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Party Talk Leaves Plenty of Room for Action

By Angus Phillips
Sunday, April 30, 2006

The environmental bureaucracy in all its glory came down to the Potomac last week to congratulate itself on another feat of paper-shuffling derring do. Rarely, as one skeptic put it, have so many taken so much credit for so little.

They gathered at Fletcher's Cove on Monday to pop the cork on the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. Everyone who was anyone was there except Johnny Morris, the wealthy head of Bass Pro Shops, whose private jet was delayed by bad weather. Johnny we hardly missed ye, what with two actual cabinet ministers to fawn over.

"Good morning," said acting Interior Department Secretary Lynn Scarlett, and from the back of the dimly lit tent where hundreds had convened came a booming response from her sycophantic minions: "Good morning!!!"

The only assets missing were cheerleaders with pom-poms as Scarlett and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez droned on about "partnerships" between government agencies and the private sector. That's the buzz word for fixing things these days, along with "leveraging assets" and grassroots-driven efforts to address, measure and communicate the status and needs of aquatic habitats, and blah, blah, blah.

Never mind that all the federal government has ponied up for this grand effort so far is $1 million out of a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service budget of $2.1 billion. That's a rousing .0047 percent, if high school math serves.

What's it all about? Well, the Bush administration doesn't care much for government interfering with the business of business, and it hates taxes, so it's encouraging industry and state and local groups to come up with ideas to make things better for fish, and then to raise the money and make the projects happen. That's what they mean by partnership. Basically, do it yourself.

To celebrate its $1 million "seed money" investment, the feds threw a $50,000 (my wild guess) party at Fletcher's on Monday, complete with bright, waterproof yellow goody bags for all invitees, full of hats, fancy fishing shirts and propaganda. They erected three large tents, brought in a half-dozen mounted Park Police to keep everyone in line and assigned another Parkie to stop traffic on Clara Barton Parkway whenever a VIP needed to turn right.

It's a wonder all those giant SUVs could fit through the century-old bridge that runs under the C&O Canal to get into Fletcher's. Inside, guests were directed to collect their goody bags, then borrow high-class fly-fishing tackle and take free, guided fishing trips on the river in a Fletcher's rowboat. Unfortunately, gobs of trash and mud were rolling down after the weekend's gully-washers, so few fish were caught.

I shared a boat with Marvin Moriarty, mid-Atlantic regional director for USFWS, who spent much of his time on the phone with a timber industry guy from Maine. Moriarty said he's been urging the fellow and his colleagues to cut more wood. "We're losing our early successional habitat" because small timber operators don't cut like they used to, he said. That's right, federal conservation officials are worried the timber industry isn't cutting down enough trees.

On land, excitement built as big shots rolled in. Dale Hall, head of the USFWS, turned up with his entourage, as did NOAA assistant administrator Bill Hogarth and Republican environmental uber-lobbyist Jim Range. While the event is dubbed the Congressional Casting Call, no congressmen or senators were introduced.

By the time ceremonies ended and everyone could chow down on tubs of steaming barbecued pork and chicken, about 100 people were on stage, clapping each other on the backs. "If I left out anyone," said Range, "don't blame me. It's not my list."

They gathered to watch Scarlett and Gutierrez sign a document. "It's just something I wrote," said USFWS public relations man Phil Million. "Nothing official. You know, pledging to cooperate, partnerships, all that."

For the record, the National Fish Habitat Action Plan encourages "cooperation, investment, stewardship" in fixing the nation's waterways. The aim is to set up a governing board and raise and parcel out $100 million over the next five years to support local projects to improve or restore aquatic habitat.

"It can't hurt, can it?" wondered Northern Virginia fly-fisherman Bob Poole.

Laury Parramore, a USFWS spokesman, reckons considerable good can come from conservation partnerships, and already has. She pointed to ongoing, locally based efforts to restore the Bahia Grande estuary in Texas, drained to make a ship channel; to resurrect the Blackfoot River trout fishery in Montana, ruined by mining and grazing; and to restore brook trout habitat in the East, decimated by development.

Parramore says the key is establishment of links between scientists and researchers around the country so they can build a data base to help prioritize problems and coordinate responses.

Ever the skeptic, my eye went straight to what looks like a key paragraph in the action plan, headed, "Non-regulatory." It says, "These voluntary projects will supplement the existing foundation of regulatory programs that protect aquatic habitats from pollution and degradation."

Well, in this cranky old man's view, if the government was doing its job protecting aquatic habitats from pollution and degradation instead of running around forming "partnerships" with the people largely responsible for wrecking those resources in the first place, we might not need a National Fish Habitat Action Plan.

Instead of throwing parties for themselves, maybe the chiefs of Interior, Fish & Wildlife and Commerce should just get back in the office -- and do their jobs.

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