Interior Department ignores the call of its biologists
By Reed McManus
The Bush administration says it doesn't want the country to lose wetlands, but it seems adept at losing critiques of its wetlands policies. Late last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepared harsh comments on the Army Corps of Engineers' proposed wetlands rules, suggesting the new regulations had "no scientific basis" and would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitats." But somehow the Department of the Interior never passed along its biologists' warnings to its engineers.
According to Interior Department press secretary Mark Pfeifle, the lapse was inadvertent, resulting from a lack of time to resolve conflicts between
the biologists and the Interior's Office of Surface Mining. Pfeifle, a former Republican National Committee spokesperson, blamed the problem on Democratic senators, telling the Washington Post that they exacerbated the problem by not quickly confirming President Bush's pick for chief of the wildlife service.
This isn't the first time the Interior Department seemed flummoxed by
interoffice mail. Last fall, Interior
Secretary Gale Norton admitted she
had ignored Fish and Wildlife Service statistics on caribou calving in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when she gave information to a congressional committee.
But Norton's department did find the time to submit a memo supporting a wetlands rule relating to coal mining that the Fish and Wildlife Service had found particularly objectionable. The unusual attention to this detail may be attributable to Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles, who represented mining interests before moving to the Interior Department.
When the Corps of Engineers released its final wetlands regulations in January, the lack of biological input showed. The new rules absolve developers from having to restore or create new wetlands for each acre they drain or fill. Instead, the Corps says its engineers will take on that responsibility. And the Corps will still routinely issue "general permits" for coal mines, including "mountaintop removal" operations in Appalachia that fill entire valleys.