What we got here is a failure to collaborate

  • An oyster collection boat navigates between oyster racks at Drakes Bay Oyster Farm on Point Reyes National Seashore.

    Timothy Lesle
  • Jon Jarvis, nominated to head up the National Park Service.


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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.

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