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Scientific Integrity Lost on America's Parks | The Nation

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Scientific Integrity Lost on America's Parks

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During the Bush era, allegations of scientific misconduct rocked the Interior Department. Though Secretary Ken Salazar has vowed to clean up the mess, his selection for director of the National Park Service only compounds it. Jon Jarvis--whose nomination is poised for Senate approval today--has demonstrated contempt for truth, transparency and scientific integrity in his current role as head of the Pacific West regional office.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct year of passage of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act--it passed in 1976, not 1974.

About the Author

Tess Elliott
Tess Elliott is the editor of the Point Reyes Light, a Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly newspaper in Marin County.

In an effort to expand wilderness in Point Reyes National Seashore, Jarvis's subordinates misrepresented science to portray an oyster farm as an ecological menace. When locals challenged the accusation, Senator Dianne Feinstein stepped in, along with Jarvis's boss, Mary Bomar. Jarvis was instructed to settle the dispute through an independent review; instead, he inflamed it. Since 2007 he has misled federal investigators, deceived the public and undermined scientific process to defend his subordinates' wrongdoing.

Jarvis's actions are punishable under federal laws governing scientific misconduct. In July an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences filed an official charge against him, yet Salazar turned a blind eye and the Interior Department's inspector general refused to investigate (shunting a federal mandate to do so). If Congress approves Jarvis's nomination without unraveling the regional director's record, it will defeat the hope that in the Obama era science would be driven by facts--not by politics.

The record begins four years ago, when a local rancher purchased rights to cultivate oysters in Point Reyes National Seashore--a patchwork of beef and dairy ranches, marshes, moors and beaches north of San Francisco. Kevin Lunny set to work cleaning up Drakes Estero and turning the dilapidated oyster farm into a model "green" business.

Drakes Bay Oyster Company's lease is up for renewal in 2012, but superintendent Don Neubacher--driven perhaps by a desire to streamline administration, perhaps by his ideological bent--wanted to convert the area to wilderness. Because the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act protects the oyster farm--its authors stressed the need to balance agriculture, aquaculture and wilderness--a decision to terminate the lease would be deemed arbitrary or capricious. In order to make a persuasive case, Neubacher manufactured evidence of Lunny's poor management. In May 2007 a Point Reyes National Seashore report claiming the oyster farm harmed seals, eelgrass and water quality was published online; at the same time, Neubacher and his chief scientist testified before the Marin County Board of Supervisors, claiming that recent changes in the oyster farm's operation had caused the number of seal pups on a sandbar in Drakes Estero to decline by 80 percent. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Lunny was an environmental criminal.

Yet Neubacher's own body of research did not support his claims. On a hunch, the Marin County Board of Supervisors called on Dr. Corey Goodman, a local biologist and elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, to evaluate Neubacher's report. Goodman confirmed what the county officials suspected--Neubacher had no proof to back his claims. Local press pursued the story, and soon Feinstein caught on. At a meeting in July 2007, Goodman charged Jarvis with scientific misconduct, and Feinstein and Bomar instructed the regional director to clean up the superintendent's mess. Jarvis was to arrange a review by the National Academy of Sciences to determine whether Neubacher's existing body of science supported his claims.

But Jarvis scuffled. He withdrew the online report on Drakes Estero and produced a new version that omitted the claims about seals, eelgrass and water quality. He gave the new version to the academy but never made it public. Environmental groups continued to circulate the original version, and in statements to the press, Jarvis repeated the claims he had already officially retracted. This past May the academy declared that the National Park Service had "selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented" scientific data. Its report found no evidence supporting Neubacher's claims that the oyster farm harmed the ecology of Drakes Estero. Goodman's suspicions were borne out, and Lunny breathed a sigh of relief.

But Jarvis acted as though he had been exonerated. He told the press he was happy the academy confirmed the conclusions in the final version of the Drakes Estero report. (Of course no one knew what he was talking about, since he had neglected to publish the corrected version.) And, he added, he disagreed with some of the academy's conclusions. To date, Jarvis has not offered any evidence that would challenge the academy.

Jarvis continues to hide his corrected report, while false claims about the oyster farm spread, influencing state and federal policies. A couple months ago, Goodman requested that Salazar, and subsequently the inspector general, conduct an investigation into Jarvis's scientific misconduct. Goodman charged Jarvis with violating several laws, including a 2000 policy of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that mandates the investigation of any federally funded entity charged with the abuse of science.

Salazar never responded. The inspector general replied that the Interior Department does not consider charges of scientific misconduct and suggested that Goodman appeal to the White House.

It is Salazar's responsibility to ensure that an independent investigation is made into the allegations against Jarvis. If he shirks this task, he will demonstrate flagrant disregard for science and the law. Meanwhile, Congress needs to ask Jarvis some tough questions before giving him custody of America's parks.

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