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Spring 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The following comments were made by former assistant deputy secretary Julie MacDonald and presented at the Family Farm Alliance 20th Annual meeting in Las Vegas.

Julie MacDonald’s days with the Interior Department came to a close 10 months ago and continue to stir often-ugly criticism but the former Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary has no second thoughts.

“I am proud of the work I did at Interior,” said Ms. MacDonald (California) “I would do it all over today.”

Ms. MacDonald used the Alliance venue to give her side of what has been a deep and messy slough of one-sided chronicling, condemnation and controversy focused upon the five years she spent working on endangered species and other issues in the Bush administration’s Interior Department.

“You’ve seen the articles,” Ms. MacDonald said. “I was hired to do a job and I did it to the best of my ability. My family and friends don’t recognize the person described in those articles.”

Ms. MacDonald asserted that despite allegations of blocking or adversely affecting federal endangered species decisions, changing science and other alleged wrongdoing, her Interior work was an effort to follow all of the ESA’s directives and ensure that a required public process took place and comments were all considered.

“The Endangered Species Act is not a bad law,” she said. “The ESA is a powerful and flexible law. It has an important purpose and role in maintaining our way of life… . What ESA is all about [is] pretty straightforward, I think most would say, mostly just common sense. No one wants to destroy a species.”

The problem, Ms. Macdonald contended, is that “over the years that the ESA has been in existence… people stopped following the actual provisions of the law, and started substituting what they wished the law said, depending on the circumstance and the outcome they wanted.”

“In Washington, terms often used in the discussion of land use policy are buzz words like: ‘sustainability’, ‘ecosystems’, ‘natural environments’ and ‘open space’,” said Ms. MacDonald. “But the problem is that the ideas formed behind these words often are the product of people who live in concrete canyons where living space is defined in terms of square feet, not acres. Those people have an ideal they want to impose, but it’s an ideal not based on reality and the world in which you live in every day, but rather on a world view that is incomplete.

“However, in the nearly 40 years since its passage, people have forgotten several important provisions which are key,” she said:“First, and let’s be clear on this, it’s the Secretary of the Interior who is empowered to make the decisions under the Endangered Species Act, not staff biologists. The statute doesn’t envision someone in Trona County (Wyoming) who has spent their entire career studying the narrow-footed predacious diving beetle (I made that up) making national policy.

“Second, decisions under the Act are required to be based on best commercial and scientific data available, not the more nebulous standard of ‘best science’, which can be construed to include theory, hypothesis, speculation and even opinion.

“Third, and perhaps most importantly, the listing process is one that is required to be a public process, and the federal agencies are expected to pay attention to what the public has to say.”

She was asked to serve by Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Craig Manson, who left the agency in 2005 to teach at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento (California). “Assistant Secretary Manson asked me to make sure the words and law meant something,” said Ms. MacDonald. “That’s what I tried to do. For instance, when the Act says that a listing determination is to be based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available, we agreed that’s what it meant – not theory, not hypothesis, not opinion and not speculation. He asked that I ensure the rules were accurate and had supporting data.”

And the result? “No good deed goes unpunished,” she smiled. Ms. MacDonald has been the target of two Interior Office of Inspector General (IG) investigations – both of which were highly critical – and understands a third is in the works, even though she resigned her post in May 2007, a week before what promised to be a tumultuous Congressional oversight hearing.

“I believe first and second are closed,” Ms. MacDonald said. “The third – I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“No doubt you have all heard and allegations in the IG report,” she said. “What has been less accessible is my rebuttal.”

The first investigation involved no sort of due process, she observed. “In my case IG report was written, provided to the New York Times and Center for Biological Diversity,” she said. “The IG refused to give me a copy of report. I had to use the Center for Biological Diversity website to frame my rebuttal.”

She denied allegations in the second IG report related to her role in dealing with the Sacramento splittail’s ESA delisting. “I did not change the FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) recommendation, did not remove any science that the FWS had included,” she said. “I added additional science undertaken by the FWS which supported their determination to remove the splittail from the list.”

“The IG neglected to review the email sent to senior staff at FWS documenting my conversation with a field biologist that my property was not affected by the removal of the splittail from the list. I no longer have access to any of my emails so cannot provide copies.”

Ms. MacDonald was critical of “idealist suits” by environmentalists and ESA actions brought repeatedly by what she termed as “the environmental litigation industry. You have to wonder if some judges have even read the Act.”

She loathed “squandering huge sums of money on litigation. Sometimes there are three or four suits on the same federal actions.”

No one knows better than loggers, water users dealing with creatures such as the tiny Delta smelt and cattlemen what impacts the ESA can have, Ms. MacDonald said in cautioning about affects of artificial reductions in water supplies for people.

“Resources-based industries provide the sustainability of the nation,” Ms. MacDonald said. “All the high tech industries in the world cannot provide the food to feed us.” She warned, “No one is alive today who remembers living and going hungry with crop failure… . Now we are being told we should reject everything but the healthy and the organic foods. She is concerned the IG investigations will ultimately have a chilling effect on the work of future occupants of her old position, all of whom would be political appointees.

“That is why we have elections,” said Ms.MacDonald. “Whoever gets elected – Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton or Mr. McCain – will have political appointees who will be implementing the policy direction dictated by the voters in a manner consistent with the law. The IG’s report implies that there is something inherently wrong with a political appointee exercising their authority under the law. That’s a very dangerous position. Because without those appointees making choices based on the appointing official’s position (in this case the President); there is no point in having elections.”
At the same time, she said, “People who work in these positions are very well meaning. They want to do the right thing. In fairness to federal agencies, they don’t have enough staff to walk all of the million acres they want to have designated.” Ms. MacDonald said, however, that there is a need to create “a career staff with greater awareness of public desire.”

A civil engineer, Ms. MacDonald began her federal career as a
hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1979. In 1987, she went to Sacramento as a staff consultant in the California Legislature. Governor Pete Wilson later appointed her as Associate Secretary of the state Health and Welfare Agency. In 1996, she became Deputy Secretary for Legislative Affairs in the California Resources Agency, she was responsible for gaining bipartisan passage of new provisions in the California Endangered Species Act.■

 

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