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Of Butterflies and Boondoggles

The Mayan ruins at Palenque are just one of the stops on a Fish and Wildlife Service outing to Mexico next month. Also on the itinerary, at least for some of the junketeers: the monarchs of Michoacan.
The Mayan ruins at Palenque are just one of the stops on a Fish and Wildlife Service outing to Mexico next month. Also on the itinerary, at least for some of the junketeers: the monarchs of Michoacan. (By Alexandre Meneghini -- Associated Press)

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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hurry, hurry, hurry. There still may be seats available on a spectacular U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trip that will send 28, that's twenty-eight, senior officials to Mexico for a week of post-election R and R. It includes a tour of the fabulous Mayan ruins in Palenque in the Lacandon rain forest.

And make sure you don't miss the wonderful two-day "optional extension" to Michoacan to see the butterflies. No, not just any old butterflies, but the spectacular monarchs, millions of them, so many that it's said you can actually hear the faint hum of their wings as you approach their mountain sanctuary.

The trip is one of those "exchanges" that allow U.S. officials to get familiar with counterparts' programs in Mexico. It's unclear what benefit will be derived by the wildlife agency's director, Dale Hall, who's retiring Jan. 3, and Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty, who should be moving on after Jan. 20. The group includes most of the agency's regional directors and various assistant directors.

When asked about this, a Fish and Wildlife spokesman noted that the trip, which has been in the planning stages for many months, was "at the express invitation of the Mexican government." That's as opposed to a couple dozen gringos dropping in unannounced?

Our journey begins Monday, Nov. 17, and takes you via Dallas to Mexico City, where you'll have time to grab some of the best arrachera tacos at La Mansion right there in the airport without ever encountering the horrendous traffic and pollution.

Then it's a short flight to Chiapas, where an embassy bus will take you to the hotel for the evening.

The next day features a trip to the Institute of Natural History and Ecology, various presentations, discussions and tours. "Visit the new-born jaguar and quetzal," a beautiful plumed bird, the itinerary says. Then receptions and dinner. Kind of an easy day, but you need the rest to handle a four-hour drive to the stunning Mayan ruins of Palenque.

Unfortunately, there are a few hours of meetings and such at the hotel the next day, but only until early afternoon, when you'll fly back to Mexico City to attend a reception with Mexican partners in wildlife matters.

You head home on Friday, unless you venture to the Michoacan butterfly reserve, which only 15 members of our intrepid group, including Laverty and Hall, are planning to do.

Excluding airline tickets and the butterfly excursion, the trip will cost maybe $30,000 just in per diems, and with the wildlife agency's chronic budget and staffing shortages, we called a former director of the agency in the Clinton administration, Jamie Clark, to see whether these sorts of trips were standard operating procedure -- especially with the top officials virtually heading out the door.

Apparently not.

"This is a goodbye boondoggle if I ever saw one," Clark said after we went over the itinerary. "The entire leadership will be gone during the transition."


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