Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Caribou Maps
For some people, maps are an obsession. They may be drawn in by the bright colours, or the vicarious sense of adventure, or the impression of order that maps impose on the world. Whatever it is, Ian Thomas is one of those people. He is fanatical. Thomas makes maps for a living and stays up until midnight making them in his spare time. He has a gift for it, no doubt inherited from his father, who analysed aerial photographs for the RAF nearly half a century ago, scrutinising Egyptian troop movements during the Suez conflict.
Now the son, Watford-born but a naturalised American, stares at the world through a computer screen, summoning up a satellite image of just about any corner of the globe he chooses. With a few more clicks and a bit of web browsing he can conjure up some relevant data, put it together with the image and make a picture that tells you something about the world. By his own estimate he has done this 20,000 times or more in his short career as a hi-tech cartographer.
It is a skill that has earned him a living and a good deal of respect from his colleagues at the US Geological Survey (USGS). But it has also taken him on to a particularly nasty political battlefield, and he has consequently been sacked and become a cause célèbre - mapmaking's first modern martyr. All this because of a single map the size of a postcard. He put it together on the evening of March 7 with some data he had collected about the calving habits of caribou - North America's oversize version of reindeer - in a remote corner of Alaska for a project that had failed to win funding.
It turned out that his map was far too clear for his own good. It charted, for all to see, where the Bush administration was going with its environmental policies - and the price it was willing to pay to get there. The map depicted, in brilliant red, the area of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where caribou most often go in spring to have their calves. It was a narrow strip along the state's northern coast, adjacent to the Canadian border. It was also known as Area 1002, and it was precisely the strip of land that the new US government was proposing to open up for exploration and exploitation by the oil companies that had backed George Bush's election campaign.
Thomas now swears that when he put the map on the internet he had no idea where the administration wanted to drill for oil. Sitting in a Washington pub, looking back on the extraordinary chain of events of the past two weeks, he says: "If they had just told me, I would have taken it down. I didn't want to cause any trouble. I loved my job."
Unfortunately, it was too late for Thomas, whose timing could not have been worse. His map appeared on the internet just as the new secretary of the interior, Gale Norton, was being briefed on the Arctic refuge's ecology. Norton's job is to champion the cause of Arctic drilling. On the evidence of its environmental policies to date, this administration is not merely pro-business; it actually appears to hold a grudge against the natural world. It has rejected the Kyoto treaty on global warming, ruled out statutory limits on industrial carbon dioxide emissions, dropped a ban on building roads through indigenous forests, closed down wildlife research centres and even lifted federal limits on the permissible level of arsenic that mining companies are allowed to leave in the water table.
Throughout, it has maintained the same Orwellian tone of reassurance. The soothing message on the Arctic wildlife refuge was that oil prospecting would only affect one small part of it and that the animals would hardly notice the derricks.
Thomas's map showed that the supposedly small area under consideration was critical to the refuge's wildlife. All the experts briefing Norton knew this, but the map made the point in public, and its appearance triggered alarm bells at the higher reaches of USGS management, which was already worried about its future funding. The word went out that the people at the top were demanding the head of the mapmaker responsible.
When Thomas came to work the following Monday, there was a note on his door ordering him to see his supervisor. He had failed to see a warning from a colleague in Alaska telling him to take his map off the web. Two weeks on, the sense of shock remains.
"I'd never been in trouble before," he says. "No one had complained before about any of my maps. They way overreacted."
Thomas asked for the right to provide a written explanation and defence of his actions, but his employers refused to accept it. Thomas decided he would write it anyway, for his own satisfaction. So he stayed behind that night clearing his desk and working on his letter.
"I stayed to 5am on Tuesday morning, and I thought, 'I'll just send out the letter on the internet, just to explain what had happened.' By 5.15 am, I got my first email letter back. It was from someone in South Korea, saying, 'This is terrible and I'm going to send it to everyone I know.' And I thought, 'Oh shit.' "
Thus a green icon was born. The tale of Thomas's martyrdom spread around the world via internet chatrooms in a matter of hours, and he received 2,000 emails of support. His cause was taken up by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Defenders of Wildlife and a host of other pressure groups. By his own admission, the mapmaker is an unlikely and an entirely accidental hero. Thomas would probably not even have come to the US had he not been in the University of London student union bar to see a band called The Telescopes one night in 1991.
He fell in love with an American girl doing temporary work for the union, and followed her back to the US the same year when he finished his engineering degree. By chance, the National Audubon Society, a private conservation group, was looking for someone with a knowledge of hydrology for a research project on Nebraska's Platte River, a route taken by many migratory birds.
That triggered his interest in wildlife, which in turn got him a job at the Nature Conservancy (the US version of the National Trust), where he learned to make maps. In 1998 he ended up at the USGS, where he found his niche at the migratory birds department at Patuxent, a set in 20 square miles of protected Maryland wetlands.
Since his dismissal, the interior department has portrayed Thomas as an ideological maverick operating beyond the control of his supervisors. "Mr Thomas was not doing the work he was paid to do and was instead doing what he chose to do," said Trudy Harlow, a USGS spokeswoman now working for Gale Norton. "He was counselled repeatedly to stick to what he was meant to be doing...This caribou map was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
Furthermore, Harlow said, the map was plain wrong, a gross simplification of out-of-date information. For that reason, his contract was terminated by local management, without any interference from above.
Throughout his three years at Patuxent, Thomas's skills were highly regarded. He was encouraged to put together maps for all departments. He was even given an USGS award for his far-reaching work. "I used my contract money to get him to do things for me on the things I was doing," says Sam Droege, a researcher on amphibians at Patuxent. "We are all of us working outside our job descriptions in our general mandate of promoting conservation. Ian was very highly regarded. He was a person who could do all sorts of novel and interesting things and he was really good at finding information."
It looks as if the order to get rid of Thomas came from outside Patuxent. The warning email he had failed to read the weekend before his dismissal came from a colleague who had taken part in the Alaska meeting with Norton. He said the reaction "would not have been so great had the subject matter not been one of the three USDOI (department of interior) super hot topics with the new administration and had we not been briefing the Secretary at the nearly exact time your website went up".
The charge which does stick, however, is that the map was inaccurate. It was based largely on 1999 data, but as Thomas points out, that was the latest information publicly available. Meanwhile, Brad Griffith, a caribou researcher on whose work the map was based, is annoyed that Thomas did not consult him and says the bright red "hot spot" area for caribou calving should really be much bigger. Thomas pleads guilty. "If only I had managed to find Griffith, I could have put it right," he says. "My map is actually good for the oil companies. That's the irony."
In last month's briefing on the wildlife refuge, Norton was told that caribou tend to stay at least 4km from any human infrastructure. According to briefing papers obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and made available to the Guardian, the interior secretary was also informed that: "When naturally restricted from the coastal plain, calf survival averages about 14% lower than when calving occurs primarily on the coastal plain."
For that reason, "while the 1002 Area is only 8% of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it is an important component of the biological integrity for the entire refuge".
Despite this unambiguous warning, Norton told an appreciative audience of oil executives last week that she had returned from the Arctic refuge more convinced than ever that drilling could proceed with minimal impact.
The future of the refuge still hangs in the balance. There is little support in Congress for drilling, and Bush recently signalled he might be flexible on the issue. However, his powerful vice president, Dick Cheney, remains hawkish, as does Norton. An energy task force is expected to back Arctic drilling in the next few weeks.
Thomas, meanwhile, has found another job - making maps for the World Wildlife Fund, where he continues to pore over satellite images of the world's rapidly diminishing wildlife habitats. Shrinking even faster is the amount of publicly available information about the Arctic and other US national reserves - the sort of information Thomas used to post on the internet for free. A map of probable drilling installations in Area 1002 vanished a few days ago. The Fisheries and Wildlife Services,anxious not to offend, has also stripped its website of pages dealing with the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction.
"You don't have to burn books now," says Thomas. "You just press the delete key."
Additional reporting by Plathel Benjamin.