by Noelle Straub, Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON – Top Interior Department officials manipulated or ignored science when planning for wildlife under the Endangered Species Act, harming species and the program’s integrity in favor of industry, former officials and environmentalists testified Wednesday.
Politics repeatedly trumped science, numerous witnesses charged during a long ESA oversight hearing by the House Natural Resources Committee. They noted that one top Interior official who ordered department scientists to alter their conclusions to favor development, as reported by the inspector general, resigned last week in advance of the hearing.
Committed to openness
But Interior’s No. 2 official testified that the department is committed to openness and sound science and has had to spend too many resources on lawsuits.
The hearing also focused on Interior’s rewriting of regulations implementing the act, though the possible changes have not yet been made public.
Damage done by Bush administration political appointees cannot be ignored, testified Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. Clark was director of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.
Political actions are harming species recovery and have undermined the scientific integrity of programs, Clark said, and “the political interference is unprecedented in my experience.”
Clark also charged that the draft regulations would seriously undermine the ESA in numerous ways. She said the administration wants to “wash its hands of carrying out the ESA altogether” by turning over the responsibility to states.
“At the Fish and Wildlife Service, science itself seems to be endangered,” testified Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In a survey of FWS scientists, hundreds said they know of cases where scientific conclusions were altered because of political intervention by commercial interests, Grifo testified. There is an “alarming disregard of scientific facts by political appointees,” she said.
Grifo also said the proposed regulations will in essence rewrite the goals of the act. “I really fear it’s on a fast track and I urge the Congress to pay close attention to the regulatory process under way,” she said.
Political manipulation of science is thoroughly corrupting the ESA, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He described his group as a “giant shelter for battered staff.”
Ruch said altering of science is “routine and widespread” and is directed from the top. He said the department has a “dissemble to succeed policy,” and that scientists who refused to alter their findings were marginalized. He urged Congress to step in and improve the department’s accountability, integrity and transparency.
Julie MacDonald, Interior deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, resigned last week after an inspector general report in March outlined instances of her ordering department officials to alter scientific conclusions to favor development or agricultural interests. She also provided internal documents to lobbyists, it said.
Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said MacDonald’s “reign of terror” had ended but left behind much damage at the agency. Rahall accused the agency of a “systematic effort to undermine the law and species protection.” He said much of the damage was done by “administrative fiat” out of public view.
Rahall asked for a copy of the draft regulation changes. On Monday he received a response saying the department has made no final decisions on whether to propose any changes. He said FWS has taken “extreme measures” to keep the document away from the committee. He added that the timber industry has had better access to information than Congress.
Interior Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett said she and the agency “strongly embrace” implementation of the ESA. She said the department has rigorous procedures to ensure the best available science is used to make decisions. “Where there is evidence of scientific manipulation we will act upon it,” she said. “I take that challenge and charge very seriously.”
Scarlett said the department is establishing an accountability board and an outline of 80 ethical “best practices” for employees to follow, she said. Scarlett said MacDonald tried to do what she saw as her duty. In response, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said, “If you believe that, then we’re in very serious trouble here … the integrity of the department is in very serious trouble here.”
But Scarlett added that as the department became aware of MacDonald’s direct intervention with scientists in the field, “we made assurances that would not be how the decision process would unfold.”
She said Secretary Dirk Kempthorne asked the head of FWS to put together a group to look at ESA reforms. The draft is still undergoing refinement, she said, but focuses on ways to improve cooperation with states and regulations for recovery of species. It was written solely by experts after listening sessions held around the country on cooperative conservation, she said.
She added that it differs significantly from drafts that have been leaked to the media, and that it does not change the definition of “jeopardy.” Although no decision has been made on whether to proceed, any proposed changes will be published in the federal register for public comment, she said.
She also answered questions about whether what it means to “disturb” a species will be changed under the new regulations. Scarlett said the definition under consideration builds upon common practice and the experience of FWS managers.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., repeatedly asked Scarlett detailed questions about a draft recovery plan for the spotted owl and whether politics trumped science for one of the proposed solutions. Unhappy with her answers, Inslee called on Scarlett to resign.
John Young, former bull trout coordinator for the FWS, testified that the agency’s Washington office deleted 50 pages of an economic analysis that showed benefits, leaving only the parts that showed a negative impact from protecting the fish. It also vastly overestimated the negative effects, he said.
He also said that the rationale for numerous categories of exclusions from habitat areas were “unclear or illogical,” resulting in scattered patches of habitat being protected. Scientists who peer-reviewed FWS work found that the product reflected “none of their guidance,” he said.
Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said politics and not the department has been running the act, but he charged that activist judges and radical environmental groups were to blame.
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