What we got here is a failure to collaborate
Updated Aug. 24, 2009
On July 10, President Obama announced his nomination of Jonathan Jarvis as the next director of the National Park Service. Jarvis has worked for the agency for 30 years and directed its Pacific West region since 2002. Many of his colleagues contend that he not only has scientific training, but is tenaciously committed to the "right values" -- that is, protecting wilderness and averting change in natural ecosystems. They hope Jarvis will lead the parks into their centennial celebration in 2016. He's garnered support from environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association and the Sierra Club, as well as from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Jarvis knows how to preach to the wilderness choir, but national parks are about more than wild landscapes. A third of the nation's 400-some parks, monuments, seashores and heritage areas contain culturally significant "working landscapes." Park staff interacts with Navajo shepherds in Canyon de Chelly, Mormon orchard-keepers in Capitol Reef, bison ranchers in Great Sand Dunes and commercial fisherman around the Channel Islands. If his appointment goes through, Jarvis will be charged with the complex task of resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise between the parks' diverse stakeholders.
That's a tall order, perhaps nowhere taller than at California's Point Reyes National Seashore, a windswept expanse of rugged shoreline, moor-like uplands and coastal mountains where ranches, dairy and shellfish farms predate the park's formal designation in 1962. But Jarvis' poor handling of a recent controversy there raises questions about his ability to deal with cultural issues and working landscapes.
To the casual observer, Point Reyes seems like a benign blend of wildness and agrarian features. A few historic barns and corrals remind visitors that this has been a working landscape since the first settlers arrived in Marin County. Enormous mounds of cracked and intact oyster and clam shells testify to centuries of active "gardening" of native shellfish by the Miwok Indians. A commercial oyster farm has been in operation here since 1932. Kevin and Nancy Lunny purchased it in 2005 and now run it as the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. Their sustainable aquaculture practices have been recognized in the Park Service publication Stewardship Begins with People, as well as by Eco-Farm, Marin Organic, Bioneers and Slow Food.
But beneath this peaceful, pastoral shell, the reality, like an oyster, is squishy.
Point Reyes superintendents have long attempted to balance the protection of biodiversity and wilderness values, the promotion of sustainable agriculture, and historic preservation. When the park was created, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company received a 40-year lease with an option for renewal in 2012. But the 1974 Point Reyes Wilderness Act proposed a higher level of protection for the land surrounding Drakes Bay. It didn't specifically mention removing the shellfish farm; at the time, California congressmen and park officials all considered it to be a prior "non-conforming use" worth keeping. In the 1976 hearings, Sen. John Tunney, D-Calif., pointedly affirmed that "established private rights of landowners and leaseholders will continue to be respected and protected. The existing agricultural and aquacultural uses can continue." In essence, this gave the park managers conflicting marching orders -- to "remove barriers to wilderness designation" while at the same time permitting small-scale farming, ranching and aquaculture. In fact, such food production has been sanctioned in every approved management plan for Point Reyes, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed that it be allowed to continue through at least 2015.
However, since Jarvis became regional director in 2002, the Park Service hasn't exactly been friendly to the oyster farm or the ranching operations around Drakes Bay. Jarvis and current Point Reyes Superintendent Don Neubacher assert that a recent solicitor's call to "remove all barriers" to full wilderness status mandates that they not renew the Lunnys' aquaculture lease. Many in the local community do not see Jarvis' mandate as being so cut-and-dry and wonder why he has refused to negotiate with the Lunnys.
Recently, that conflict came to a head. In several reports published from 2005 through 2007, park technicians argued that the Lunnys' boats and harvesters were negatively impacting harbor seal populations by "flushing" seals away from their breeding sites, increasing water turbidity and affecting seal pup survival. In April of 2007, Superintendent Neubacher announced he had overwhelming evidence that the Lunnys' operation violated California's Marine Life Protection Act, and that they could even be jailed. The Lunnys were stunned, but sought a second opinion through a National Academy of Sciences member, Corey Goodman, who helped establish a review panel on the issue that Jarvis agreed to support.
This May, that second opinion came in, and it should have been a major blow to Jarvis. The National Academy of Sciences panel determined that park staff had "selectively presented, over-interpreted or misrepresented the available scientific information" that was being used to justify the eviction of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company.
The panel also found that the Park Service had no compelling evidence that the shellfish operation had negative impacts on harbor seal populations or other wildlife. In fact, it noted that the main cause of seal flushes was park visitors. Park technicians had claimed the oyster harvesters forced seals to move on days when, in fact, the farm had no employees present in Drakes Bay, and during hours when none of its boats were out on the water.
Although Jarvis wasn't directly involved in the data-taking or analysis, he has repeatedly defended the Point Reyes reports -- both before and after the NAS critique -- as justifying the removal of the shellfish farm. In a press release, on radio and television, he attempted to downplay the breach of scientific integrity under his watch, claiming the Academy "affirmed the majority of the conclusions in the (park's earlier) report." He did, however, offer a brief apology "for the errors in our original document," noting that "(we) already have taken steps to correct them. …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."
Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick, who called the reports a "major breach in the integrity of park science" after reviewing the data, was shocked that Jarvis and others, including the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association, defended them. Corey Goodman responded to Jarvis' selection as the next director of the National Park Service with outrage: "Surely our government can not consider Jarvis as a suitable candidate for this high position with the cloud of misconduct hanging over his head."
Perhaps the most disturbing criticism of Jarvis is that he appears unwilling to try to resolve the conflict peaceably. Two years ago, then-Park Service Director Mary Bomar instructed Jarvis to transparently negotiate with the Lunnys. He sidestepped this directive. In the wake of the NAS publicity nightmare, Jarvis has declined formal conflict resolution with the Lunnys, despite encouragement from colleagues to do so.
Although I hope that Interior Secretary Salazar will ask Jarvis to resolve the Point Reyes issue by negotiation, Jarvis simply may not be the right man to foster a collaborative conservation approach for the Park Service. Such an approach is not only needed at Point Reyes, but in many other landscapes across the West. Although a White House conference endorsed federal agencies' roles in Cooperative Conservation in 2005, Jarvis seldom speaks about implementing this directive.
"There are many things the National Park Service needs right now, but one thing it most certainly doesn't need is a director that fails to realize and act on the truth of (the) emerging understanding of (collaborative) conservation," says Colorado State University Professor Rick Knight, a leader in "forging the radical center."
Many leaders in the Quivira Coalition, the California Rangeland Trust, the Family Farm Alliance, the Alliance for Local, Sustainable Agriculture and Marin Organic have raised this concern as well. These are the kinds of grassroots groups that Salazar has taken advice from for more than a decade, and certainly ones that he does not wish to alienate just as he begins to build President Obama's conservation agenda.
Whatever the outcome of the congressional hearings on Jarvis, charges of his scientific misconduct are still sitting on Salazar's desk. If Jarvis doesn't change his tone and open his agency up to negotiations with farmers, ranchers and shellfish harvesters, he will face stiff opposition from the collaborative conservation movement that has flourished in the West for 15 years. And there is nothing better than President Obama's own words to guide him:
"The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific … integrity. … The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions."
Gary Nabhan has served on the National Park System Advisory Board under two presidents, and contributed to the study, Rethinking National Parks for the Twenty-First Century. See www.garynabhan.com for a list of his recent books and forthcoming lectures.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.