National Park Service Scientist Caught Spreading False Environmental Data

Published October 9, 2008

A senior science advisor with the National Park Service (NPS) knowingly used false scientific data to overstate the environmental impact of a family-run oyster farm in the Point Reyes National Seashore, on the Pacific Coast 30 miles south of San Francisco, California, a U.S. Department of the Interior investigation has concluded.

In addition, Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) Superintendent Don Neubacher overzealously characterized the family oyster farm in negative terms to the media, the report said.

Despite these findings, no formal disciplinary action has been reported against Neubacher and PRNS Senior Science Advisor Sara Allen.

Generations of Oyster Farming

Kenny Lunny’s family has been farming oysters in Drakes Bay, otherwise known as Drakes Estero, for generations. The family business is now known as the Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC).

In 1962 Congress established the Point Reyes National Seashore, with Drakes Bay included. The Drakes Bay Oyster Company in 1972 entered into a lease with the federal government allowing it to continue farming oysters through 2012, at which point farming activities would have to cease.

False Environmental Claims

Lunny wrote to the Department of the Interior in April 2007, upset because National Park Service employees were publishing documents and making media comments that negatively and, according to Lunny, falsely portrayed the impact of his oyster farm on Drakes Bay. The Interior Department began investigating Lunny’s complaint.

The Interior Department report, released on July 21, 2008, concluded the Point Reyes National Seashore had indeed published on its Web site a report “containing several inaccuracies regarding the source of sedimentation” in Drakes Bay.

Furthermore, the Interior Department concluded, Allen “misrepresented research regarding sedimentation” in Drakes Bay.

“In addition,” the Interior Department concluded, “she failed to (1) provide a copy of a germane e-mail message between [U.S. Geological Survey scientist Roberto] Anima and herself in response to a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request that specifically sought such correspondence and (2) stated in a public forum that [the National Park Service] had over 25 years of seal data from Drakes Estero when in fact that was inaccurate.”

Supervisor Exaggerated Concerns

Additionally, the Interior Department concluded, “although Neubacher intended to bring the potential negative effects of the DBOC operation to the public’s eye to counter what he considered ‘misinformation,’ in several instances he could have exercised better judgment and expressed NPS’ position with greater clarity and transparency. Further, he exaggerated the Marine Mammal Commission’s role in responding to DBOC’s impact on the harbor seal population in Drakes Estero when he spoke before the Marin County Board of Supervisors.”

Lunny’s biggest concern in filing his complaint with the Interior Department was that PRNS personnel were publicly providing false and negative information about his oyster farming in an attempt to shut down his family business before the 2012 expiration of his lease.

While the Interior Department confirmed Lunny’s allegation, it reassured him PRNS personnel did not have the authority to shut down the oyster farming operation prior to the 2012 expiration of his lease.

The Interior Department report concluded Allen and Neubacher’s misconduct was likely not motivated by a desire to shut down Lunny’s oyster farming prematurely, because they must have known the NPS had no legal authority to end the lease before its expiration.

Curious News Coverage

Curiously, the San Jose Mercury News was one of the few newspapers to report on the confirmed NPS employee misconduct, perversely seizing on this final reassurance from the Interior Department to characterize the report as a vindication of the National Park Service and its staff at the PRNS.

“Park Service cleared in probe of oyster farm fight,” the Mercury News headline reported.

“A federal investigation found no evidence that National Park Service officials tried to prematurely close an oyster company engaged in a dispute with the agency over its ecological impact,” the Mercury News reported in its lead paragraph on the Department of Interior report.

“Only in California would the news media consider the Department of the Interior report as a vindication of this misconduct,” responded Tom Tanton, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a civilian emergency medicine faculty member at the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute and the American Council on Science and Health.