For more than a decade I’ve been reporting on the public lands of the American West to understand what author Wallace Stegner called “the West’s curious desire to rape itself.”
Oil and gas drilling and mining for gold and silver and coal fouls the air and the water. Wind and solar projects that stamp out native flora and fauna are approved at breakneck pace, with little environmental review. In the backcountry of the rangelands there is devastation of grass and soil due to overgrazing by cattle in fragile ecosystems. We poison coyotes and shoot wolves and other predators in the West, along with so-called “pest” species like prairie dogs and beaver, to protect the open-range livestock industry. On behalf of stockmen, we hold in captivity wild horses that are supposed to be free-roaming under federal law, and we send iconic wild bison in our oldest national park, Yellowstone, to slaughterhouses.
We’ve dammed just about every big river for irrigation of agriculture and for hydroenergy, and, in the not so distant past, we denuded whole mountainsides and plateaus with rampant logging. And our wildlife agencies, tasked with overseeing endangered species, routinely allow threatened animals and plants to go unprotected in the onslaught of development and commodity production.
None of this happens in a regulatory vacuum. The sad fact is that federal regulators – primarily at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – facilitate it.
They do so by disregarding or sometimes actively violating environmental laws passed by Congress, laws intended to ensure the ecological health of the public lands and the wildlife that depends on thriving landscapes.
They do so because they have been captured by the extractive commodity interests they’re supposed to regulate: the ranching, mining, logging, oil and gas, and the solar, hydro, and wind companies.
In dozens of conversations with current and former officials in the land and wildlife management bureaucracies, I’ve heard the same story: idealists trained in ecology go into public service with the intention of enforcing environmental law only to be told by their higher-ups that it’s not politically tenable to do so.
The result is a demoralized staff forced by politics into routine lawlessness.
Consider the story told to me by Roger Rosentreter, a former high-ranking biologist with the BLM. Not long before his retirement in 2013, Rosentreter, who worked for the BLM for 35 years, witnessed a disturbing exchange between its district managers and lawyers for the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BLM. The lawyers were concerned about the persistent lawsuits won by environmental groups against the BLM for violations of federal environmental law.
The lawyers, says Rosentreter, told the district managers that they were breaking the law “left and right” and that DOI kept losing cases because they couldn't defend the managers for illegal actions. The lawyers somehow thought the BLM managers didn't realize the extent of their lawlessness.
The managers, said Rosentreter, were unimpressed. Finally one of them raised a hand and said, “I know I'm breaking the law, but if I followed the law, I'd have every county commissioner, state legislator, governor and Congressional member in my state trying to get me fired. You're not paying me enough to go through that. I rely upon the environmental groups to sue me and then when I lose in court, I can say, ‘Hey I don't want to do this, but the courts and environmentalists are making me do this.’”
Without the pressure of litigation from environmental groups, Rosentreter told me, “These guys won’t enforce the law.”
Or take the case of David Parsons, a senior biologist who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service in a career that spanned 24 years. Parsons was the head of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program in New Mexico, established in the 1990s under the Endangered Species Act, which the USFWS manages. The Mexican wolf faces almost certain extinction without ESA protection.
Parsons left the agency in 1999 after what he described as the wolf program’s subversion by “anti-wolf special interests, anti-fed state agencies (held captive largely by hunters and ranchers), and anti-wolf politics.”
His experience was part of a broad trend at the USFWS that began in the 1980s, Parsons told me. Beginning with the Reagan administration, he said, the influence of special interests trickled down through the hierarchy to the point that appointments to positions even at the regional and state levels were politicized.
“When I began with the service in 1975,” he said, “staff biologists authored their own reports which became part of the official record with no political meddling by higher authorities. This is no longer the case.”
A 2015 poll by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 73 percent of respondents at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “reported too much weight given to political interests.” One FWS scientist, commenting anonymously, told the pollsters that “upper-level managers are influenced by fear of Congress dismantling the Endangered Species Act and/or otherwise interfering with the mission of the Service.”
The poll matches up with Parsons’ observations. “My main aggravation,” he told me, “is the degree to which the agency embraces and caters to constituencies, interest groups, and politicians that are hostile to the mission of the agency while shunning and even despising constituencies that support the agency’s mission—i.e., the conservation community.”
“Today,” Parsons said, “agency biologists operate in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear of reprisal.”
Indeed, this is what faces ecologically-minded scientists across the rank and file of the land and wildlife federal bureaucracy.
What’s needed, says Parsons, are “warrior biologists.” These are the public servants with the courage and stamina to “blow through the BS and politics, follow the agency mission, laws, and best science, and find ways to dodge the pressure to do otherwise.”
They are a beleaguered minority, because it is “almost impossible,” as Parsons told me, “for warrior biologists to exist in current agency cultures captured by powerful special interests.”
That dynamic preceded the Trump administration. Its naked hostility toward environmental regulation, though, leaves civic-minded public servants with no recourse at all inside the corrupted agencies that employ them.
What’s needed is a Wikileaks for the warrior biologists, a safe secure portal that provides scientists and managers in the land and wildlife agencies an opportunity to share with the press suppressed documents that are in the broad public interest. Stay tuned.