by Matthew Daly, Associate Press Writer
WASHINGTON–Democrats lambasted the Bush administration Wednesday for what they called its repeated misuse of science for partisan purposes. They said a former Interior Department official who openly pressured government scientists to alter their research was just one example of a larger problem.
Julie MacDonald resigned last week as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, after the department’s inspector general said she bullied federal scientists and improperly leaked information about endangered species to private groups.
While they welcomed MacDonald’s departure, Democrats and environmentalists accused the administration of abdicating its responsibility to protect endangered species.
“From changes in regulations to poorly developed legal reviews that have left the agency sorely vulnerable to attacks in the courts, the evidence of a systematic effort to undermine the law and species protection is quite clear,” said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Rahall and other Democrats said the Bush administration routinely ignored scientific evidence that contradicted its policy goals.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett disputed that, saying in sometimes contentious testimony that the administration is committed to protecting endangered species.
The main threat to the agency’s work was not politics but litigation – specifically those filed by environmental groups and other special interests, Scarlett said. The Fish and Wildlife Service is fighting 41 lawsuits involving seven threatened species, as well as petition findings for 300 species and five-year reviews for 89 species, she said. “In sum, too much time is spent responding to litigation rather than putting in place actions on the ground to recover species,” Scarlett said. Scarlett declined to comment on MacDonald’s resignation, calling it a personnel matter. But she said the department had formed an “accountability board” and taken other steps to ensure that Interior officials act with integrity.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., was unimpressed.
“She’s resigned. That’s no gift to the country. She wandered around the department for three years changing documents and … making determinations based on her beliefs,” Miller said.
He and other Democrats pressed Scarlett to agree to review dozens of decisions on species protection in which MacDonald was involved, including a case in which she acknowledged giving internal agency documents to the California Farm Bureau and other organizations considering litigation against the government.
The inspector general’s report said MacDonald tried to remove protections for a rare jumping mouse in the Rocky Mountains based on a questionable study, and reduced by 80 percent the amount of streams to be protected to help bull trout recover in the Pacific Northwest.
In another case, MacDonald demanded that scientists reduce the nesting range for the Southwest willow flycatcher to a radius of 1.8 miles, from 2.1 miles, so it would not cross into California where her husband has a ranch, the inspector general said.
Miller called that an outrage.
“Julie MacDonald strived to do what she thought was her duty,” Scarlett said.
“Give me a break!” Miller snapped back. “If you believe that, we’re in very serious trouble.”
Another Democrat, Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, grew so exasperated that he told Scarlett she should consider resigning. Inslee was questioning Scarlett over her role as head of a group of Bush political appointees who ordered a rewrite of plans to protect the northern spotted owl. MacDonald also was a member of the group.
Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group, said the hearing demonstrated that “this administration is not serious about eliminating political interference in scientific decisions any time soon.”