Thursday, September 27, 2012

Feds acquit selves on wolf science; independent look needed

Obama made a poor choice of Salazar (left) for Interior.

TUCSON -- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) denies engaging in scientific misconduct while determining what is needed to recover the highly endangered Mexican wolf. This denial came in response to a formal complaint from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which challenged the cogency and accuracy of findings by an agency official rejecting its charges and renewed calls for independent reviews of complaints involving political manipulation of science.

Today fewer than 60 Mexican wolves remain in the wild. Conceding failure after years of recovery efforts, FWS began a new recovery process in 2010. In a complaint filed this June under new Department of Interior scientific integrity rules, PEER detailed how the scientists assembled for this new process were pressured to water down and alter findings.

Instead of bringing in outside reviewers as it has for other complaints, Interior asked FWS to review itself. The investigation was tasked to an FWS career official in Washington DC, Richard Coleman. In his five-page “reply letter” dated September 25th, Coleman dismissed all the complaint specifications. PEER counters that his findings, supported by no citation or scientific research, suffer from three central defects:

  • Coleman found “it is not reckless for the [FWS Southwest] Regional Director to request [scientific changes], since the Regional Director is ultimately responsible for the recovery of the Mexican wolf.” Simply because the Regional Director has final authority does not legitimize ignoring the best available science. The whole point of the scientific integrity rules is to stop officials with final authority from pressuring scientists to alter or suppress results, as was done here;
  • Coleman repeatedly states that because no final FWS decision has been made on the recovery plan, a violation of the integrity policy is not possible (e.g., “Speculation about the conclusion of this upcoming…finding is not a valid basis for scientific misconduct”). This is another fundamental misreading of the Interior integrity policy which explicitly forbids political interference at any stage of the decision-making process; and
  • His finding incorrectly concludes that “your allegation also assumed that the best available scientific information would indicate that recovery of the Mexican wolf (Southwest wolf) should include areas in Colorado and Utah.” The need for recovery areas in Colorado and Utah was indeed the conclusion reached by the specially convened Science and Planning Subgroup of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team based on best available scientific information – which then resulted in the FWS decision to cancel the recovery team meeting, facts Coleman managed to overlook.

“This official self-vindication by the Fish & Wildlife Service is an embarrassment. This response employs standards and methods that make Interior’s vaunted scientific integrity policies an utter joke,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Bureau of Reclamation Scientific Integrity Officer was abruptly removed after elevating scientific integrity concerns. “This exercise should stand as Exhibit A for subjecting complaints of political manipulation of science to outside scrutiny rather than having officials investigate their own chains of command.”

Despite protesting that any conclusion about the process is premature, the FWS is slated to announce its decision regarding Mexican wolves later this week (“by September 30, 2012” according to Coleman). If the upcoming decision does not reflect the best available science, FWS will likely be sued under the Endangered Species Act.

“Lobos are struggling to survive. It's been nearly four years since the feds have released a new Mexican wolf in to the wild, yet the feds are focused on spinning their anti-science political deals,” said PEER Southwest Director Daniel Patterson. “Scientific integrity continues to suffer in the Obama Interior Department. Bureaucratic lip service does not help imperiled wildlife.”

“This complaint was a chance for the agency to come clean and do the right thing,” added Ruch. “Instead, the Fish & Wildlife Service – and many of these same officials – will cling to the same pattern exhibited during the Bush years of denying the obvious until slapped into reality with a court order. Meanwhile, the Mexican wolf may be litigated to extinction.”

Related links

Monday, September 24, 2012

National Parks struggle on religious displays, constitution

Religious display at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

ALBUQUERQUE -- The National Park Service has announced that tomorrow it will remove a Buddhist stupa from New Mexico’s Petroglyph National Monument.  While ending one long-standing controversy about religious displays in national parks, the National Park Service (NPS) continues to dither on others, such as the bronze plaques bearing Biblical verses at Grand Canyon National Park and the sanctioned sale of a book in park bookstores claiming that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah’s Flood only 7,000 years ago, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 

NPS inadvertently purchased the stupa – a ten-foot structure containing Buddhist relics – back in 1990 in acquiring lands for Petroglyph National Monument.  In 2010, NPS publicly assured local Buddhists, who were worried the stupa might be razed, that it would not move the religious structure. That September, PEER asked the agency to review both the constitutionality of a government-maintained religious display as well as its consistency with federal land management policies.

It took NPS leadership two years to finally reach a decision.  According to NPS spokesman Rick Frost, a Tibetan lama has officially “deconsecrated” the stupa so it can be moved on September 25th to private lands chosen by the local Buddhist community 15 miles away.

“PEER is glad the Park Service finally cured a clear constitutional violation from public lands they are supposed to manage,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, hailing an overdue end to the agency’s “stupa stupor.” “The fact that it took the Park Service more than two years of flopping around before finally doing the right thing suggests that it would benefit from a national policy on religious displays.”

In the same September 2010 letter, PEER also raised the issue of the use of NPS personnel to erect and maintain bronze plaques with verses from the Psalms at Grand Canyon overlooks.  The plaques are sponsored by a Christian group called the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary.

Also left unresolved is the nearly decade-long dispute concerning NPS approval to sell a creationist text, entitled “Grand Canyon: A Different View” in park bookstores and museums.  Two different Grand Canyon superintendents, seven years apart, asked NPS Headquarters to make a ruling.  Despite the fact that NPS policy clearly forbids approval or sale of such a book in park-sanctioned facilities, various functionaries, including the current Director and two of his predecessors, have ducked making a decision.

“The Park Service should remove all religious displays, not just the Buddhist ones,” Ruch added, noting that similar NPS indecision resulted in a case involving a large cross on a hill in the middle of Mojave National Preserve being litigated all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  “The law and rules are clear; there is not a shred of legal uncertainty preventing the Park Service from making these decisions in a timely fashion.  What has been lacking is Park Service leadership with the moral courage to make the right calls in the face of political flak.”

“America's national parks are inspiring. The government should leave the inspiration up to individual choice by staying out of religion,” said PEER Southwest Director Daniel Patterson. “The overdue decision at Petroglyph is fair and wise. The National Park Service must also deal with the constitutional conflict at the Grand Canyon.”

Related links

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Citizens sue US Forest Service over concession fees

Extra fees unpopular at Rose Canyon Lake AZ.

TUCSON -- The Forest Service allows facilities operated by commercial concessionaires to charge fees that the agency is prohibited from charging. A nationwide policy of privatizing recreation sites on National Forests is being challenged in federal court by a diverse group of stakeholders in three western states.

In a civil suit filed Wednesday in Washington DC, the plaintiffs assert that the U.S. Forest Service allows private concessionaires to charge recreation fees that the agency itself is prohibited from charging. These fees include access to undeveloped areas, scenic overlooks, and charges solely for parking. Also at issue is the Forest Service's policy that new fees imposed through the issuance of special use permits to concessionaires can bypass the public comment and citizen advisory committee review that federal law requires.

Recreation fees on federal land are governed by the 2004 Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, or REA. Fees are authorized under the REA for campgrounds and day use sites that meet certain minimum requirements, but fees are expressly prohibited for some activities even where those requirements are met. According to REA, new fee sites require public notice and review, but the Forest Service is not following this standard in overseeing private management of new fee sites. The Forest Service has taken the position that the REA's requirements and restrictions only apply when the fee is collected directly by the agency. When contracting with a private concessionaire to operate a recreation site, the Forest Service claims, the fees charged by the concessionaire are exempt from the REA.

The REA also established federal recreation passes that can be purchased at a national or regional level to cover day use site fees and provide discounts on camping for seniors and those with permanent disabilities. The Forest Service is obligated to accept these federal passes, but they allow their private concessionaires to reject them. As more and more sites are placed under concessionaire permits, the value of federal passes is dramatically diluted. Concessionaires often issue their own private annual passes and require those for access to the federal facilities under private control.

About half of all Forest Service campgrounds are operated by concessionaires, representing about 80% of reservable campsites, which tend to be in the most popular places. Since the passage of the REA in 2004 the Forest Service has been transferring day use sites to concession management as well, and income from day use now represents about 12% of concessionaire revenue. Many of these day use sites were never approved for fees through the public participation and review process required in the REA. Some do not qualify for fees at all because they are undeveloped sites that only provide access to trails, rivers, or lakes.

The plaintiffs in the case include Bark, an Oregon non-profit that watchdogs the Mt Hood National Forest, and five individuals in Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado who are working with the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition. All are being represented by Matt Kenna, a Colorado-based public interest attorney.

The five places named in the suit are representative of hundreds of others across the country. They are the developed recreation sites on Oregon's Mt Hood National Forest, including the popular Bagby Hot Springs and Big Eddy day use sites, Rose Canyon Lake on the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, Second Crossing on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, Walton Lake on the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon, and Rampart Reservoir on the Pike National Forest in Colorado.

"These recreation facilities are located on federal land and were built with taxpayer dollars. The Forest Service can't just declare them exempt from federal law by hiring private contractors to run them. It's a backdoor route to the privatization of our public lands and an outrageous disregard of congressional direction," said Olivia Schmidt, Program Director at Bark.

"We have been raising these concerns with the Forest Service for several years but they have refused to adjust their policies," said Kitty Benzar, President of the No-Fee Coalition. "They seem to be more concerned with the profitability of the concessionaires than with providing access to affordable recreation for the American public. This litigation is being undertaken to establish that the National Forests belong to the people, not the federal agencies and their profit-driven recreation industry partners."

"Rose Canyon Lake in the Catalina Mountains and similar concession fee sites on National Forests should be returned to public control and open access," said Daniel Patterson, sportsman and former state lawmaker. "Federal Forest Service schemes to privatize our American public lands and charge taxpayers more for access are unfair, unwise and should end." Rep. Patterson was a plaintiff in a recent federal lawsuit that struck down the unpopular Catalina Mountains fee on the Coronado National Forest near Tucson.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Anti-science politics hurts Mexican wolves across southwest

Who's responsible? Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (middle) and USFWS Director Dan Ashe (left).

SILVER CITY, N.M. -- Key scientific findings on what is needed to recover the foundering Mexican wolf in the American Southwest have become bargaining chips with states hostile to reintroduction of this nearly extinct predator, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The virtual veto power given to states by the Obama administration has left the fate of the Mexican wolf in limbo, despite a clear scientifically-supported recovery plan.

The documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act illustrate U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials making decisions based on political consequences rather than on what is the best science or what is best for the Mexican wolf, among the most endangered mammals on the continent, including:
  • Giving affected states power to bar designation of Mexican wolf habitat within their borders, even if that habitat is unquestionably suitable, with assurances such as “we need Utah support to have recovery of Mexican wolves in Utah” and “we are not going to focus recovery on the backs of Colorado and Utah…”, according to minutes from a November 2011 federal-state meeting;
  • Trading off protections for Mexican wolves at the expense of gray wolves – “By acknowledging that the range of the Mexican wolf includes these five states [AZ, NM, CO, UT and TX] through a subspecies listing, the Service would be able to justify delisting the gray wolf in these states” (emphasis in original), according to agency “talking points” for bargaining sessions; and
  • Refusing to defend its own Science and Planning Subgroup on Mexican wolf recovery, consisting of eight of the nation’s top experts, from attacks by states, such as this barb from Utah officials – “the individual members are qualified from an academic or experience standpoint, but their philosophical preference for widespread distribution of wolves throughout the Rocky Mountains is pervasive in their recommendations” – recommendations the Service has yet to adopt.
“By choosing to politically appease recalcitrant states, the Fish & Wildlife Service is pursuing a strategy that will delay for at least another decade any effective efforts to recover wild populations of Mexican wolves,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Science and Planning Subgroup draft recovery criteria have been sitting on a shelf for a year. “Further delay will harm the genetic health of this struggling subspecies and jeopardize prospects for its future recovery and delisting.”

In June, PEER filed a scientific misconduct complaint against federal and state officials for their actions on Mexican wolf recovery. The complaint was made under recent Department of Interior rules purporting to ban political manipulation of science and to root resource-related decision-making in only the best available science. The PEER complaint has been forwarded to a Fish & Wildlife official who is still investigating his own agency and its partners.

“These documents depict in detail the political machinations driving what are supposed to be purely science-based decisions,” added Ruch. “These documents also strongly suggest that lawsuits are the main factor preventing the science from being completely corrupted or chucked overboard.”

“While ignoring and manipulating science, the feds also wrongly refuse to release more Lobos into the wild, and unwisely want to remove an important mother wolf in New Mexico,” said Daniel Patterson, Ecologist and Southwest Director of PEER. “Ongoing political corruption of wildlife agency managers is a major reason endangered Mexican wolves still struggle in the American southwest.”

It's been 1388 days -- nearly 4 years -- since USFWS has released a new Mexican wolf into the wild.

Link to documents