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:
...it 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 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:
...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...
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.
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:
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..."
...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
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:
That diversity didn't warrant a dismissal. Yes, he did volunteer a dark opinion about historical aerial photography:
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)...
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
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
As well as the African
Mammals Databank of over 280 species -- from Aardvark to Zebra, by way of the Bushy-tailed Mongoose
Landsat Atlas of Guatemala
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
Birds of North America -
for 656 species.
Modelling North American Summer
Breeding Ranges -- 497 maps.
Wings of the Americas --
Ian also appears in the Journalist's Guide to Satellite & Aerial Remote Sensing and GIS from the American
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:
Ian Thomas is a fellow who ends many postings with comments such as:
You don't have permission to access /geotech/giras/ak.html on this server.
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.
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
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.
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,
on Wed 2001-03-26.