Salazar I: The Value of Science at Interior

For four years, Ken Salazar has been a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Today, the Colorado Democrat sat at the witness table answering questions from his former committee colleagues about how he would run the Interior Department — if confirmed next week (as expected) to head the agency.

“You have some very heavy lifting ahead,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) observed this morning during the initial confirmation hearing for Salazar. Interior is the landlord for about 40 percent of the landmass of the continental United States and 60 percent of Alaska — not to mention the underwater real estate extending 200 miles out from all U.S. coastlines. The agency manages minerals extraction on public lands, outer-continental-shelf drilling for oil and gas, endangered species protection, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, national parks, rangelands, and water rights. 

Plenty of criticisms have emerged recently about the Bush Administration’s tenure as steward of these lands. Salazar’s senate colleagues wanted to make sure that when he enters the new Obama administration, next week, they will have his ear.

The first issue Wyden wanted reassurance on from Salazar was that he would reinstate the primacy of science in Interior decisionmaking.

Under George Bush, Interior officials “have regularly been trampling on good science,” Wyden charged. “You now have to go in there and drain the swamp.”

Wyden was particularly incensed by policies enacted by Julie MacDonald, a political appointee who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Interior’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “It was clear she had a political agenda,” Wyden said. “She resigned after I pushed for it. And we sought a review of the decisions she made that we knew were politically tainted.”

On Dec. 15, Interior’s Inspector General transmitted its findings to Wyden and fellow lawmakers on 20 Endangered Species Act decisions made under MacDonald’s watch. The IG noted that “in previous investigations we determined that MacDonald injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of ESA decisions. We determined that MacDonald’s management style was abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive, and that her conduct demoralized and frustrated her staff as well as her subordinate managers.” In its new investigation, the IG reported uncovering that “MacDonald’s zeal to advance her [political] agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity of the ESA program . . . as well as potential harm to individual species. Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every ESA decision during her tenure.”

By law, decisions on whether to designate a species as endangered and how to protect those that are facing potential extinction should be based on science. MacDonald was accused of downplaying — if not outright ignoring — recommendations based on science. Decisions under her tenure were also affected, in some instances, by deliberately inflating the costs of complying with species protection, the IG reported.

Today, Wyden asked Salazar: “How do you envision going in there and correcting those tainted decisions?”

The nominee pledged that “We will review the decisions that have been made and . . . make sure they are in compliance with the law and to make sure they’re in compliance with the science.

“There’s no substitute for good science to guide the kinds of issues that you’ve talked about with the Fish & Wildlife Service,” Salazar said. “So we’ll make sure that that’s what guides us as we move forward with decisionmaking. And I assure you that the people we will bring in to oversee those efforts will be people who will make the calls based on the ‘balls and strikes’ of science, not the balls and strikes of politics.”

Although “encouraged” by the statements, Wyden didn’t let go of the issue until he got Salazar to promise to also forward him a “timetable for correcting those MacDonald decisions.”

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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