Tue 12 Aug 2008
Although Point Reyes National Seashore abuse of Drakes Bay Oyster Company is thoroughly documented in the report issued three weeks ago by the Inspector General’s Office of the Interior Department, the local press has shied away from going into details.
With an amazing lack of indignation, most news reports have reduced documented revelations of park-administration abuse to he-said-she-said pablum in order to claim “fair-and-balanced” coverage.
This is ironic because the Inspector General’s investigators found that National Seashore Supt. Don Neubacher’s hostility to the oyster company — along with his and park senior science advisor Sarah Allen’s misrepresentations to county supervisors and the public — was in part a reaction to what had appeared in The Coastal Post and Point Reyes Light.
Notwithstanding the Point Reyes National Seashore’s attempt to dismiss its misrepresentations as merely a mistake or two, the pattern of untruthfulness is far more egregious. Here’s the initial sequence of events as federal investigators reported them:
• On May 18, 2006, The Light published an article headlined Drakes Bay Oyster Company Has Little Impact on Estero. The information in it came from a Drakes Estero Assessment of Oyster Farming Final Completion Report that, according to investigators, “Dr. Deborah Elliott-Fisk of the University of California at Davis wrote with Allen’s input. The report reflected the findings of research done by graduate students Angie Harbin-Ireland and Jesse Wechsler, whose master’s theses summarized their work in the estero.”
The National Seashore administration’s subsequent lamentations over The Light’s getting a copy of the Drakes Estero Assessment and reporting on it are pure opéra bouffe. The Inspector General wrote, “A reporter from The Point Reyes Light requested and received the Drakes Estero Assessment from a Point Reyes National Seashore marine ecologist, something Neubacher described in an interview as a mistake.
“During his interview, the… marine ecologist said, ‘I just generally share information pretty freely, so it didn’t occur to me that it was not a good thing to send it to the reporter.’
• “The day after The [Light] article was published, Allen sent [an] email message to Dr. Elliott-Fisk… ‘Check out the article. As is usual, I am misquoted and the article is heavily slanted pro-oyster. I stated to them that when your study occurred that the oyster farming was at its lowest level in 30 years, talked about other invasive species introduced by oyster farming, and about the major source for sediment being from oyster feces based on a USGS study, but he chose not to include that information.” (In fact, as the park itself would later admit, these allegations misrepresented what scientific studies had and had not found.)
The Inspector General’s report also reveals that Neubacher shares Allen’s low opinion of The Light. A federal investigator said Neubacher had “opined” to him “that although The Point Reyes Light was not very objective, it …carried a certain amount of weight in the community — but not a lot.”
Seabirds congregate on a no-longer-used oyster barge anchored near the oyster-company store
• “With the [park] ecologist’s input,” the Inspector General noted, “Allen began working on a report to counter the conclusions drawn in the article. [This is] indicated by an email message from the ecologist to Allen on July 18, 2006, and a statement by Neubacher during a [KWMR] radio program… the next day.
“During the radio broadcast on July 19, 2006, … Neubacher said Allen had recently put together a paper listing ‘long-term, serious impacts’ caused by oyster farming. He subsequently confirmed to the Office of Inspector General that he was referring to what became the Sheltered Wilderness Report.”
So although Neubacher on KWMR cited Allen’s “recently put together” paper (i.e. the Sheltered Wilderness report) as authority for saying oyster farming was having “long-term, serious impacts,” the document didn’t exist. Investigators determined that Allen, in fact, “began working on the report” just hours before the park superintendent went on the air.
After the report’s untrue statements were revealed, Allen and Neubacher tried to dismiss her scientific-sounding Sheltered Wilderness “report” as nothing more than a poorly written news release. “In a briefing paper prepared in July 2007 [a year later],” investigators noted, “Neubacher described the Sheltered Wilderness report as a ‘park news’ handout.”
(The park also posted this “handout” on its website and was later forced to retract it, acknowledging that what it had said was not accurate. But more about that next week.)
This sort of carelessness with the truth has become a hallmark of Supt. Neubacher’s management style, but no newspaper reporter — only Point Reyes Light columnist John Hulls — seems to care. In commentary published last Thursday, Hulls wrote, “The distinction between a park management/planning report and a park news item is not trivial….
“This pattern of management misrepresentation runs throughout the Inspector General’s report, as well as recent community relationships with the park, ranging from the notorious ‘pepper spray’ incident, in which two rangers used excessive force on two local teenagers, to the controversy surrounding the rapid eradication of the white deer, rather than the phased reduction of the herd which the community was led to expect.” (Phasing the reduction would have allowed time to reassess the program.)
The very picture of deceit: In 2004, two out-of-control National Seashore rangers extensively pepper sprayed a teenage brother and sister from Inverness Park without cause. (This occurred outside the park in Point Reyes Station, and the teens were never charged with any wrongdoing. Ultimately, the Park Service compensated them for the abuse with $50,000.) Shortly after the incident, Supt. Neubacher (at microphone) held a public meeting in the Dance Palace, and 300 concerned residents showed up. To placate the crowd, Neubacher led them to believe he had asked the Marin County District Attorney to investigate the rangers’ behavior, and everyone went home feeling a bit better — only to have the DA set the record straight the next day. The park superintendent had not asked to have the rangers investigated but to have the teens prosecuted, the DA said. Much of the public was outraged at having been deceived. Not surprisingly, the DA refused to prosecute the victims.
Nor has any newspaper paid a lick of attention to inconsistencies within the Inspector General’s report itself. For example, at the beginning of its report, the Inspector General’s Office states, “We found no indication Neubacher was planning to shut Drakes Bay Oyster Company down prior to 2012 when… the company’s Reservation of Occupancy and Use expires.” Virtually every news report used that quotation without qualification.
But wait! “No indication?” Any diligent reporter who read further into the federal report would have found what Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey told an investigator concerning a private meeting with Neubacher at the park in April 2007. (Oyster company owner Kevin Lunny was not present.) Kinsey told the investigator he had suggested a scientific study to determine whether the oyster farm was having a significant effect on Drakes Estero, but Neubacher quickly dismissed the need for one, saying oyster company boats had made cuts in eelgrass.
“Kinsey said the atmosphere was like that of a ‘war room,’” the investigator added. The supervisor also told the investigator, “Neubacher was ‘very upset’ and ‘seemed obsessed with proving that Drakes Bay Oyster company was harming seals and eelgrass in the estuary….’
“The tenor of the meeting left no doubt in Kinsey’s mind that Neubacher intended to shut Drakes Bay Oyster Company down prior to 2012.”
Although both the press and the park have focused their attention on Kevin Lunny, the entire Lunny family feels under attack. In a letter to the Inspector General’s Office, an investigator noted, Lunny complained that “Neubacher was… slandering the family name.”
Lunny’s daughter Brigid, the 2005 Western Weekend queen (seen here carrying freshly harvested oysters into the company store), on Tuesday told me she hopes people “get to the bottom” of what’s being done to her family.
Kinsey told the investigator that Supt. Neubacher had claimed the oyster company was “committing environmental felonies” [and]… summed up Neubacher’s portrayal of Lunny as ‘character assassination.’
“Kinsey recalled that during the April 2007 meeting, Neubacher said he had been trying to find a way to keep Lunny operating in the park through the end of his lease with the National Park Service but that a recent ‘pro-oyster’ editorial… in The Coastal Post had changed his mind. Kinsey recalled that Neubacher said something along the lines of, ‘I tried to work with Lunny, but I’m done.’ Agent’s note: An editorial titled Ollie ‘Erster versus Smokey the Bear was published in the April 2007 edition of The Coastal Post.”
The investigator then asked Neubacher about what Kinsey had said, and the park superintendent “conceded he told Kinsey about some criminal violations he believed had occurred related to the G Ranch [the Lunny family’s organic-beef operation, which is discussed in last week’s posting], not Drakes Bay Oyster Company…”
“I don’t have the authority to even not work with him ‘till 2012,” Neubacher added in an apparent attempt to weasel out of what he had reportedly said to Supervisor Kinsey. But this claim too was untrue. The investigator double-checked with Interior Department attorneys and reported, “The attorney-advisor and a Department of Interior field solicitor opined that the National Park Service had the legal authority to shut Drakes Bay Oyster Company down prior to the expiration of its Reservation of Use and Occupancy in 2012.”
So what’s all this about there being “no indication” Neubacher wanted to shut the oyster company down before 2012, as the Inspector General’s Office claimed at the beginning of its report? By the middle of this long report, that unequivocal claim has evolved into, “With the exception of Kinsey, no other individuals interviewed said Neubacher or any National Park Service Official had ever indicated they wanted to shut down [the] oyster company prior to… 2012.”
And even that isn’t accurate — unless Lunny is a non-individual. Nor is that the worst of it. Although Lunny, like Neubacher, was interviewed by the Inspector General’s investigators, Lunny, unlike Neubacher, was seldom given the opportunity to respond to statements made by the other side. So says Lunny, and the Inspector General’s report makes that clear.
To be continued…