Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Best Available Excuses

Representative Jay Inslee’s (1st-WA) statement, “Instead of best available science, we have best available excuses,” at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing last week simultaneously sums up the state of affairs at the Department of Interior and the Bush administration’s response.

The House Natural Resources Committee chaired by Senator Nick Rahall (3rd-WV) held a hearing on May 21st titled, “The Danger of Deception: Do Endangered Species Have a Chance?” Witnesses testified that officials in the upper reaches of the Department of Interior and even the office of Vice President Dick Cheney have potentially undermined the science used to protect our nation's endangered fish, plants and wildlife.

These and similar conclusions were delivered through the testimony of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Dr. Francesca Grifo with Union of Concerned Scientists and Scott Hoffman Black with Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (an ESC member group, I might add), Dave Parsons (on the Mexican gray wolf) and Dr. Jerry Franklin (on Northern Spotted Owl).

The hearing and GAO’s investigation into this issue was a follow-up on previous uncovered evidence of political interference in endangered species decisions in connection with former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald who resigned amidst the scandal.

Evidence of Broader Interference
While the Department of Interior has worked to spin the political interference as just one rogue employee, GAO’s investigation and this hearing caused the spin to come crashing down. Pressed by questions from Chairman Rahall, the GAO named three political appointees and one high-ranking Interior Department employee who may have tampered with decisions. Those four are Craig Manson, former Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Brian Waidmann, current Chief of Staff to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne; Todd Willens, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and Randal Bowman, current Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary Lyle Laverty. Their names came up in relation to at least 9 species decisions, but because it was outside of the scope of the GAO's charge, the full extent and consequences of their meddling are unknown.

Vice President Cheney's Office Takes on Right Whales
As Dr. Scott Kraus from the New England Aquarium said in his testimony, “fast ships kill whales.” Picture a squirrel getting run into by a semi and you'll understand why NOAA-Fisheries has proposed a seasonal speed limit on boats coming in and out of ports during the migration of north Atlantic right whales (there are only about 300 left in the world). This proposal has been held up by the office of the Vice President though, which has repeatedly questioned the scientific basis for the proposal. A different part of the executive branch, the Council of Economic Advisors, went further by “cherry picking” data on collisions between whales and ships and then attempting to create their own analysis to draw doubt on the NOAA proposal. Dr. Grifo has lots of details about this in her testimony if you'd like to know more details. And while I do not want to diminish the need to inform such decisions by scientific experts, let me ask you: would you rather be hit by a bus (or even a Yugo) moving at 30 miles per hour or 5 miles per hour?

Getting it Right (a.k.a No More Julie-Proofing)
The GAO testified that the Department of Interior responded to the political interference mess, not by trying to find all cases of political interference, but by limiting their review to decisions related to Julie MacDonald specifically. Had they not put on those blinders, the GAO states, they would have likely found additional instances of potential political interference.

Equally as troubling as the direct interference is what was referred to as “Julie-proofing” by agency staff and highlighted by Representative Paul Sarbanes (3rd-MD) in his questions. This is where agency staff would alter their own reports in anticipation of what would be accepted or rejected by Julie MacDonald (and presumably other like-minded administration officials). The GAO reported that some even prepared two decisions, in case their preferred one was rejected.

While it would have better done a year ago, the Department of Interior should immediately respond to the GAO's investigation by identifying and reviewing all species decisions where there is reason to believe politics has undermined the best available science. Furthermore, the long overdue seasonal speed limit that NOAA's scientists say will help reduce the number of deaths of right whale from ship collisions needs to be implemented.

As Representative Raúl Grijalva (7th-AZ) stated, there is much concern about this kind of corrupted culture becoming “institutionalized” within the agency. Increasing accountability and transparency – through whistle-blower protections for scientists, better ethics policies within the Department of Interior and other steps – are a good place to start. But it will also take a clear message from the Secretary of Interior that scientific interference is no longer acceptable and that the department will be making all needed efforts to correct every instance of inappropriate meddling.

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