FOIA: Internal Emails Show Government Officials Scrambling to Explain Why Climate Scientist’s Meeting With Mark Zuckerberg Was Canceled
Unpublished documents reveal new details about the circumstances behind the high-profile Facebook event.
Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped into Montana's famed Glacier National Park. He was supposed to rendezvous with Dan Fagre, a research ecologist at the US Geological Survey (USGS), to discuss the effects of climate change on local glaciers.
Only, that meeting, scheduled for July 15, 2017, never happened.
Three days before Zuckerberg's tour, "top officials" at the Interior Department (DOI), which oversees Fagre's agency, removed the scientist from the federal delegation, according to the Washington Post. The abrupt withdrawal was seen as confusing, if not sinister, given the Trump administration's collective hostility toward climate science.
Last month, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to USGS for all records generated in connection to Fagre's meeting with Zuckerberg. I received a partial fulfillment of that request on Thursday, containing email correspondence between agency officials, as well as Facebook staff, before and after the event.
I will continue to publish more records as they are provided to me.
Facebook initially learned about Fagre in a press release that featured his work on glacier decline in the park, and officials there specifically requested his presence for Zuckerberg's visit, according to new DOI emails obtained by Motherboard. The reasons for why Fagre was disinvited from attending were unclear to the scientist at the time and remain unclear to this day.
"I indicated that I didn't know why my participation was canceled," Fagre wrote in an email to USGS Public Affairs on July 18, after speaking to reporters, according to documents obtained by Motherboard.
A month later, Fagre remains in the dark about what happened. "I still don't know why my participation was cancelled," Fagre confirmed to me in an email on Thursday. "Adios for now…"
Before Zuckerberg's visit, Derick Mains, a communications director at Facebook, emailed Glacier National Park ranger Kyle Johnson to pitch suggestions for the trip. Mains, who has played a large role in organizing Zuckerberg's "Great American Roadtrip," wrote on June 21:
As I mentioned, as part of a personal challenge for 2017, Mark is spending the year travelling across the country visiting approximately the 30 states he's never been to… to get out of his bubble here at Facebook and in Northern California… So far, we haven't really done anything around natural resources and people who work to manage public lands. Earlier in the trip he'll be visiting a North Dakota community involved in oil production and thought that a visit to Glacier, where the effects of global warming have been widely documented, would be a good balance.
Fagre, along with other National Park Service (NPS) staff, including Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, were listed by Mains as possible attendees.
"It would be great to drive up to the Pass, get our [sic] and walk the boardwalk to the Hidden Lake overlook. This would give Mark the opportunity to informally interact with some of the visitors…" Mains wrote, noting this would give them "some great photos."
Facebook did not respond to my request for comment.
USGS seemed pleased that Zuckerberg was interested in Fagre's work. The Montana-based ecologist currently studies how glaciers are reacting to our changing climate. He also leads the agency's Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Project.
"Pretty exciting opportunity coming our way," Suzanna Soileau, an outreach physical scientist at USGS, wrote in an email that Motherboard obtained.
Yet, some of these emails show not everyone was so thrilled.
Heather Swift, who served on President Trump's Interior Beachhead Team—where political appointees acted as the president's eyes and ears in transitioning agencies—before becoming Press Secretary there, assumed control of all press outreach regarding Fagre's dismissal. According to the Washington Post, Swift also discouraged the inclusion of Superintendent Mow, though her motives for that are unclear. Previously, Mow was superintendant at Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park, and joined Glacier National Park when climate change became a highly public issue for the park.
"If you receive any inquiries regarding USGS role in the recent climate change meeting at Glacier NP, please make no comments" and refer all press to Swift, wildlife biologist Frank van Manen wrote to the entire staff at USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.
"So we will get more calls—all of them will go to the department/to Heather? We can't have a talking point or a statement?... Concerned that won't work...my two cents," one USGS public affairs officer wrote to a colleague, FOIA documents show.
I contacted Swift multiple times about this, as well as the reasons behind Fagre's discharge, but received no response.
NPS, too, appeared nervous about Fagre's potential exposure during the event. The agency's acting director, Michael Reynolds, emailed select DOI and NPS staff, including Trump administration new-hire, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at DOI Virginia Johnson:
Note: USGS participant is Dan Fagre, climate change scientist. Concerns about his participation should be routed through the USGS chain… NPS does not intend to post anything about this visit on our public-facing website, nor to post to the park's Facebook page. We cannot control what someone else posts to their sites…
Reynolds was already on thin ice with the administration. In January, Trump "personally ordered" the director to produce photographs that could prove his inauguration crowds were larger than Obama's (There are no photographs that prove this.) Trump also excoriated Reynolds for a @NatlParkService retweet that showed fewer people at Trump's swearing-in ceremony.
A spokesperson for NPS declined to comment on the matter.
Trump's outsized influence over government agencies has deflated any expectation for transparency. And environmental ones, such as DOI and the Environmental Protection Agency, bore the brunt of this power struggle. In the last seven months, websites have been scrubbed of climate change information, and scientists have been personally targeted and terminated from their posts.
The specific reason for Fagre's dismissal from the visit—and whether it was politically motivated—remains unclear. I've submitted identical FOIA requests to DOI and NPS, and will publish those documents when they become available.
As for Zuckerberg's tour of Glacier National Park, not all was lost—he still got to meet "Gracie the Bark Ranger," who is a dog.
"After reviewing the event proposal which was sent to the National Park Service, the NPS and Interior made a number of park officials available for the celebrity tour," Swift told the Washington Post last month.
"He was given first-class treatment by the park rangers and had the opportunity to interact with a number of park officials...during his visit which came at the height of the busy season."