I Was Fired for Posting a Map

Bush’s war against information


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.mbrpwrc.usgs.gov/geotech] was, at one point, removed from the Internet. This represents about three years’ worth of work and 20,000-plus maps showing bird, mammal and amphibian distributions, satellite imagery, land cover and vegetation maps for countries and protected areas all around of the globe.

Last week, I published over 1,000 land-cover maps online covering every National Wildlife Refuge and National Park in the lower 48 states. These maps have now been removed from the Internet, too.

As far as I am aware, it was one of the biggest collections of maps online and certainly the biggest collection showing maps of biodiversity and the environment.

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 have received no written explanation stating the exact reasons for the termination decision and I understand that although this would be a reasonable courtesy to expect, it is unlikely to be forthcoming.

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:

“[H]ad the timing of what you did not been so inappropriate… I doubt that anyone would have noticed. Your work showed a lot of initiative… The fallout would not have been so great… had we not been briefing the Secretary [of the Interior] at the nearly exact time your website went up.”

I reiterate: a request to remove the maps from the website and to follow whatever review procedure necessary for future Internet publications would have been complied with and followed promptly and absolutely. My termination by USGS was instead a gross over-reaction due to the sensitive political considerations USGS is currently operating under about caribou and the ANWR.

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.

I thought that I was helping further public and scientific understanding and debate of the issues at ANWR by making some clearer maps. I made no statement about what the maps might mean with regard to oil development of the refuge.

I believe my only recourse is to appeal to the public in the hope that in the future what happened to me will not happen to others.

I would recommend anybody in similar circumstances to contact the fine people at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [http://www.peer.org].

I very much appreciate how quickly people have acted on my behalf and helped publicize my plight and I especially thank the international mapping community. The USGS has now reposted some of my maps. We have filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain the whole website maps. When we get them I will put them up on the Web [http://www.peer.org/anwr].

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.

Over the last three years, I have put more maps up on the Internet (approaching 20,000 to 30,000 static individual maps), equaling 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.

Ian Thomas is a former mapping specialist at the GIS & Remote Sensing Unit Biological Resources Division, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Ian Thomas now has a new job – making maps for the World Wildlife Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.