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Perhaps the greatest upheaval was inside the Fish and Wildlife Service, where the policy shift amounted to an assault on science itself. As the lead agency responsible for the protection of endangered species, the FWS relies on its field researchers and scientists to determine the impacts of development projects on plants and wildlife. But it soon became apparent that the new leadership was chiefly interested in science that achieved the desired political outcomes.

Sally Stefferud, a twenty-year veteran of the FWS, was asked to study whether a proposed water-diversion project in Arizona would pose a risk to native fish, including a rare minnow. In 2002 Stefferud prepared what is known as a jeopardy opinion — a worst-case scenario, basically, that concluded the project would jeopardize the survival of the species. She quickly discovered that the new regime was no longer accepting jeopardy opinions.

"When I submitted the draft to my supervisor in Phoenix, he told me, 'Dale Hall says you can't do this,'" Stefferud recalls. (Hall, then a regional administrator in Albuquerque, became Bush's director of FWS in 2005.) "I said I had two months to go until retirement and I didn't care what Dale Hall says. This is what the science says."

New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.

The opinion was killed. Stefferud soon left the agency and watched from the sidelines as research budgets shrank and scientific papers were re-evaluated and re-interpreted to say exactly the opposite of what they really meant. The focus had shifted from science-based enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to all-out efforts to take species off the endangered list that were interfering with timber, grazing, energy and development interests. (Among the few newcomers to the list in the Bush years were six varieties of threatened or endangered penguins, none of which can be found in the United States.) A 2005 survey of FWS scientists revealed that more than half the respondents knew of instances in which their findings had been altered to suit the needs of development projects.

The perversion of science at the agency eventually led to two sprawling reports on the matter from inspector general Devaney, the latter of which was released last December. Both reports dealt primarily with the heavy-handed interference of Julie MacDonald, a DOI deputy sssistant secretary who, in Devaney's words, "injected herself personally and profoundly" in numerous endangered-species issues. The investigation revealed that MacDonald had the unflagging support of her superiors in her efforts to achieve pro-development decisions and squash dissent.

MacDonald took extraordinary measures to get the results she wanted, including packing expert review panels with her own handpicked minions and deep-sixing contrary findings. Her micromanaging became so commonplace that staffers turned her name into a verb — "getting MacDonalded," they called it. In her zeal to keep dwindling numbers of greater sage grouse off the endangered list, she declared that the bird didn't need sagebrush to survive — a statement that her perplexed panel didn't know how to integrate into its report, since it had no basis in fact.

"The cloud of MacDonald's overreaching," Devaney wrote, "and the actions of those who enabled and assisted her, have caused the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-issue decisions and litigation costs...action is necessary to restore the integrity of the ESA program, and the morale and reputation of the FWS in the eyes of the public and of Congress."

MacDonald resigned from the DOI in 2007. But many of "those who enabled and assisted her" still work there; even some of the political appointees have found ways to burrow into career-service positions. "People think that after the inauguration, everything's going to change," Stefferud says. "But the Bush administration was really good at embedding its people far down in the agency."

In its waning days, the Bush administration quietly introduced new rules that nullified key requirements of the Endangered Species Act, allowing federal projects to proceed without FWS consultation if the lead agency decided there was no threat to a vulnerable species. The move was presented as a way of making the review process less bureaucratic and redundant, but critics protested that the administrative measure would remove FWS expertise from the process and effectively gut the ESA.

On March 3, in conjunction with a ceremony at DOI headquarters marking the department's 160th birthday, President Obama rescinded the new rules. "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife," he said. "We should be looking for ways to improve it — not weaken it."


Over the past few weeks, the new administration has put the brakes on a slew of "midnight regulations" dealing with public lands that were hustled into the Federal Register in the last days of the Bush era. Bush's people did the same thing with many end-game maneuvers of the Clinton administration. But Secretary Salazar seemed to take a grim satisfaction in this particular rite of the transition of power, making many of the announcements himself.

In halting the Utah lease sales, he criticized the BLM for failing to consult adequately with park authorities before auctioning oil and gas rights near Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon. He then scuttled the previous administration's efforts to expand oil shale research and leasing in western Colorado, saying the leases were too large, the royalty rates too low, the technology still unproven. Instead, he offered a slower, more modest phase-in of R&D leases.

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1 comments
stoett22
stoett22

Despite having only recently been appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar has ruffled a lot of feathers, such as recently announcing an end to Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s oyster farm lease for environmental concerns. It is not an extremely popular decision, especially since millions of dollars is on the line. But I am glad environmental concerns trumps money, and building offshore wind farm will open doors to innovative types of renewable energy. However, I hope more studies and research are infused into this to determine the severity (if any) of negative impacts on the environment.

 
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