Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Leaving No Tracks

"Leaving No Tracks" is the title of the fourth of a series of articles on Dick Cheney's unprecedented influence. Many observers of the Bush administration have long suspected that the vice president was the driving force behind the administration's controversial actions. This series has largely confirmed that impression. Today's installment covers Cheney's influence on environmental policies regarding endangered species protection, use of public lands, and air pollution.

The most dramatic intervention came in relation to the Klamath River incident in 2002. Farmers, suffering from a drought, wanted irrigation water from dams and canals along the river. Federal officials refused to provide additional water on the basis of the Endangered Species Act. Their scientific studies indicated that letting water levels drop below a certain level would harm endangered species of suckerfish and coho salmon. Under the law, their findings compelled them to protect the fish.

So Cheney went out and got his own science. When brow-beating lower-ranking officials in the Interior Department failed to garner his desired results, Cheney appealed to the National Academy of Sciences to review the plan.
It was Norton who announced the review, and it was Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove who traveled to Oregon in February 2002 to assure farmers that they had the administration's support. A month later, Cheney got what he wanted when the science academy delivered a preliminary report finding "no substantial scientific foundation" to justify withholding water from the farmers.

There was not enough clear evidence that proposed higher lake levels would benefit suckerfish, the report found. And it hypothesized that the practice of releasing warm lake water into the river during spawning season might do more harm than good to the coho, which thrive in lower temperatures.
The new plan was issued over the objection of administration biologists.
When the lead biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service team critiqued the science academy's report in a draft opinion objecting to the plan, the critique was edited out by superiors and his objections were overruled, he said. The biologist, Michael Kelly, who has since quit the federal agency, said in a whistle-blower claim that it was clear to him that "someone at a higher level" had ordered his agency to endorse the proposal regardless of the consequences to the fish.
The evidence came in the form of a massive fish kill after the farmers got their water.
Months later, the first of an estimated 77,000 dead salmon began washing up on the banks of the warm, slow-moving river. Not only were threatened coho dying -- so were chinook salmon, the staple of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern California. State and federal biologists soon concluded that the diversion of water to farms was at least partly responsible.

Fishermen filed lawsuits and courts ruled that the new irrigation plan violated the Endangered Species Act. Echoing Kelly's objections, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit observed that the 10-year plan wouldn't provide enough water for the fish until year nine. By then, the 2005 opinion said, "all the water in the world" could not save the fish, "for there will be none to protect." In March 2006, a federal judge prohibited the government from diverting water for agricultural use whenever water levels dropped beneath a certain point.

Last summer, the federal government declared a "commercial fishery failure" on the West Coast after several years of poor chinook returns virtually shut down the industry, opening the way for Congress to approve more than $60 million in disaster aid to help fishermen recover their losses. That came on top of the $15 million that the government has paid Klamath farmers since 2002 not to farm, in order to reduce demand.
What the incident shows is that environmental decisions are not a simple conflict of wildlife versus people or conservationists versus business. The decision to irrigate in 2002 severely damaged one of the Pacific Northwest's most important industries. It harmed the livelihoods of the region's fishermen (including native fishermen), and it hurt the rest of us with the resulting disaster aid payments, expensive litigation, and lingering damage to regional ecosystems.

The Klamath incident is only one of several interventions mentioned in the article. In each case, Cheney pushed for the interests of a favored industry or political supporters over the objections of career officials and scientists in federal agencies. Read the rest of the article for details on the other incidents.

More: Marcy Wheeler digs into the details here and here.

Also: One of the "lower-ranking officials" I mentioned was Sue Ellen Wooldridge, wife of J. Steven Griles, who will be going to jail for his dealings with Italia Federici (his former girlfriend) and Jack Abramoff.