Federal Worker Is Fired in Wildlife Refuge Map Flap

Last week, Ian Thomas posted a map on a U.S. government Web site of the caribou calving areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the Bush administration wants to open up for oil exploration. This week, Thomas is looking for a new job.

WASHINGTON–Last week, Ian Thomas posted a map on a U.S. government Web site of the caribou calving areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area the Bush administration wants to open up for oil exploration.

This week, Thomas is looking for a new job.

“I’m really flabbergasted,” Thomas said Wednesday. “After putting out 20,000 maps with no problem and then putting out one where baby caribou like to hang out, I got fired.”

Thomas, a contract employee for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, says he is a victim of politics. His offense: drawing attention to wildlife that might be affected by drilling.

“They’re firing him in a real public way as a message,” said Eric Wingerter, the national field director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “Frankly, it’s a bit Orwellian.”

Government officials say he was fired for working outside of his assigned duties. And besides, some of the map information was wrong.

But the episode illustrates the political sensitivity of the refuge proposal as Congress and the administration prepare to deal with the issue.

Thomas had worked for the Patuxent facility for three years, helping researchers track the changing distribution of birds across North America.

But he also helped create a global environmental atlas on the Web site. Last week, he posted 1,000 maps on every national wildlife refuge and national park in the mainland United States, including the “postcard-sized” Alaska map.

Within days, he was out of work. “The reason they gave me was that I didn’t follow standard review procedures before posting research information to the Web, especially on a very sensitive topic,” Thomas said. But he said no one had mentioned that to him before. And by his estimation, he had posted about 20,000 maps on the same site.

President Bush wants to open up part of the 19.2 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, a move opposed by environmentalists.

And just as Thomas was posting his map, other officials from the USGS from Alaska were briefing Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in Washington on the very issue. Thomas’ map, based on outdated wildlife data, conflicted with information presented to her.

“The fallout would not have been so great had the subject matter not been one of the . . . super hot topics with the new administration and had we not been briefing the Secretary at the nearly exact time your website went up,” Brad Griffith, of the USGS biological resources division in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrote in an e-mail to Thomas on Monday. “Everyone is nervous and as I mentioned earlier, consistency in presentation is paramount.”

Thomas said he believes the USGS overreacted, though he added, “I definitely made a mistake in using maps that were inaccurate.”

Jay Hestbeck, chief of research at Patuxent, said Thomas’ contract was due to expire in three weeks anyway. He said he was let go because he was “doing work outside of his task order” and posting it on the Web site without approval.

“Ian’s task is real clear,” Hestbeck said. “He’s to be working on migratory birds.”

Thomas said he saw his posting of the maps as a public service.

“I basically thought I could give the public a better map of the area so people could know what they were talking about when they were debating the issue,” he said.

Below is Ian Thomas’ response via the Politechbot mailing list

Hi All,

Well, I have been fired for posting to the internet a single web page with some maps showing the distribution of caribou calving areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

My entire website http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/geotech/ has now been removed from the internet. This represents about 3 years worth of work and 20,000 plus maps showing bird, mammal and amphibian distributions, satellite imagery, landcover and vegetation maps for countries and protected areas all around of the globe. As far as I aware it was one of the biggest collections of maps online and certainly the biggest collection showing maps of biodiversity and the environment. The website was often visited by over a thousand visitors each week. In addition, I was fulfilling roughly a dozen requests for geospatial data and information from colleagues, other researchers and the general public each day.

All of this comes as a rather big surprise to me. I was given no chance to remove the webpage or even finish writing an appeal before my position was terminated. I was working under a contract so I believe I have very little legal recourse. I have received no written explanation (or even an email) stating the exact reasons for the termination decision and I understand that even though this would be a reasonable courtesy to expect, it is unlikely to be forthcoming.

>From my viewpoint my dismissal was a high-level political decision to set an example to other Federal scientists. I base this belief on the following information I received from a colleague in Alaska who is a leading researcher on the issues involved:

“I really hope you don’t get fired. In fact, had the timing of what you did not been so inappropriate based on everything else that was going on, I doubt that anyone would have noticed. Your work showed a lot of initiative…”

“…the fallout would not have been so great had the subject matter not been one of the three USDOI super hot topics with the new administration and had we not been briefing the Secretary at the nearly exact time your website went up. Everyone is nervous and as I mentioned earlier, consistency in presentation is paramount.”

So now, I believe my only recourse is to appeal to the general public in the hope that in the future what just happened to me will not happen to others.

I would recommend anybody in a similar circumstances to contact the fine people at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (http://www.peer.org) or a similar organization.

The response and support I have received from friends online has been truely amazing. I very much appreciate how quickly people have acted on my behalf and helped publicize my plight and I especially wish to thank the international mapping community…receiving letters of support from far away places cheers me up no end. Please feel free to forward this email to other lists and media contacts! I would also be grateful if anybody who misses all the maps I put on the internet please contact the USGS to let them know and to ask that the maps be reposted.

I feel very bad that these events are also affecting my colleagues at Patuxent. Patuxent was a great place to work, has amazing researchers and everybody I worked with is very supportive.

Many, many thanks for your support,

Ian Thomas free_world_maps@hotmail.com

The Details:

Nobody instructed/authorized me to post the web pages on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It was done on my own initiative. I was working on land cover maps for all National Wildlife Refuges using the new National Landcover Datasets. Last week I published over 1000 land cover maps online covering every National Wildlife Refuge and National Park in the lower 48. (These maps have now been removed from the internet too). Similar land cover data for Alaska were not available but the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge had a good landcover map so I included it.

In the past, I helped produce the only set of maps online showing all bird species distributions in Alaska. In addition I have produced online mammal distribution atlases of Africa, maps for tigers in asia and I was working on digitizing North American mammal range maps produced by the Smithsonian Institution.

I have also been conducting background research to prepare proposals to study the effects of mineral extraction on biodiversity and protected areas on a very large scale. One such proposal that I was preparing would have looked at exporting analysis and mapping methods applied in the United States to other regions of the World such as Africa. The proposal was co-sponsored by the Mineral Division of USGS and the World Resources Institute.

The migration of caribou in North America is the closest thing that we have to the great mammal migrations that occur in Africa. African protected areas are also under great pressure from possible development for mineral extraction. So the carribou distributions that I found on the Fish and Wildlife Service public website were of particular interest. I have also worked for several years on maps of migratory bird distribution patterns. I therefore have a great interest in other migratory animals as many of the temporal mapping problems are similar.

I was completely unaware that there was anything wrong with publishing ANWR maps. I have never been informed of any agency restrictions or any other guidelines on publishing maps depicting ANWR…I only now have been informed that there is a two week old agency “communications directive” that limits who is allowed to distribute new information on ANWR within my agency.

I thought that I was helping further public and scientific understanding and debate of the issues at ANWR by making some clearer maps. I also hoped that colleagues in USGS would see the maps and then contact me if they needed additional mapping help. I was careful to quote my sources and explain what I had done. I made no statement about what the maps might mean with regard to oil development of the refuge.

The web pages were put up on Wednesday, March 7, last week. The first thing I did when I put the ANWR pages up on the internet was to inform other USGS Biological Resources Division mapping people and other agency (Fish Wildlife Service and National Park Service respectively) GIS people through email that they were on the web. Informing other Federal colleagues and agencies immediately upon publication to the web appears to me to be the only reasonable review process available, seeing as there is no internal review website currently available…I have never been informed of any other established proceedure for review of web content on our site. I actually haven’t had any complaints about or requests to change any other map on my website…

I assumed that if anybody had a problem they could contact me directly and quickly and appropriate steps could be taken almost immediately. I received one warning from a colleague that the maps I put on the internet should be removed. Unfortunately, it was sent on Saturday so I did not receive it in time. I think the decision to terminate me was taken before I even got to work on Monday.

I also assumed that because all I was doing was esentially presenting existing public information in a clearer and improved format, there was very little need for any extensive review other than the steps I took. Indeed the changes that I made to the original Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) web maps were simply to digitize them (“trace”), then overlay them on satellite and vegetation maps and then summarize how may years specific areas were a high density caribou calving area. I found a similar (poor quality) summary map on the FWS website that allowed me to check the accuracy of my simple analysis.

I was unaware that FWS had updated the data. There is no mention of updated information on the FWS website. This new data has still to be made public. If my maps were inaccurate in any way so are the public FWS maps I copied…. (please refer to http://www.r7.fws.gov/nwr/arctic/pchmap2.html#section6)

I think that over the last three years I have put more maps up on the internet (at a guess approaching 20,000 to 30,000 static individual maps) equalling any other website on the world wide web. So out of the tens of thousands of maps (and hours) I finally publish one that got me fired….I suppose the odds were going to run out eventually….

I am concerned that other Federal researchers may easily make the same mistakes I just made and should learn from my example what happens if you’re not careful.

Patuxent was a great place to work, has amazing researchers and everybody I worked with is very supportive.

Ian Thomas

Former Mapping Specialist at the:
GIS & Remote Sensing Unit
Biological Resources Division
United States Geological Survey
Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Old Homepage (no longer available)

The Global Environmental Atlas (no longer available)


News Service: LA Times

URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/20010315/t000022700.html

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