Issa probe targets NPS scientists’ work on Calif. oyster farm
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, October 27, 2011
House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has launched a review of alleged scientific misconduct at the National Park Service, demanding that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar hand over all communications regarding a California oyster farm.
Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which has operated for almost 90 years on Point Reyes National Seashore, is nearing the end of its 40-year lease. As NPS considers whether to allow the company to stay in a national wilderness area, deliberations have sparked fierce debate over whether the farm’s continued operations would harm harbor seals.
NPS scientists say the farm upsets the breeding of nearby seals, but their research has been called into question by several independent panels and outside scientists.
Now, that evidence will come under the review of the Oversight Committee’s Republicans. In his letter, Issa asks Salazar to make seven Interior employees available for transcribed interviews starting Nov. 7, including NPS Director Jon Jarvis and science adviser Marsha McNutt.
“Allegations that NPS knowingly relied on flawed science to support that conclusion as part of an effort to remove DBOC have come from a wide range of stakeholders and disinterested parties,” Issa wrote in a letter to Salazar. “If true, the NPS, a bureau of the Department of the Interior (DOI), will have closed the doors of a family-owned small business without a valid scientific basis.”
Issa now joins Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in expressing concern over the validity of NPS data. Earlier this year, Feinstein asked NPS to delay the EIS until the Marine Mammal Commission completed its investigation into the issue. But the review was issued on schedule — a fact she said “troubled” her.
In arguing that the farm harms seals, NPS officials primarily cited a recent paper published by three agency scientists that asserts three decades of displacement. An outside biologist — National Academy of Sciences member Corey Goodman — has since criticized the findings as distorted.
For example, Goodman discovered that the three-decade claim is based on data that actually begin in 1997, with notes from only two years in the 1980s. He also asserts that a two-year displacement resulted from an elephant seal attack — and not the harvest levels of the farm.
NAS scientists Peter Gleick and Kenneth Raymond also recently criticized the Park Service for refusing to respond to Goodman’s analysis of the report. In a column in today’s Point Reyes Light, they argue that allowing the EIS “to cite this so-called science while the NPS scientists refuse to publicly debate it is a disservice to the community and to science.”
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill said the issue was brought to the committee’s attention last spring and further research brought up “troubling questions.” Issa’s letter, among other things, cites a report from Interior’s solicitor’s office that found that at least one of the report’s co-authors “acted improperly” by not disclosing the existence of photographs of the oyster farm’s daily operations.
“Despite finding apparently exculpatory evidence with respect to DBOC’s alleged harm upon the harbor seal population, NPS continues to advocate for the removal of the oyster farm,” Issa wrote. “NPS maintains this position despite the fact that an internal investigation found several individuals within NPS violated the NPS code of scientific conduct.”
Issa asks Salazar to submit a variety of documents by Nov. 4, including interview notes from the solicitor’s investigation, photographs of the oyster farm and draft versions of the EIS. In addition to Jarvis and McNutt, Oversight Republicans plan to interview Solicitor Gavin Frost, former Point Reyes Superintendent Don Neubacher, current Superintendent Cicely Muldoon and NPS scientists Sarah Allen and Ben Becker.
NPS spokesman David Barna said the agency will “respond to the congressional member directly and the member may release our response if appropriate.”
In an interview today, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Kevin Lunny said he was grateful that the committee was looking into the issue.
“We’re actually surprised but very grateful that Congress has recognized that there’s a problem here,” he said, “and we really feel that now we have hope that these problems can be resolved and we can get back to a good working relationship” with NPS.