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Leaving No Tracks

Bush and Cheney, who lost in Oregon by less than half of 1 percent in 2000, couldn't afford to anger thousands of Republican farmers and ranchers in the state during the 2002 midterm elections and beyond.
Bush and Cheney, who lost in Oregon by less than half of 1 percent in 2000, couldn't afford to anger thousands of Republican farmers and ranchers in the state during the 2002 midterm elections and beyond. (By Peter Essick -- Aurora Via Getty Images)

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By Jo Becker and Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sue Ellen Wooldridge, the 19th-ranking Interior Department official, arrived at her desk in Room 6140 a few months after Inauguration Day 2001. A phone message awaited her.

"This is Dick Cheney," said the man on her voice mail, Wooldridge recalled in an interview. "I understand you are the person handling this Klamath situation. Please call me at -- hmm, I guess I don't know my own number. I'm over at the White House."

Wooldridge wrote off the message as a prank. It was not. Cheney had reached far down the chain of command, on so unexpected a point of vice presidential concern, because he had spotted a political threat arriving on Wooldridge's desk.

In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake.

Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in.

First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers.

Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

Characteristically, Cheney left no tracks.

The Klamath case is one of many in which the vice president took on a decisive role to undercut long-standing environmental regulations for the benefit of business.

By combining unwavering ideological positions -- such as the priority of economic interests over protected fish -- with a deep practical knowledge of the federal bureaucracy, Cheney has made an indelible mark on the administration's approach to everything from air and water quality to the preservation of national parks and forests.

It was Cheney's insistence on easing air pollution controls, not the personal reasons she cited at the time, that led Christine Todd Whitman to resign as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, she said in an interview that provides the most detailed account so far of her departure.

The vice president also pushed to make Nevada's Yucca Mountain the nation's repository for nuclear and radioactive waste, aides said, a victory for the nuclear power industry over those with long-standing safety concerns. And his office was a powerful force behind the White House's decision to rewrite a Clinton-era land-protection measure that put nearly a third of the national forests off limits to logging, mining and most development, former Cheney staff members said.


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