Allegations of scientific meddling at the Interior Department are giving watchdogs déjà vu.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faces criticism that his department is chilling research that contradicts the administration’s energy and climate agenda. It’s a throwback to more than a decade ago, critics say, when investigations revealed that President George W. Bush’s Interior Department rewrote scientific papers to suit their preferred policies.
"Interior has sort of a rich history of scandal," the department’s former inspector general, Earl Devaney, said, drawing a line from the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s — involving Interior’s secret federal oil leases — to the Bush and Trump administrations’ perceived coziness with industry.
Under Bush, investigators found Julie MacDonald, deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, had been passing along nonpublic information to private entities suing the government — like the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represented a coalition of business interests trying to overturn habitat protections. (She also sent internal documents to a friend she met through an online role-playing game; she sent them to his father’s email.)
Investigators said MacDonald "bullied, insulted, and harassed" staff into changing scientific findings — or made the edits herself.
"Uncertain why all the deletions — they are accurate and well-supported," one career staffer wrote in a draft report where MacDonald had cut sections connecting sage grouse habitat loss with agriculture and irrigation projects, according to internal records posted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
A 2008 report from then-Inspector General Devaney said MacDonald was enabled by the "blind support" of other senior appointees, including then-Assistant Secretary Craig Manson, her immediate supervisor, who ordered staff to ignore an error she made in a notice published in the Federal Register, and an attorney in the solicitor’s office named Thomas Graf, "whose remarkable lack of recollection leaves one to speculate whether he was doing MacDonald’s bidding or was a rogue actor simply emulating her policy style."
MacDonald was promoted to be deputy assistant secretary in May 2004. About seven months later, the Bush administration’s deputy Interior secretary, ex-coal lobbyist J. Steven Griles, resigned after violating his ethics agreement by meeting with his former fossil fuel clients. He later pleaded guilty to a felony in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Then-Rep. Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who chaired the House Natural Resources Committee, said "something akin to a secret society within the Interior Department" allowed MacDonald to operate. But aside from MacDonald’s enablers, the episode demonstrated the long shadow one senior official can cast.
The inspector general’s office flagged at least 13 endangered species decisions as potentially compromised by her, and staff from headquarters down to field offices believed she was bending decisions even where she didn’t, which "cast doubt on nearly every" endangered species decision of her tenure, according to the investigation.
"It became a verb for us — getting MacDonalded," one Fish and Wildlife Service employee told investigators.
Democrats — who took control of both chambers in Congress in the November 2006 elections — scheduled a hearing into the MacDonald scandal in May 2007. She resigned days before she would have been called to testify. But that didn’t stop the heat from environmentalists.
Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity called MacDonald the "administration’s attack dog, not its general." And Francesca Grifo, who was then at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said MacDonald represented "a much larger problem of widespread political interference at federal agencies" (Greenwire, May 2, 2007). (Grifo is now EPA’s scientific integrity official.)
MacDonald’s resignation "removes her from the equation, but not the atmosphere that allowed her to operate as she did for so long," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on the Senate floor the day of MacDonald’s resignation, announcing he had placed a hold on another Interior nominee.
Nowadays, Zinke has come under fire for reviewing research prior to publication, but he has said his team has never "changed a comma" (Climatewire, March 14).
Two top U.S. Geological Survey researchers resigned in protest after Zinke requested to review their findings on Alaska’s fossil fuel reserves before publication (Greenwire, Feb. 22).
Under the Trump administration, a National Park Service study on sea-level rise was stripped of some references to human activity; the inspector general’s office is reviewing allegations that the still-unpublished report was censored. Although internal documents suggest career staffers made those changes, it comes as Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt struck climate provisions from the department manual, and Zinke reportedly summoned a park superintendent from across the country to personally reprimand him for climate change tweets.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has defended Zinke’s record on research. After it was reported that the National Park Service struck references to man-made climate change from a sea-level rise report, she echoed Zinke’s statement that political staff don’t interfere in science.
Zinke "was very clear in his statement on the record, saying that to his knowledge that there hadn’t been a comma that had been changed. I think he was quite unequivocal on that," said Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Interior’s scientific integrity policy relies on the deputy secretary to enforce its standards. Although some environmentalists have criticized Bernhardt for his connections to industry, Devaney said their interactions during the Bush administration — when Bernhardt was the department’s solicitor — showed him to be a capable steward of the department who operated in good faith.
Bernhardt was taken aback at MacDonald’s behavior years ago, Devaney recalled this week, adding that he has a lawyer’s sensibility for following the rules.
But critics of the Trump administration say there’s a culture in place that promotes self-censorship, even if there’s not direct meddling.
"The best way to censor is to create uncertainty about where the line is," said Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who said the Bush administration created similar uncertainty about promoting research that contradicted department policy.
"An unwritten policy is sometimes better than a written policy, because if there’s confusion about how far someone can go in talking about their research and its impact, they’re going to stay farther away from that line," he said. "There are things that I would consider to be unnecessary self-censorship, which an employee would see as clearly something they need to do to preserve their employment or their ability to do the work."
Those specific incidents have unfolded against a backdrop of senior staff reassignments and proposed research cuts — both of which ripple across the entire department, former officials say.
"That sends the message very clearly that those who are interested in career advancement or preserving leadership spots, they shouldn’t be focusing on certain topics in this administration," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former deputy chief of staff at Interior who now works at the Center for American Progress.
Critics say that’s a point of divergence between the Trump and Bush administrations: If the Bush administration was looking for the science to support its messaging, they say, the Trump administration is comfortable sidelining inconvenient science.
Compared with the "early, crude days in political interference in science — where if a deputy assistant secretary didn’t like something, she just changed it in Microsoft Word. … I think it’s become more subtle since then," said Halpern.
For instance, he said, political appointees have become more aware of how they could get caught, so they might avoid leaving evidence in writing.
"It’s harder to get the smoking-gun documents," Halpern said.
"Instead of tampering with research — I think [the Trump administration] learned that lesson. Now they’re just ignoring the science … which I don’t think we were prepared for," said former Interior scientist Joel Clement, who says the Trump administration retaliated against him and other senior staffers working on climate change.
The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment. Efforts to reach MacDonald were unsuccessful, but in 2006, she told investigators that some scientific reviews from the field were bad, and they improved during her tenure.
‘We’re the good guys’
Former Obama administration officials say they prioritized restoring science in decisionmaking when they took over from the Bush team. That task, they say, will be even tougher after Trump leaves office.
"Whoever thought it would be possible to make George W. Bush look good in this domain? He still doesn’t look good, but he sure looks better than Trump," said John Holdren, who served as director of President Obama’s Office of Science and Technology.
Even if Bush fell short in using science to make policy, Holdren said, he still implemented policies that broadly supported research — either through budgets that financed science or immigration policies that allowed highly skilled immigrants into the country.
At Interior, a decreased capacity for science will impact the department’s ability to manage public lands and fragile species, said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under Obama.
"In many respects, they just don’t care about the science. They’re just going to do what they’re going to do," he said.
Former officials and activists say the Trump administration is kneecapping research at a critical moment for public lands, as global warming scrambles delicate ecosystems and as extreme conditions exacerbate national parks’ maintenance problems.
"It’s irresponsible. It’s stunning," David Hayes, Interior’s deputy secretary under Obama, said at a recent panel on climate change and public lands. He ticked off issues like drought, wildfires and invasive species where land managers need science untainted by political interference.
Some argue that the seeming return of Bush-era science problems reveals gaps in the Obama administration’s efforts to protect research from political interference — something Democrats say they will codify in statute when they return to power.
The Obama administration took years to reverse some of the decisions made under Bush and to install guardrails against it happening again. But some advocates say those safeguards — called scientific integrity policies — are insufficient.
"It’s just that there’s no teeth," said Clement, who filed a whistleblower complaint over his reassignment at Interior.
"Even getting the scientific integrity policies in place was a bit of a struggle, because the Obama administration came in and said ‘OK, problem solved. We’re the good guys, and there’s nothing to worry about,’" Halpern said.
Ashe, who played a key role in drafting the scientific integrity policy as Obama’s director of FWS, said any administration can feel political temptations to meddle in science. Under Obama, he said, some political officials outside Interior tried influencing decisions on the northern spotted owl.
"Me and other political appointees went over to the White House, and we actually gave them copies of the IG’s report on Julie MacDonald and said: ‘This could be you, and you need to stop,’" he said. "And to their credit, they did."
That kind of pushback can’t happen if senior positions remain vacant, Ashe said.
Trump has no science adviser, and many top spots at Interior will likely remain empty through this year. Zinke doesn’t expect to have the heads of the Bureau of Land Management, FWS or National Park Service in place until early 2019 (E&E News PM, May 10).
Meanwhile, internal documents from the Interior Department suggest Indur Goklany, a career staffer and critic of mainstream climate science, has been empowered to influence the department’s public positions on global warming (Climatewire, March 8).
"The cultural impact of the marginalization of science is real," Lee-Ashley said. "Once we get past this administration, hopefully there will be an assessment of how deep those impacts are going."