Once in awhile, I let others use this space to address issues of particular concern to them. This week’s contributor is Dr. Corey Goodman of Marshall, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Corey was the first to reveal that the Point Reyes National Seashore administration was using bogus data in trying to build a case for kicking Drakes Bay Oyster Company out of the park.

Now he has revealed more Park Service shenanigans in its handling of public comments on an environmental-impact statement about whether the oyster company should be allowed to stay in the park.

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“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” — Sir Walter Scott

By Dr. Corey Goodman

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) got turned on its head recently when the National Park Service released a partial analysis of the public comments received in response to the draft Environmental Impact Statement concerning the fate of the oyster farm in Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Citizen’s Guide to NEPA, published by the Council on Environmental Quality (part of the White House), wrote: “It is important to understand that commenting on a proposal is not a “vote” on whether the proposed action should take place.” Dr. John Felleman, a NEPA scholar at State University of New York, wrote concerning the intent of the public comment period: “The intent is to assess the adequacy of the data, alternatives, and analyses, not to have an opinion poll.”

Nevertheless, the park triggered just such an opinion poll.  In an action that appears to be unprecedented, the park released a partial “preliminary content analysis report” of the National Park Service’s draft environmental impact statement, telling the community that there were more than 52,000 public comments, and that more than 47,000 of them were for Alternative A – elimination of the oyster farm.

Although the park analysis contained lots of numbers about the geography and origins of the comments, what was conspicuously absent was what is most obvious when one first examines them – more than 90 percent of the comments are duplicate form letters (sent by email).

No surprise, within minutes of the Park press release, Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association and Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin concluded, based upon Park Service analysis, that 92 percent of the public comments favored eliminating the oyster farm from Point Reyes, and proclaimed that “the people have spoken.”

A week later, on March 9, 2012, the Marin IJ published an editorial on the 52,000 public comments, and wrote: “Both sides in this battle have well-funded advocacy groups that can generate letters, postcards and e-mails in support of their cause.”  Given the intervening week, it is too bad the Marin IJ didn’t dig a bit deeper into the origin of those comments to determine how they were generated, and thus how the public was spun by NPS and its supporters.

Last week, The Point Reyes Light and The West Marin Citizen newspapers reported, based on analysis from Sarah Rolph and me, that 86 percent of those comments were duplicate emails generated by mass emails from four environmental organizations: Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), and the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF).

These groups’ emails misinformed people, falsely claiming environmental harm where no such data exists, and asked the recipients to click — over and over again — to send pre-written messages that advocated evicting the oyster farm.

The Park Service released those biased numbers completely unfiltered.  Such behavior was contrary to NEPA guidance and irresponsible of the Park Service and the NGOs.

Reporting that 86 percent of 52,000 comments were click-and-send form letters was an under-estimate.  Further computer analysis revealed another 2,445 comments (5 percent) were fragments of form letters.  The total based upon form letters was thus nearly 91 percent

Desai of NPCA correctly pointed out that pro-oyster farm supporters also submitted several hundred form letters, but these amounted to fewer than 1 percent vs. his side’s 91 percent.  These numbers are a wee bit more one-sided than the Marin IJ editorial led readers to think when it stated both sides “…have well-funded advocacy groups that can generate letters …”

The spikes in the graph correspond to the days that four groups sent out mass emails that asked recipients to click on a button which would send an email to the Park Service urging it to get rid of the oyster company. The responses came from throughout the United States although according to National Seashore figures, 70 percent of the two million people who visit the park annually come from the nine-county Bay Area. That would suggest that most of the emails came from people who had no direct knowledge of the oyster farm.

If all duplicate form letters are eliminated, from all sides, less than 5,000 comments remain, of which many are duplicates.  For example, Rick Johnson, an NPS supporter, was counted nine times. Nevertheless, if those 5,000 comments are surveyed, over 80 percent support renewing the oyster farm lease while less than 20 percent support eliminating it.

That is a far cry from the 92 percent for eliminating the farm announced by Trainer of the EAC and Desai. Perhaps the people have spoken, just not in the way Trainer and Desai misled the community to believe.

A challenge to the park: do a better analysis. Since the park has already turned NEPA on its head by releasing a partial analysis, let’s encourage them to at least do the right analysis.  Release another count without form letters – or form letter fragments — from both sides.  Count only original letters; count each person once.

If the majority favors renewal of the lease, as our analysis shows, then you and your supporters owe the community the truth and an apology for misleading us.