Will America's parks be his oyster?

Obama says politics will no longer cloud science. But his choice for national parks director is facing that charge

Published July 14, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

In an era where bending science to suit political interests has become all too common, President Obama has trumpeted his commitment to reversing the trend. "Promoting science," Obama said in March, introducing his liberal policy on stem-cell research, "is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." A few weeks later, he emphasized the point during a speech before the National Academy of Sciences. "I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions -- and not the other way around," he said.

So Obama's nomination Friday of Jon Jarvis to head the National Park Service raised some eyebrows, particularly in Point Reyes, Calif., an environmentally driven town north of San Francisco, where Jarvis' name can start fiery debates about putting politics ahead of science.

As the western regional director of the Park Service, Jarvis has been embroiled in accusations that the service ignored sound science in efforts to oust an oyster farm operating in the Point Reyes National Seashore. The park's science has been criticized in investigations by the inspector general and the National Academy of Sciences, and has raised the ire of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. In the rural community next door, where I live and report for the local newspaper and radio, the escalating controversy has been the biggest story for years. It goes like this.

The farm, known today as Drakes Bay Oyster Co., has grown its savory mollusks in the sparkling waters of Drakes Estero since the 1930s. The Park Service bought the property in 1972 and the business was given a 40-year lease with the option to renew and keep operating once it expired.

In 1976, the estero was designated as "potential wilderness," a strange legal gray area indicating that the region will convert to full wilderness as soon as "non-conforming uses" -- such as a shellfish operation -- are removed. As the company's lease neared its expiration in 2012, a bitter battle has exploded over its future, with wilderness advocates and the National Park Service on one side and proponents of local agriculture on the other.

In 2007, park staff published reports and gave testimony claiming that the oyster farm was harming the estero. Specifically, they cited data showing that the business was responsible for dramatic declines in harbor seal pup populations, unnatural increases in sedimentation, loss of eelgrass habitat and the introduction of exotic parasites. It's unclear whether Jarvis knew about those initial statements and reports. He has been the regional director since 2002, and he's a busy man; he oversees six states and three Pacific islands with a total of 3,000 employees and a $350 million budget. The Point Reyes National Seashore is just one responsibility among many.

But by mid-summer of 2007, the problems at Point Reyes were called to Jarvis' attention by a cadre of local scientists, oyster farm supporters and politicians, including Sen. Feinstein, who was raised in San Francisco and started her political career there in 1969. In the face of mounting public and political pressure, Jarvis commissioned and funded a National Academy of Sciences study. While awaiting its conclusions, he continued to stand behind the Seashore's science, even after the report in question was removed from public access -- presumably because it was inaccurate. A flurry of documents and statements released by his regional office served more to obfuscate the issues than to clarify them.

In early May, the NAS finished its investigation, concluding that the National Park Service had "selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on [oyster farm] operations by exaggerating the negative and overlooking potentially beneficial effects." Feinstein responded to the NAS report. "I find it troubling and unacceptable that the National Park Service exaggerated the effects of the oyster population on the Estero's ecosystem," she wrote in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Jarvis described the report as a "disagreement among scientists" in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Certainly, we apologize for the errors in our original document and already have taken steps to correct them," he elaborated in a carefully worded press release, which stated he disagreed with some of the NAS conclusions. "We appreciate the thoroughness of the academy's report and especially that the academy concurred with many of our conclusions in the final, corrected version of the report."

But no such corrected version has been made available to the public. Rather than "concurring," the NAS offered a critique of the Park Service's reports and motivations. "None of the versions [of the main report on Drakes Estero] achieved a rigorous and balanced synthesis of the impacts from oyster farm operations," the NAS wrote, adding that supplementary documents were more accurate. "The reinterpretations of science prompted by outside criticism appeared to have influenced the NPS decision to prepare and release [later documents]," the statement said.

"The coverup is worse than the initial charge," said Corey Goodman, a neurobiologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, who first made claims of scientific misconduct on the part of the Park Service and, more recently, against Jarvis himself. "Was he so intent on protecting his subordinates and he didn't actually investigate, or did he actually know what was fraudulent and he was covering it up?"

Jarvis' staff said he was traveling and unavailable for an interview. But Craig Obey, senior vice-president for government affairs at the National Park Conservation Association, said Jarvis "has done the best he could with a difficult situation. He is the cream of the crop in the National Park Service."

Meanwhile, attempts to rewrite reality continue at Point Reyes National Seashore. Local historian Dewey Livingston reports that in May, Seashore staff removed a minor reference to oyster farming from his book, now in press, on historic ranches. Livingston pushed back, and eventually the sentences on shellfish were allowed to stay. Point Reyes National Seashore staff did not respond to interview requests.

In his April speech to the National Academy of Sciences, Obama said the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. "Our progress as a nation –- and our values as a nation –- are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy."

The process of turning that vision into a reality is going to be a slow and bumpy one. If the U.S. Senate confirms Jarvis as head of the National Park Service, he will be responsible for a budget of over $2 billion and a diversity of parks that range from a battlefield site to 58 full-fledged parks to 10 seashores, including Point Reyes. Dilemmas like the one reverberating here will surely rise again. Jarvis has a long track record as a good manager, yet the furor over the oyster farm smacks of science being blurred into politics. And it raises questions that he should answer, clearly and completely, before he gets to run the whole show.

By Jacoba Charles

Jacoba Charles is a freelance writer based in Point Reyes, California.

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