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Federal worker fired over Web map of Arctic caribou


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


Date: Sat, 17 Mar 2001 05:11:20 -0800 (PST)
From: Paul Bissex <pb@e-scribe.com>
To: declan@well.com
Subject: USGS employee fired after posting ANWR map (fwd)
Message-ID: <Pine.LNX.4.21.0103170504080.25491-100000@eagle.he.net>

Hi Declan,

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 Wildlife Refuge.


Paul Bissex <pb@e-scribe.com>
E-Scribe New Media <http://e-scribe.com/>
PO Box 847 Northampton MA 01061-0847 USA
Hotline: 413-290-5510
Landline: 413-584-6731

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: meuser@mapcruzin.com
To: pol-sci-tech <pol-sci-tech@igc.topica.com>
Date: Fri, 16 Mar 2001 20:54:48 -0800
Subject: web censorship

A good reason to archive websites!

Check out the LA times story as well:


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

 >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

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

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)

Michael R. Meuser,

Community-Based Research, GIS, WebMaps,
Environmental Justice, Right-to-Know Advocacy

Website Archiving, Data Mining

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