Scientists Take Complaints About Interference to Hill

By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Two dozen scientists swarmed over Capitol Hill this week mad as vespinae ( hornets) at what they say is Bush administration meddling in environmental science.

Organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Endangered Species Coalition, the rumpled researchers won time in the offices of more than 20 lawmakers. They are protesting what Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, calls "the systematic dismantling of the Endangered Species Act through the manipulation and suppression of science."

On a dash from the House to the Senate, Grifo said the group wants hearings and better congressional oversight of the Interior Department, where Bush appointees control the fate of threatened and endangered species.

The scientists say political appointees at Interior, or those who report to them, have been altering their reports recommending "critical habitat" preservation to favor industries whose interests conflict with the findings.

They singled out decisions by Julie A. MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. She was criticized last year by Interior's inspector general for repeatedly instructing scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to change recommendations on safeguarding plants and animals from oil and gas drilling, power lines, and real estate development. MacDonald, who had no science background, resigned in April.

Interior Department spokesman Shane Wolf said Deputy Secretary Lynn Scarlett met for two hours with the scientists and is committed to maintaining the integrity of endangered species decisions. In July, Scarlett requested that career officials review hundreds of decisions that may have been inappropriately influenced, and eight were found to warrant possible revision.

Many of the scientists on the Hill yesterday were new to Washington ways.

Kim Nelson, a research wildlife biologist based in Corvallis, Ore., is more at home in the woodsy habitat of the marbled murrelet than in the marbled lair of the gray-thatched speechmaker. The murrelet is a small seabird that flies inland to lay its single egg on the moss-covered branches of large trees also coveted by loggers. That habitat, Nelson says, could be all but wiped out by Interior.

"I had no idea just how complicated it is that each congressman or committee has their charge, and they can't overstep their charge unless some colleague comes in and asks them to," Nelson said.

Peter Rafle, spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the committee is working with Interior on a date for a hearing within the next few weeks.

"We think there are at least 50 different species decisions" that appear more politically than environmentally motivated, said Jon Hunter, policy director at the Washington-based Endangered Species Coalition.

To some on the Hill, "this is eye-opening, when they recognize this issue is widespread," he said. But with elections looming, "this is going to be a tough year to get some things done."

The group also has visited Interior and the Government Accountability Office, which is investigating various allegations.

Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and a 30-year veteran of renowned environmental battles, says he is fed up. He has worked for two decades on Everglades conservation and says that under this administration, he is seeing his habitat preservation suggestions steamrolled, as it were.

"In the past, scientists have written their reports, said, 'This is what the science is,' and the policymakers made their decisions from it," he said. Now, he said, "decisions that come out of Fish and Wildlife ignore the science and fabricate evidence in the crudest, most unsophisticated way."

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