Longform

Ken Salazar wants windmills in the ocean, but first he'll have to save the Interior Department

Page 4 of 9

During Bush's first term, the number of oil and gas permits issued by the BLM more than tripled. By 2007, the number of domestic wells being drilled was the highest since the Iraq-Iran war of the early 1980s. Yet all of this activity failed to make any perceptible dent in rising energy prices.

The BLM may have been in the crosshairs of the new plan, but it wasn't the only agency affected. President Bush had promised to make the national parks more hospitable to a wide range of users and to eliminate the parks' backlog of maintenance projects, from unsafe roads to collapsing historic buildings, estimated at $4.9 billion in 2001. Yet by the time he left office the backlog had increased and the cost virtually doubled, to $9.7 billion. The chief of the park police had been fired for talking to a reporter about staffing shortages. And demoralized park employees had been pressured to implement a series of controversial, sometimes nonsensical decisions, from bison slaughters and increased snowmobiling in Yellowstone to an eleventh-hour regulation allowing loaded, concealed firearms in the parks (recently thrown out by a federal judge).

Over at the Minerals Management Service, the President's vow to run government more like a business resulted in fewer audits of the royalty collection process, even as oil and gas production skyrocketed. Several auditors complained that energy companies were defrauding the public out of millions of dollars. One whistleblower, Bobby Maxwell, soon found himself out of a job and decided to pursue a claim against Kerr-McGee for underpaid royalties — without the government's help. Last fall, right around the time Devaney was releasing his scathing reports on the un-businesslike relationships between MMS regulators and energy-industry officials, a federal appeals court reinstated a jury verdict Maxwell won against Kerr-McGee that could be worth as much as $40 million.

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."

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast