A U.S. Geological Survey study documenting how climate change has “dramatically reduced” glaciers in Montana came under fire from high-level Interior Department officials last May, according to a batch of newly released records under the Freedom of Information Act, as they questioned federal scientists’ description of the decline.  

Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular areas at Interior, alerted colleagues in a May 10 email to the language the USGS had used to publicize a study documenting the shrinking of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966.

The news release began: “The warming climate has dramatically reduced the size of 39 glaciers in Montana since 1966, some by as much as 85 percent.”

Highlighting that sentence, Domenech wrote to three other Interior officials, “This is a perfect example of them going beyond their wheelhouse.”

Scott Cameron, who now serves as a principal deputy assistant secretary, responded: “They probably are relying on the percentages but the most basic point is we need to watch for inflammatory adverbs and adjectives in their press releases,” apparently referring to the use of “dramatically” by scientists from the USGS and Portland State University who conducted the study.

The USGS, the main scientific arm of Interior, publicly describes its mission as providing “impartial information” about the environment, including “the impacts of climate.” The agency has studied climate change since at least the 1970s.

Andrew Fountain, a geology professor at Portland State University who co-authored the study, said he had heard rumors that Interior officials were unhappy. “In short, they just didn’t like the idea we found yet more evidence of climate warming,” Fountain said.

But Fountain emphasized that studying climate change was well within the purview of USGS. “This is what we do. It’s not just that we look at glaciers, see they’re retreating and shrug our shoulders,” he said. “We try to figure out what’s going on.”

He added, “It is our wheelhouse.”

Under a policy established under the current administration, news releases issued by Interior’s different agencies must undergo a “policy review” by department officials before they are released. At the time, Cameron had authority for reviewing USGS news releases. The May 10 statement included the contested language: the email exchange took place less than an hour before USGS posted the press release to its website, and a couple of days after it had been distributed to science reporters on an embargoed basis. 

The email thread, published in response to a FOIA request from former Interior scientist and climate policy expert Joel Clement, is just one instance of Interior’s political appointees keeping a watchful eye on the work of climate scientists within the sprawling department that manages 1 in 5 acres of land in the United States. Clement was reassigned from his post in June and later resigned: He and a Bureau of Land Management official, Matthew Allen, have filed records requests in connection with their involuntary reassignments.

Katherine Atkinson, a partner at Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson who represents Clement and Allen, said in an interview Tuesday that the email exchange highlights the extent to which Trump administration appointees have overruled federal officials with expertise in climate science.

“To my knowledge, Mr. Domenech has no scientific background,” Atkinson said. “It concerns me that someone without that kind of background is questioning the work of scientists in putting together this press release on glaciers.”

Domenech has a bachelor’s of science in forestry and wildlife management from Virginia Tech University.

USGS officials referred questions on the matter to Interior, which did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

In a status report filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last month, lawyers for Interior said that they have produced 1,986 pages in response to Clement’s FOIA request and that there are “approximately 40,000 pages of records potentially responsive to the request.”

Interior proposed to process 1,000 pages a month; Atkinson is seeking a faster production rate.

“Interior puts up roadblocks to seeing these documents at every turn,” she said.

President Trump, who has described himself as “not a big believer in man-made climate change,” has installed  across the federal government, including at Interior, deputies who are skeptical of the connection between human activity and atmospheric warming. Since taking office, the Trump appointees have scrutinized — and occasionally worked to curtail — climate change communication to the public.

Interior officials asked for a line attributing rising sea levels to climate change to be removed from a news release for a study published in late May in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, for example, and took reports chronicling the impact of climate change on the American Southwest offline.

The study in Scientific Reports, like the one on Montana glaciers, was a collaboration between researchers at USGS and academics outside the federal government. According to the study’s non-federal contributors, the deleted line read, “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.”

The study that attracted scrutiny from Domenech and Cameron also piqued the interest of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who contacted officials at Montana’s Glacier National Park and visited there two months later. In the days leading up to Zuckerberg’s arrival, political appointees at Interior abruptly removed one of the study’s co-authors from a delegation scheduled to give a tour of the park. 

Zuckerberg described the visit as a chance to see Montana’s glaciers before they disappeared.

According to emails released last fall, aides to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at Interior headquarters objected to Zuckerberg receiving a briefing from the USGS scientist Daniel Fagre, a research ecologist based at Glacier. The National Park Service’s public affairs staff was also instructed not to post anything about Zuckerberg’s visit on social media, according to individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. The prohibition included sharing a Facebook post Zuckerberg wrote during the visit in which he expressed alarm at the park’s shrinking glaciers, one of its major attractions for visitors.

Zinke — whose hometown of Whitefish, Mont. sits at the edge of Glacier National Park — questioned the extent to which human activities had fueled the shrinkage of glaciers in Montana and elsewhere when testifying before the House last June. At the same time, he suggested human emissions play a role in changing the broader climate.

“I don’t believe it’s a hoax,” Zinke said. “I think man has had an influence. I think climate is changing. In reference to Glacier Park, glaciers started melting in Glacier Park right after the end of the ice age. It’s been a consistent melt.”

In the May 10 email thread, Indur Goklany, a science and technology policy analyst skeptical of climate change, responded by questioning what fraction of the glacial shrinkage is “human-induced as opposed to natural variations in precipitation.”

He added that, regardless of cause, fewer glaciers may be better for Montana’s economy. The news release had alluded to the adverse “impact shrinking glaciers can have on tourism.”

“I could also make the argument that it’s not clear that tourism would necessarily suffer since touring season may expand, and hiking may replace glacier-viewing, but that might be a secondary effect,” Goklany wrote.

Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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