Gary Stock: UnBlinking

Getting Drilled in a Pristine Area

Ian Thomas, a contract employee of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was fired recently -- but that's not a story. He lost his job for putting some maps he'd made up on a public website -- peculiar, but still no story. However, the maps defined caribou calving grounds in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), public lands where some powerful interests want to extract oil -- that's a story.

UnBlinking has wandered some of the links the good ol' boys in Washington must have known about before firing Thomas (and a few others they should have known would appear thereafter). Fellows: the internet is watching... and it remembers.

[Usability note: All links here open into the same target window. UnBlinking is rather complete without clicking away. (However, with no 'link' it's just 'UnBing' :-) For any link of interest, click away, then slide that new target window aside. As that site loads, you can continue UnBlinking here.]

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Sun 2001-03-26

Debate over exploitation of resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been smoldering since at least 1960. That's when President Eisenhower dedicated ANWR, comprising over 19 million acres in the northeastern corner of Alaska. In 1980, the United States Congress enacted ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act:

In order to preserve for the benefit, use, education and inspiration of present and future generations certain lands and waters in the State of Alaska that contain nationally significant natural, scenic, historic, archeological, geological, scientific, wilderness, cultural, recreational, and wildlife values...
Political circumstances have rekindled debate between those supporting and those opposing energy exploration in ANWR. Recent online events may influence that debate markedly. The case of Ian Thomas allows UnBlinking to trace how a bit of justified outrage spreads, webwide.

Today's UnBlinking, first in a series, examines why there is outrage; later this week we'll follow it across the web.

Political activism is not dead -- it's just gone digital.

The Lay of the Land

The ecology of ANWR is precious, as captured by CNN global environmental correspondent Gary Strieker: shelters the greatest variety of plant and animal life of any protected area in the circumpolar north, including 180 bird species from four continents, grizzlies and polar bears, Dall sheep, muskoxen and wolves. Its northern coastal plain is the calving ground for the Porcupine Caribou Herd, more than 130,000 animals that migrate 400 miles into the plain every year -- a wildlife pageant that has earned the refuge the title of "America's Serengeti..."
Petroleum resources also have value, as Streiker explains. However, it is technically possible to extract more oil than is economically possible today:
...the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 3.2 billion barrels is a realistic figure for economic production. On the basis of that estimate, experts calculate that in ten years, when refuge fields could start producing, their output might reduce imported oil from 68 percent of U.S. consumption to about 64 percent...

...the amount that could be economically produced would increase if oil prices climb higher. The USGS estimates that the amount of oil that technology could pump from the refuge is between 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels. The lower end of that estimate would cover not much more than six months of U.S. oil consumption, but at the higher end the refuge starts to look like a massive oil bonanza and an irresistible prize for Alaska and the oil industry...

The size of the prize, and its cost, remain matters of contention. That conflict is ramping up, as witnessed by Lisa Getter's article in the 15 Mar 2001 Los Angeles Times, 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.

"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 explains his plight on the MapTricks site he operates. (He also mirrors Getter's complete story from the LA Times.) Also available are further details spelled out by Thomas, for example:
...Last week I published over 1,000 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... 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...

Internet political activism is every bit as amorphous as the web itself. As real webheads say, "Data wants to be free" -- and so apparently do the arcs and polygons in a Geographic Information System.

So, what does the web know about Mr. Ian Thomas?

An Easy-to-Read Legend

Thomas' philosophical stance -- as well as the respect of his peers worldwide -- must have been well known to USGS management. His postings to an international cartographers' newsgroup were diverse. He mentions human rights violations and disaster relief:

I would also like to offer an option for cooperation on the subject of humanitarian issues and remote sensing. ESYS and the Reuters Foundation have just kicked off a project to examine how remote sensing and other digital data could be provided to the humanitarian aid community...
to which a fellow mapmaker replied, "Ian: Great! How do I get involved and what do you need?"

Thomas invites others to learn about vital issues such as Relief Web and the Global Disaster Information Network:

These programs are multi-lateral cooperative efforts to improve rapid and comprehensive response to disaster -- human and natural. From the Kosovo crisis to the Turkish and Japanese earthquakes, to relief in Africa, these programs leverage the communications resources made available through telephones and the internet... that seek better ways to mitigate human emergencies and work toward long-term stability.
a noble purpose, indeed. He also encouraged ongoing, open cooperation among his peers:
Anybody got any interesting proposals out there that they would like to collaborate on?
Was Ian Thomas misbehaving with broad invitations like these? No; he was forwarding an announcement to USGS employees written by Dr. Charles "Chip" Groat, Director of the US Geological Survey:
...discussion among Executive Leadership Team members has focused on mechanisms to facilitate and support the initiation of collaborative research across disciplines... integrated planning processes at the regional and national level, increasing communications and understanding of priority science goals and customer needs among scientists from programs throughout the bureau, and broad internal distributions of significant science accomplishments related to complex environmental systems... facilitation of innovative, integrated projects that lay the foundation for new science capability in the bureau and generate new or enhanced products for our customers...
Both Groat and Thomas clearly understood the public's right to public data, and the government's responsibility to make it available. But, did Thomas wander too far offshore, for example, with maps of Colombia, or possibly Korea, China, Uzbekistan, or Moscow? Perhaps his data interests were too politically diverse:
...I'm looking for:
1) East Timor (State Dept/USAID request)
2) Great Horn of Africa (UNHCR request)
3) Tiger habitat in North East India
4) East coast of the Caribbean (US Navy Oil spills)
5) Global Forests (Global Forest Watch)
6) Maps of Landmines (Vietnam Veterans of America, Global Landmine Survey)...
That diversity didn't warrant a dismissal. Yes, he did volunteer a dark opinion about historical aerial photography:
Some of the World War 2 stuff (in the Pacific and Europe) with Pre-attack and After-Attack photos of bombed cities is horrific... incoming Japanese fighter planes... an American heavy bomber explodes in mid-air... a fighter plane flying below rooftop level over a fortified beach somewhere in the Pacific during an amphibious assault... captured German film... captured Japanese aerial photography...
Finding bombed cities 'horrific' isn't controversial. Granted, he promoted environmental and humanitarian relief efforts, with "POOR CARTOGRAPHERS TOP-TEN LIST TO MAPS THAT MIGHT HELP SAVE THE WORLD," -- but even a sincere interest in global human welfare didn't cross the firing line. As a matter of fact, Ian's peers at USGS and elsewhere were appreciative of his Top-Ten, replying, "Well done! Very cool list, thanks from all of us!"

Ian certainly makes his personal intent clear when he signs his e-mail, "Maps without Frontiers!" But, how would such forthrightness get him canned? (We're running out of theories here!) Oh, perhaps he erred in publishing the "Wings of the Americas" data from The Nature Conservancy's "Conservation Priority Setting for Birds in Latin America." Or, organizing assistance to digitize maps of wildlife studies:

If anybody knows of individual State efforts to digitize the North American Breeding Bird Survey routes could you email me. If anyone wants to volunteer to digitize their own State's routes please give me an email.
Hmmm... apparently that was OK, given that he was involved in other studies of avian ecology, such as mounting the export files for Patuxent GIS Unit Map Library and National Coverages of various birding data.

USGS didn't find Ian's activist leanings actionable -- and they seemed to grasp the purpose of making data public.

One Click Too Far

Alright, let's drop the theory that Ian's belief system was out of bounds. Maybe he simply was not technically competent. Well, he was among the Authors of the BBS Home Page, credited there as " In charge of preparing maps and summary and display of geographic components of the survey. Made the clickable map."

And, he was capable enough in mapping PRIMENet Amphibian Monitoring Program, SHENANDOAH AND BIG BEND NATIONAL PARKS that the team said Ian and others, "helped tremendously as website consultants and we thank them profusely."

Let's cut to the chase: at the risk of being too UnBlinking, we dredged several search engines for items Ian Thomas made available through the USGS:

Shenadoah National Park 7.5 min Vegetation and Topographic Maps
Landsat Atlas of Guatemala & Belize
Imagemap Arcinfo Macro (created to help others in mapping)
Bird Distributions in the Cerro San Gil area, Guatemala -- for 40 species.
Point Maps of Bird Abundance in Washington, DC -- for 91 species.
Frog & Toad Maps -- for 119 species.
Birds of North America - for 656 species.
Modelling North American Summer Breeding Ranges -- 497 maps.
Wings of the Americas -- 1,279 maps.
As well as the African Mammals Databank of over 280 species -- from Aardvark to Zebra, by way of the Bushy-tailed Mongoose and Short-snouted Elephant Shrew.

Ian also appears in the Journalist's Guide to Satellite & Aerial Remote Sensing and GIS from the American University, and Spatial Technologies Expert Database at the Conservation Management Institute of Virginia Tech. Just in case you were wondering.

Ian mapped Midwinter Waterfowl Survey Census Tracts for 92 zones, and sixty National Wildlife Refuge Maps -- so, might he be qualified to prepare one more for Alaska?

No. His ANWR map had been at a URL which, earlier this week, reported "Alaska is not available... Sorry," along with broken graphic links. At this writing, the relationship between the American people and the map Ian Thomas made of ANWR has been clarified officially:


You don't have permission to access /geotech/giras/ak.html on this server.
Ian Thomas is a fellow who ends many postings with comments such as:
If anybody wants to use the maps below they're free! All suggestions are welcome.
Apparently it was easier to fire him than make a suggestion. The public -- who paid for the data collection and the server it sits on -- is not welcome. As of Friday 23 Mar 2001, many specifics of Ian's work remain Forbidden, Forbidden, Forbidden, Forbidden, and especially for Alaska, Forbidden.

Clear enough? According to other online records at USGS, although the pages remain, someone recently has removed Ian's name from places it once appeared:

Clearinghouses for State GIS Data ; blanked on Mon, Mar 19, 2001 18:09:58 GMT.
Geospatial Technology Activities at the PWRC; ousted by Wed, Mar 21, 2001 18:44:53 GMT
even Cindy's Geospatial Technology Activities; erased as of Fri, Mar 23, 2001 19:50:20 GMT.
It's very clear. Ian Thomas was not fired for a history of activism; nor for his penchant for joining together data from diverse sources; nor for mapping wildlife studies worldwide -- nor even for his humanitarian or political beliefs. The grounds for his firing were much simpler: he published a map that might displease someone in the White House.

Web activists now echo Ian's story worldwide, along a meandering path of mail servers and newsgroups. There is more to tell about the parties who rigged the trap that Ian stumbled upon. Please join us for more about USGS, politics, and the web, next week in part two of Getting Drilled in a Pristine Area.


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