his resignation from NPS. A pattern emerges, as if from a hidden NPS playbook designed to attack and destroy, rather than correct and resolve. The Park Service never responded and never retracted their claims that Lunny was an environmental criminal who caused the death of seal pups and threatened the Estero itself. Reading the letters, one can imagine how they felt under this onslaught, especially when Lunny recalls Neubacher and the NPS’ lawyer’s  comments to him that “the Park Service pays for our attorneys.” In an recent RRT article I referred to the Jarvis’/NPS’ strategy of ‘Defer, Delay, Deny, Misdirect and Bury’ at last year’s Congressional hearings, which commented on multiple appearances by senior NPS officials with little or no evidence of change.

What happened in Drakes Estero prevails throughout NPS, given the long list of scandals breaking into the national news from Yosemite to Yellowstone, Canaveral to the Grand Canyon and elsewhere.  It will continue unless DOI imposes a complete housecleaning of the NPS inbred, closed culture.  It speaks volumes about the NPS’ ‘good old boy’ network, as commented upon in the Southern Utah/St. George Independent, that John Reynolds, father of the current acting NPS chief Mike Reynolds, was the official who gave Jarvis his first park superintendent job. New DOI chief Zinke should understand that the problems of sexual harassment, bogus science and a hostile workplace are not isolated problems but result directly from a culture that holds itself unique, unaccountable and above the law.

Consider the complaint of sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon, one of the subjects of last year’s congressional hearings, first reported to the DOI IG in 2004, as documented in former NPS Special Investigator Paul Berkowitz latest book on the NPS which also cites a 2003 statement by then DOI IG Earl Devaney: “Mr. Chairman, and members of the Committee, I have served in the Federal Government for a little over 32 years, and 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.” Secretary Zinke, the Russian River Times wishes you every success in restoring the nationwide damage NPS management has done to what famed conservationist and writer Wallace Stegner called “America’s Best Idea”

Written by Russian River Times contributing editor John Hulls

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About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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