Environmentalists Take Issue With Interior Department's List of Achievements

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

As President Bush's tenure comes to a close, independent experts and administration insiders are delivering their assessments of his government's performance over the past eight years. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has posted his own verdict on his department's Web site, and the upshot is that he did great.

Under the heading "Bush Administration Accomplishments at the Department of the Interior," the agency lists 26 achievements it has made since 2001. Some of the policies and programs named have received bipartisan accolades, such as the National Park Centennial Initiative, which will add at least $1 billion to the park system's budget over the next decade, along with another $1 billion in federal matching money that must be paired with an equal amount in private donations.

But Interior also lists some of its most controversial policies, including its decision to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act while circumscribing the move's broader implications.

The fact sheet states: "After months of careful study and the development of new, cutting edge scientific techniques to properly identify, track and predict the effect of declining sea ice on polar bear populations worldwide, the Department proposed and then listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The Department further developed a Polar Bear action plan to help protect the bear."

But Kempthorne has emphasized repeatedly that this decision cannot lead to federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions, even though such emissions are fueling the warming that is shrinking the sea ice on which polar bears depend for survival.

In a news conference with reporters last month, Kempthorne said it is impossible to prove that greenhouse gas emissions from sources such as coal-fired power plants in the continental United States threaten the polar bear's survival.

"We do not believe the science is there to make the causal link between activities in the Lower 48 to the take of a polar bear," he said.

David Moulton, who directs climate policy and conservation funding for the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group, wrote in an e-mail that Kempthorne should not praise the department for its actions when it has not taken sufficient measures.

"The bear is threatened because its habitat is melting as a result of global warming. The secretary apparently has studied why he CAN'T help fight global warming on behalf of the polar bear, but he hasn't any suggestions about how he CAN," Moulton wrote, using capital letters for emphasis. "His 'Polar Bear action plan to help protect the bear' is a furry flight of fancy. He threw the bear a lifeline that was too short, and is now patting himself on the back for trying."

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment on the list.

One of the accomplishments the list cites -- the creation of 15 national wildlife refuges -- did not sit well with Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. Hirsche noted that the refuge system has had to cut 300 jobs because of budget constraints, since the $434 million that refuges receive each year from the federal government falls at least $330 million short of what they need to operate.

"This has been eight years of lost opportunity in terms of acquiring sensitive habitat and creating new national wildlife refuges. The need has never been greater, yet land acquisition coffers have been starved and willing sellers turned away because of bureaucratic red tape," Hirsche said. "New refuges conserve wildlife, bolster property values and result in economic gains for communities. It's hard to understand why this administration has neglected such a winning proposition."

A few other achievements on Interior's list are likely to cheer environmentalists, such as the fact that since 2001 the department has issued more than 180 wind leases and 380 geothermal leases, which translates into more than 1,600 megawatts of renewable electricity capacity on public lands.

But this is likely to be outweighed by other items, such as the agency's authorization of six research, development and demonstration oil-shale projects. Several leading environmental groups -- along with President-elect Barack Obama's interior secretary designee, Ken Salazar, and the majority of Colorado's congressional delegation -- have decried the administration's push for commercial oil-shale development on the grounds that it could deplete scarce water resources and harm nearby habitat.

Of course, Salazar may have his own shot at publishing an Interior Department accomplishments list several years from now.

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