Let's revisit briefly the LA Times article by Lisa
Getter, 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.
Ian Thomas had lost his footing temporarily, but he was both skilled and lucky in righting himself. His story went
from being a personal burden to being a focus of outrage on half the desktops in the world. It began, as all journeys
do, with a single step.
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..."
Following an Unblazed Trail
Point A: Michael Meuser
Ian Thomas, convicted summarily of DUI (Digitizing Unto the Internet), took one small step for mankind by
e-mailing his story to Michael R. Meuser, an
Environmental Sociologist at MapCruzin. Their e-mail
identities suggest Thomas and Meuser are kindred spirits, sharing a philosophy of geospatial data integrity: Ian
Thomas' e-mail address begins "free_world_maps@..." while Mike Meuser signs:
Community-Based Research, GIS, WebMaps,
Environmental Justice, Right-to-Know Advocacy
Meuser monitors news related to his Ph.D. dissertation, "Right-To-Know or Left-To-Wonder? Public Disclosure of Environmental
Information in the Information Age." Among other services, MapCruzin offers website archiving. When Meuser passed along the story, he noted that the
USGS fiasco exemplified "A good reason to archive websites!"
Point B: pol-sci-tech
Adding the title "web censorship," Meuser forwarded Thomas' message to pol-sci-tech, a
discussion list on the "democratic politics of science and technology anywhere in the world." With only 25 posts in
over six months, it's no hotbed of activism.
Point C: Paul Bissex
Pol-sci-tech looked like a dead end. However, it did light one fuse in the form of Paul Bissex, a technology writer whose e-scribe media site is nearly wordless. (Although it does
ask and answer in hidden HTML, "What's going on? Reinvention.")
At this juncture, UnBlinking Blinked -- deciding not to follow every promising path. Articles Bissex wrote are
available on many sites, from AlterNet to
In an online Manifesto, Bissex reveals interests
in "...alternative energy, and scam artists." (Perhaps ironic; scam artists in D.C. are ignoring alternative
energy, so Bissex seems an ideal conduit :-) But he brings more to this equation: he groks the web, and its
potential to influence society.
Several pages by Bissex have gone unchanged for more than five years (which, dear reader, is a very long time
on the web!), but have aged remarkably well. He was sufficently tech-hip that his 1996 comments remain as relevant as
anything being published today:
...Internal campaigns against censorship, gross commercialism, and bad information have been quite successful, but
the Net has yet to come into its own as a medium for pulling people together on other causes. Now go out there and
prove me wrong!" (More irony here, since those who would censor ANWR data hope that bad information will lead to
commercial gain... plenty to rally around.)
Point D: Declan McCullaugh
Taking his own exhortations to heart, Bissex passed custody to one Declan McCullagh, adding:
A reasonable interpretation of these events, differing of course from the official explanation, would be that this
guy was fired because he was making it more difficult for Bush to sell the idea of drilling in the Alaskan National
Now, writing to Declan McCullaugh (whose resume begins, blithely, "Washington bureau chief for Wired News..." and goes on to name a dozen more venues) is
something akin to announcing 'Free Beer!' in Boston. You do so only if you're ready for traffic. (In fact,
while writing this page, Declan popped up just across the room from me -- in an NPR interview :-) His politechbot provided coverage midday on March 19,
2001. Perhaps coincidental, but Wired's Jeffrey Benner subsequently wrote that Oil and Websites Don't Mix:
Faced with vague instructions to purge the website of anything Clinton, a duty to protect Alaska's wildlife, and a
new boss rumored to be hell bent on oil, USFWS Alaska public affairs representatives Karen Boylan and Bruce Woods
felt they were walking a fine line without a map.
Benner added UnBlinking style, in the form of excerpts from the infamous website that cost Ian Thomas his job.
In review, Ian Thomas, a beleaguered USGS mapmaker in Laurel, Maryland mailed an Environmental Sociologist in Santa Cruz, who posted to a nearly static listserv. However, that post interested a Technology Writer in Northampton, Massachusetts, who passed it to a Washington bureau chief for Wired, among the
most influential online publications. Ain't the web wonderful!
(Let's file just one tidbit. With e-mail identities as simple as "pb" and "declan," Paul Bissex and Declan
McCullaugh likely were early members of The
Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link. The WELL, at age fifteen, is an ancient pillar of web community building. The founders of The WELL, among other good works, "have
founded advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation." The EFF sets a standard to "Uphold rights to digital free expression from political, legal
and technical threats." Ah! So profoundly relevant for next week's final leg of our journey ;-)
Two Roads Diverged
In retrospect, fire already was spreading down many paths. Before Wired published the story, UnBlinking had received
two copies of Ian Thomas' letter in unrelated (private) newsgroups. Public groups also found out early, and added
scathing commentary. In misc.activism.progressive ("Looks to me like the Bush Regime is really gunning for the Alaska
Natl Wildlife Refuge. Guess they'll stoop to anything"). At alt.culture.alaska ("The Greedy Ole Party has began forcing opposition to kill the truth so
they can have an open conduit to feeding the public lies").
The story had a more moderate debut at kuro5hin.org Freedom & Politics -- but moderation didn't last. One particularly
UnBlinking reader (having searched up postings by Thomas) came to a wry conclusion:
Ian Thomas was quite the rabble-rouser... The guy was a dangerous humanitarian, interested in preserving and
disseminating information about the world we live in... an environmentalist, humanitarian, and information-freedom
fighter, all anathema to big business and the current administration. No wonder he was dropped.
Another K5 regular was kind enough to capture the message posted by Dr. Jay B. Hestbeck (Chief of Research at
Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, where Ian Thomas worked) in place of the censored maps:
The contents of this website are undergoing review and will be reposted once their scientific credibility has been
ensured. Thank you for your patience.
Hestbeck's first draft now has evolved greater political cover, assuring us it's really all about science:
Contents of this website are undergoing review. Datasets that have completed peer review and received Research
Program approval have been reposted. Other datasets are still undergoing review and will be reposted as soon as
Patuxent can ensure their scientific credibility. Thank you for your patience with our review process.
One extremely UnBlinking K5 fellow, Chris Cappuccio, did the obvious, and mirrored the offending maps -- the very
maps USGS had sought to repress -- with a mock warning Don't Publish Maps Of The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge!
Elsewhere, Newsday's Paul Vitello covered A
Mapmaker, Caribou and Oil, [original MIA], citing another media mainstay's view of ANWR:
Lesley Stahl, who went there for "60 Minutes," for instance, told us it is a haunting, teeming and "spiritually
Environmental organizations gained momentum -- and added more of their own. Defenders of Wildlife published the
activist alert "BIG BROTHER: Feds fire worker
over 'baby caribou' map." The publicity windfall fit well with DefWild's official request for
"permanent protection of the coastal plain's significant wildlife and wilderness values," in a letter signed by 500 scientists, [original PDF], including George
Schaller, Edward O. Wilson and other esteemed ecological experts.
National Public Radio also contributed its share. A one-hour NPR Talk of the Nation (14:00 EST 19 Mar 2001) addressed
"President Bush's Environmental Policy Reversal." Over 30 hours later, with the show's chat room still active
(you'll need a free NPR login), Edna commented on USSR vs. USA:
"Revolution, when it stops being a lofty ideal and becomes the reigning power, rids itself of the idealists first."
...and she proceeded to echo the Ballad of Ian Thomas. The exchanges continued with growing irritation:
We know that Bush and his Enron cabinet promote the oil industry, but when they censor public information that runs
counter to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, public outrage must follow or freedom of speech is lost.
The following letter was forwarded to me from MIT:
P: Perhaps the specific maps he is referring to were removed but the site itself still does exist.
Perhaps not the perception USGS had wished. Twenty four hours later, a spiritual aspect
cropped up at NPR's Your Turn:
O: I could get to the site but the "Global Environmental Atlas" came up FORBIDDEN.
S: I also tried to access the site. It would be interesting to learn why it is "Forbidden." The other sites aren't.
Big Brother is watching?
D: Das ist verboten.
Faschistisches Politisches Beteiligtes
Back to the cool topic about W firing a scientist, here is a relevant link:
This contributor closes with the audio capture of a 15 Mar 2001 NPR feature: Environmentalists Blast Bush for Carbon
Dioxide Backtrack. Again, probably not a tone the powers-that-be intended to invoke.
World out of Balance:
In a Prescient Time Native Prophecy Meets Scientific Prediction
...The spectre of profound climate change - outside the usual seasonal and annual fluctuations attributed to
weather's variability and beyond expectation of Native elders, based on their observational knowledge and distant
memory - poses an enormous dilemma replete with local and global implications and complexities...
To fire a naturalist who is studying scientifically the movement of Caribou on public land is about as fascist as it
Please be clear: Juan Williams of NPR's Talk of the Nation addressed the topic for one hour on 19 Mar 2001. The Your Turn web page for that single hour is adding
new postings as of this writing (28 Mar 2001). And USGS can't stop it.
The Detour Continues
The USGS censorship effort continues to draw new fire up until this writing. Knowing an atrocity when they see one,
NOW! from Pacifica radio granted Ian Thomas a public forum. Joining him was Eric Wingeter, Field Director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In its
watchdog way, PEER has called to task both USGS and the US Department of Interior,
reprimanding them thus:
Whether or not the termination was as overtly politically motivated as it appears on its face, it undoubtedly creates
a chilling effect on scientists throughout the federal government. Scientists within your agency who have contacted
PEER express reluctance to post research findings that may run counter to the policy positions of Interior Secretary
You can listen to Pacifica's ARCTIC DRILLING: BUSH ADMINISTRATION REWRITES THE PRESENT online.
Also today, Environmental News
A book of comments opposing Arctic refuge drilling will be presented to Congress at a press conference on Wednesday.
The book, "Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony," includes testimonies from such respected thinkers as former
President Jimmy Carter, and writers Wendell Berry, Rick Bass, Scott Russell Sanders, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill
McKibben and Barry Lopez, as well as members of the Gwich'in Nation.
How will one book make a difference? Here's a kicker USGS just never saw coming:
The book, a paperback produced using "print-on-demand" technology, moved from concept to completion in two short
months. The normal time for book production is one to two years. The book also will be posted for download on
Milkweed's website dedicated to literature and activism http://www.worldashome.org/.
By the way, all proceeds go to further advocacy on behalf of the Arctic Refuge. Chris Waddington of The
Minneapolis Star Tribune explains how publisher
Milkweed Editions has jumped into the drilling debate by creating this new e-book:
...a publication, released today... uses the Internet to bring some of the United States' best writers into the
Perhaps Ian is feeling better already.
Milkweed's venture into political action -- and electronic distribution -- is unprecedented, said Jim Milliot, the
business and news editor at Publisher's Weekly, a New York trade publication. "I haven't heard about any publishers
doing this kind of timely political advocacy with e-books."
Most fitting is the latest work by Ian Thomas, a Landsat & Vegetation Composite Map of ANWR (Area 1002). In an inspired moment, he has
entitled it, "The Beginning of the Cartographer's Revenge! The First of Many!" Now we are able to click and zoom in
on specific lands slated for exploration -- using maps Ian produced in his newfound free time (brought to you by the
legendary shortsightedness of the current Administration in Washington).
So far, here are the practical results of the USGS move to censor the ANWR data:
· enhance the level of mapping detail available to the general public;
That's a lot to accomplish just by snuffing out one web page.
· assure permanent availability of ANWR caribou maps across the entire web;
· call attention to the oil industry's undue influence on resource and social policy;
· tarnish severely the reputation of USGS as an independent scientific body;
· rally opposition to drilling among an otherwise indifferent or silent audience;
· provide both the fuel and the spark to ignite a forum far beyond their control.
This edition had been planned as the last in a series of two. However, Washington continues to
exacerbate energy-related conflicts through various policy initiatives. An UnBlinking view is required (freedom needs
information; information needs freedom). Please join us to find what else the web knows about science and politics,
in part three of Getting Drilled in a Pristine Area.