Biological Cadre Turns Political

I’ve found, over the years, that scientists don’t tend to be comfortable lobbying. So it was with some surprise that I opened an email last week containing a letter that had been sent to the President-elect from some 60 conservation-minded biologists. In it, they recommend that he nominate Rep. Raúl Grijalva for Secretary of the Interior. The three-term Arizona congressman is apparently on a short list of candidates.

This Democrat chairs the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee. And he probably gained more than a little notoriety recently among colleagues across the aisle with his new report “on the failure of the Bush Administration to protect our public lands.” That would suggest that he would be ideologically compatible with implementing “change” — a central tenet of Barack Obama’s campaign.

So I contacted Travis Longcore of the University of Southern California. Along with wife Catherine Rich (executive officer of the Urban Wildlands Group), he circulated the new petition to friends and family among the conservation-science community. I asked: How easy was it to accumulate signatures from them for the letter? “It was as easy as falling off a log,” he laughed.

In his new report, Grijalva argues that “science has been manipulated to enrich industry.” Longcore and Rich’s petition says that “Most if not all conservation scientists share [the congressman’s] frustration, often based on personal experience, and look forward to working with the agencies of the Department of the Interior under the direction of someone who understands and values science.”

The next Secretary of the Interior will have to understand “how to protect and steward natural resources and lands in a changing climate under the pressure for increased energy production,” the petition charges. “Congressman Grijalva has shown that he grasps the tradeoffs involved in such decisions.” By way of example, it cites his role as a leading proponent of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (while he had served on the Pima County Board of Supervisors). This conservation program has been charged with protecting natural resources in the desert environment while allowing smart growth.

Yet Longcore and Rich weren’t planning on drafting a petition supporting the congressman — until they ran across a news story citing Grijalva as a serious contender for the Interior post. So, the night before Thanksgiving, they sat down at their computer to articulate why they thought scientists should support the Arizona lawmaker. They finished around 1 a.m. and emailed the letter to scores of people. By breakfast the following day, they already had signatures from nine colleagues. They collected another 50, representing researchers coast to coast, over weekend. They faxed the petition to Obama’s transition team last Monday.

“There’s been this aching desire to get back to an administration that has respect for science and the laws that require it,” Longcore says. And Interior officials have an especially egregious record of ignoring science and subverting the law, he contends.

For instance? Agency officials have a history of “rewriting the biological opinions of scientific staff members in the [Fish & Wildlife] Service, not to mention ignoring the best available science by conservation scientists outside of F&WS.” (F&WS is one of the Interior agencies). Interior officials have also pushed for oil and gas development in the intermountain West “with a complete disregard for the impacts on wildlife,” Longcore charges.

And then there’s the issue of species threatened with extinction, he said: “Fewer species have been listed as endangered, when merited, than in any administration since passage of the Endangered Species Act.”

Grijalva detailed perhaps a hundred examples of such questionable, if not illegal, practices carried out by Interior throughout the last eight years that affected U.S. national parks, forests, and other public lands. These measures are “testament to the incredible disrespect that scientists have felt during the Bush administration,” Longcore says.

Okay, 60 signatures is a nice start. But probably not enough to compel a presidential-transition team. And I can’t say whether Grijalva is the best person to head Interior. However, I like the basic thesis of the new petition: inject science — and respect science — in all federal decisionmaking that affects public lands. And, of course, everything else.

Obama campaigned to do just this. Now the science community has to hold him and his team accountable for following through.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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