House Panel Spotlights Political Interference with Endangered Species

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 10, 2007 (ENS) Bush administration officials at the Interior Department have repeatedly manipulated science in order to weaken protections for endangered species, former agency officials and environmentalists told the House Resources Committee Wednesday.

The hearing prompted a key Democrat to call for the resignation of the department's deputy secretary, who endured several hours of heated questioning from the committee.

"Under your leadership we have got negligence, incompetence and political hackery," Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, told Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett. "It would be helpful to have your resignation because you refuse to recognize how sick this situation is,"
Inslee

Congressman Jay Inslee has represented the northeastern Seattle area since 1999. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The committee held the oversight hearing in the wake of the resignation of Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald a recent Interior Department inspector general report found MacDonald pressured federal wildlife scientists and leaked confidential information on species decisions to industry and private property groups.

The report detailed interference by MacDonald with scientific reports on a slew of endangered and threatened species, including sage grouse, prairie dogs, the California tiger salamander and Delta smelt fish. MacDonald repeatedly pressed scientists to downplay risks to species and in several instances simply ignored their findings.

MacDonald's "reign of terror" may have ended, said Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat, but "she left behind a lot of baggage."

Rahall

House Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall has represented southern West Virginia in Congress since 1977. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Rahall and other Democrats on the committee called on the administration to commit to reviewing decisions influenced by MacDonald.

"You owe it not just to your employees and not just to us, but to the country to do everything you can to restore the environment of good science there," said Russ Holt, a New Jersey Democrat. "And that would include making sure that any errors in science, any manipulation of science that occurred for any reason are corrected."

Scarlett declined to commit to such action.

Scarlett

Lynn Scarlett has been deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior since November 2005. (Photo courtesy Office of the Deputy Secretary)
The administration is responding to the concerns by putting in place some 80 new ethics guidelines and setting up an accountability board, she said.

"We do not promote, tolerate or support the suppression of scientific information," Scarlett told the panel. "Where there is evidence of scientific manipulation, we will act upon it."

"We have been over these last months assuring what I believe is a process of integrity," Scarlett said, adding that MacDonald "strived to do what she thought was her duty."

That drew a sharp rebuke from California Democrat George Miller.

Miller

Congressman George Miller of California has represented San Francisco's East Bay area since 1975. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
"Give me a break," Miller said. "If you believe that then we are in very serous trouble here and the underpinnings of the integrity of this department are in very serious trouble."

MacDonald's actions have created "a serious, serious ethical and legal problem for the department," Miller said.

Federal judges have already rejected decisions influenced by MacDonald, including a move to downgrade protections for the endangered Santa Barbara and Sonoma salamanders.

Critics argue the administration appears to have not just tolerated, but has encouraged MacDonald's actions as part of a larger effort to ignore the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

"[This] is not some rogue employee that has run countercurrent to this administration and this leadership," Inslee told Scarlett. "And you have shown a stunning lack of awareness of that or willingness to deal with this situation."

Jamie Rappaport Clark, who served as the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration, called the political interference of the Bush administration "unprecedented."

Clark

Biologist Jamie Rappaport Clark, former director fo the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now serves as executive vice president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. (Photo courtesy Defenders)
"No one is arguing that science alone should dictate policy," Clark told the panel. "Science is the foundation on which sound policy decisions depend. But when political interference tries to force a scientific process towards a particular answer, that foundation is undermined and ultimately you end up making very bad policy decisions."

The department's code of science ethics contains "a glaring omission," Clark said.

"Political appointees were specifically excluded," Clark said. "If you create this wall for career employees to behave one way and political appointees to behave another then it is ripe for the problems that we are seeing now."

Rahall further criticized the administration for draft regulations, leaked last month to the press, which would reduce the federal government's responsibility to protect endangered species by making regulatory changes to implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

The Bush administration has not provided Congress with a copy of the draft, said Rahall, who called it "evidence of a systematic effort" to undermine the law and species protection.

"This is an agency that seems focused on one goal weakening the law by administrative fiat and it is doing much of that work in the shadows, shrouded from public view," Rahall said.

Scarlett defended the administration's commitment to protecting endangered species and said it is interested in improving the law.

salmon

The summer run of Lake Sammamish Kokanee salmon in Washington state is believed to have gone extinct this year. (Photo courtesy UBC Zoology)
The draft regulations are still being developed and defended, she added, and the agency held 25 listening sessions across the country to hear ideas about how to revise implementation of the statute and how to encourage greater cooperation with states and private property owners.

"Our fundamental and central goal is to enhance recovery and to do so by enhancing the opportunity for cooperative conservation partnerships," she said.

The most controversial part of the draft a revision of how the agency determines risks to a species has been removed, Scarlett said.

Republicans on the committee expressed support for regulatory changes to the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the 34 year old law is poorly crafted and does little but breed litigation.

The law has been used "to smash the dreams of millions of Americans and to disturb the lives of millions of property owners," said Idaho Republican Bill Sali.

"The Act has been implemented and used by groups not to try and preserve species but to impede any kind of development or growth and that is the unfortunate thing," added Representative Don Young, an Alaska Republican.

Young

Congressman Don Young has served as Alaska's only Representative in the House since 1973. (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
The law encourages landowners to "shut up and shovel" rather than work to protect species, Young said.

"This committee, instead of just pointing the finger at the administration, should, come up with some alternatives," Young told colleagues. "We must save the species if that is what we are seeking to do but let's not forget that we have the human factor involved also."

But Jeff Ruch, an attorney who serves as executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the administration's implementation of the law is a major reason for much of the litigation related to endangered species.

Ruch

Jeff Ruch is executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national association of employees in natural resources agencies. (Photo courtesy House Committee on Science and Technology)
The reason that environmental groups "consistently win these suits is because the agency's own information has been manipulated," he said.

Ruch added that his organization has found manipulation of science "routine and widespread."

"Julie MacDonald was not a lone rogue," Ruch told the panel. "She was merely following orders to keep the administration's friends comfortable."