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More than one to blame on ESA rulings reversal
Editorial 11/30/2007, Capital Press
Followed by related article by Dan Keppen, Executive Director Family Farm Alliance

Farmers might find themselves endangered after politics, science and lawsuits have all played their role in a fiasco involving endangered species.

This week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it has reversed seven rulings connected to endangered species that involved senior interior department official Julie MacDonald. She resigned last May after the department concluded that scientists had been pressured by her to change their findings on endangered species and also leaking information to industry officials.

Farmers and ranchers should be watching carefully what rulings are being overturned and how it will affect them. Legal and agricultural organizations in the West had lobbied MacDonald as they worked for the best interests of farmers.

For a long time, the agricultural community has argued there are major flaws with the Endangered Species Act and how listings occur. They have demanded that listings be based on science, rather than politics and pressure from special interest groups.

Too often, they have been the victim rather than the victor when it came to ESA listings and rulings.

However, some scientists and environmental groups have accused the Bush administration - and MacDonald - of manipulating and misrepresenting ESA findings for political reasons and continued their challenges.

They will feel vindicated after this week's announcement that affects species such as the white-tailed prairie dog and the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. Earlier decisions by the agency have now been reversed, and other cases being reconsidered include the Hawaiian picture-wing fly, the Arroyo toad, and the California red-legged frog.

No one should be surprised that there is heavy politics and lobbying affecting ESA decisions. Agricultural officials aren't the only ones who play the game. One can only imagine all the pressure applied by lobbyists for environmental groups or other special interest organizations.

Another factor that must be examined is the role of lawsuits on the ability of agencies and their employees to do their jobs properly.

In 2004, an interior department official testified before a Senate subcommittee on fisheries, wildlife and water, about how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "has been embroiled in a relentless cycle of litigation over its implementation of the listing and critical habitat provisions of the act." The official added "The service now faces ... serious difficulties due not to agency inertia or neglect, but to a lack of scientific or management discretion to focus available resources on the listing actions that provide the greatest benefit to those species in greatest need of conservation."

She went on: "These lawsuits have subjected the service to an ever-increasing series of court orders and court-approved settlement agreements, compliance with which now consumes nearly the entire listing program budget. Consequently, the service has little ability to prioritize its activities to direct resources to listing program actions that would provide the greatest conservation benefit to those species in need of attention."

Perhaps that is one of the biggest problems, beyond the usual politics and lobby efforts. The courts and endless lawsuits are not just dictating ESA policy, but keep the agency from doing a better job.

The person who explained and warned about this in 2004? Julie MacDonald.

Yes, ESA rulings must be based on sound science, not politics. But until politicians can make needed changes to the ESA, there will continue to be battles in courts, special interest groups and agricultural representatives will continue to fight, and people like MacDonald will feel an obligation to get involved beyond what is politically or legally acceptable.

The ultimate losers won't be just the endangered species that deserve protection, but agricultural landowners and others who are also caught in the mess.

Related article by Dan Keppen, Executive Director Family Farm Alliance

"This was a decent editorial, although I was disappointed that the editors appear to accept the allegations that have been made against Julie MacDonald. There is definitely another side to this story."

There are many interests in Washington and the national media that are dedicated to laying blame on the Bush Administration and, by association, Western farmers and water users, no matter what the facts say. The mainstream media’s apparent ready acceptance of arguments generated by environmental activists is a growing concern to family farmers and ranchers, especially when onesided media coverage is seen as influencing environmental policy that has very real ramifications for agriculture.

THE RECENT EXAMPLE of “trial by media” concerns the tragic and unfair public pillorying of Julie MacDonald, the former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior. All year long, environmental groups and their allies in Congress have kept the pressure on senior officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior over alleged heavy-handed management of Endangered Species Act (ESA) administrative issues. Ms. MacDonald was subjected to particularly withering fire for allegedly altering scientific field reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosing confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions.

SHE RESIGNED from the Department in May after an Inspector General’s (IG) report appeared to support allegations made by environmental activists. Those allegations included charges that she had unreasonably interfered with scientific findings relative to ESA issues; that she had conducted herself outside the chain of command by interacting directly with field personnel; and, in doing so, she had been heavy-handed with staff. Having reviewed the ESA decisions in which MacDonald involved herself, Interior has determined that eight additional decisions – most in states along the Pacific Coast – must now be reviewed, and perhaps, reversed or modified.

URBAN NEWSPAPERS from around the country essentially broadcast the claims made by environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, painting an unflattering portrait of MacDonald. Politicians – critics of the Bush Administration – joined the fray, and on July 31, the House Natural Resources Committee (“Committee”) conducted an oversight hearing entitled "Crisis of Confidence:The Political Influence of the Bush Administration on Agency Science and Decision-Making." The IG’s report on MacDonald was a key topic of discussion at the hearing, which also provided a forum to debate allegations that Vice President Dick Cheney somehow exerted political influence to help farmers at the expense of fish in the Klamath River watershed.

 THROUGH ALL OF THIS, Julie MacDonald has remained silent, which has allowed the charges levied by her critics to go unchallenged. As a result, those charges are now routinely repeated in media coverage (which the report was “leaked” to, without a response from Ms. MacDonald), and now are routinely reported as facts. But recently, we are beginning to see others tell the other side of Julie MacDonald’s story. At the July 31 congressional oversight hearing, government witnesses involved with the investigations were grilled on the MacDonald matter. Mary Kendall, Deputy Inspector General for Interior, testified that the Interior investigation determined that MacDonald did inject herself personally in a number of ESA issues, particularly those that had the potential to impact her home state, California, such as the split tail minnow.

“Overall, the impact of Ms. MacDonald’s conduct on the Department of the Interior has been considerable,” said Kendall. “It has cast a vast cloud over the Department’s scientific integrity.”

HOWEVER, REP. CATHY McMORRIS Rodgers (R-WASHINGTON) and Rep. Chris Cannon (RUTAH) provided initial suggestions that, perhaps, the entire MacDonald story had not yet been heard on this matter.

“The American people deserve to know more about this situation,” said Mrs. McMorris Rodgers. “I’m sure the public doesn’t know that this grandmother never had a chance to refute the allegations levied against her and that there could be many sides of the story. She has been unfairly called a future “convict” by a senior member of this Committee already, but there’s no basis for such irresponsible talk, especially when the Inspector General found that she did nothing illegal.”

FOR THE FIRST TIME, the public discovered that Ms. MacDonald had submitted a written response to the Interior Department allegations. After the hearing, it became apparent that questions lingered in the minds of some regarding Ms. MacDonald’s ability to address the charges made against her, and how her input was factored into the IG report. And finally, five weeks later, at least one newspaper stepped forward to tell the rest of the story. The Colorado Springs Gazette on September 6 presented an editorial that summarizes her response to the IG and even includes a link to the IG report and her very thorough response: http://www.gazette.com/opinion/macdonald_26957___article.html/report_esa.html.

The Gazette piece is balanced and complete. It is relevant to the paper’s readers because many of them could be impacted by the proposed de-listing of the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, protected under the ESA, which falls under Interior Department purview.

IN A NUTSHELL, the Gazette concludes “she’s been railroaded”.

The Gazette editorial is an eye-opener, and introduces some key facts that previous reporters apparently missed:

*      Ms. Macdonald says was never solicited by the IG for an opportunity to rebut its report.

*      IG’s report insinuated that MacDonald altered range estimates for a protected bird,the southwest willow flycatcher, because a critical habitat designation might impact her “ranch” in California. But Ms. MacDonald’s property — which is not a sprawling “ranch,” but 80 acres of row crops — is nearly 300 miles from flycatcher habitat.

*      Ms. MacDonald said the law requires that the best available science be used, but she found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “did not always consider all the data and often ‘cherry picked’ for sources and reviewers which supported their position.”

 Sadly, the Gazette observes that the record may be impossible to set straight. And it asks a question that everyone who jumped on the “bash Julie MacDonald” bandwagon should be pondering: Where does Julie MacDonald go to get her reputation back?


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