After the BigMac attack: Interior's mea culpa
On occassion, the environmental community earns criticisms for irrational yet persistent government conspiracy theories. However, in the case of Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks - once a leading Department of Interior official responsible for Endangered Species Act implementation - environmentalists' claims of systematic government wrongdoing proved justified.
Rumors of Ms. MacDonald's inappropriate intervention in scientific matters, including alleged orders to rewrite scientific conclusions, swirled for years. For example, one of the most remarkable of Ms. MacDonald's unscientific rewrites was discussed in a December 5, 2004 New York Times article discussing the greater sage grouse. In a pre-decisional document, career biologists wrote that "Sage grouse depend entirely on sagebrush throughout the winter for both food and cover." Ms. MacDonald, a civil engineer, disagreed, reversed the agency course, and offered her own substantive (and highly technical) explanation: "I believe that is an overstatement, as they will eat other stuff if it's available."
In 2006, more stories broke in The Washington Post questioning Ms. MacDonald'sactions. Eventually, a 2007 Inspector General's investigation (available from the Center for Biological Diversity confirmed Ms. MacDonald's misuse of her public position, leading to her resignation. See AP wire story from abcnews. A second IG report uncovered even more problems.
The true extent and nature of Ms. MacDonald's influence, and her impacts on the actual decision-making process of the agency, may never be known. Nevertheless, the facts above certainly suggest that Interior will be hard-pressed to defend its decisions whenever Ms. MacDonald's fingerprints are found. To its credit, the U.S. FWS has admitted its errors, and yesterday, reversed its own decisions in seven cases denying increased protection for species. See AP Article by H. Josef Herbert (Nov. 27, 2007).
Sadly, more hard questions, more decision-reversals, and more embarrassment for the Department of Interior could lie ahead.