It's long been a right-wing canard that the federal Endangered Species Act is, if you'll pardon the term, a political animal. Wacko environmentalists, the theory goes, just want to steal land out from under honest, hard-working Americans, and they use the existence of, say, the piebald socialist toad (Namus madeupicus) to accomplish their nefarious purpose.
Well, everything is political - just not always in the way you might expect.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed a handful of rulings that denied endangered-species protection after an investigation found that a former Bush administration official, Julie McDonald, pressured scientists to change their conclusions for political reasons.
McDonald, who served as the deputy assistant secretary overseeing the agency, resigned in May. Without naming McDonald, the investigation found that the decisions had been "inappropriately influenced ... revising the seven identified decisions is supported by scientific evidence and the proper legal standards."
The reversal could affect protected status of several species, including the white-tailed prairie dog, Canada lynx and Preble's meadow jumping mouse, found in Boulder County.
But there are three times as many cases in which "we have evidence of (political) interference," said Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Tuesday's ruling, while welcome, "does not begin to plumb the depths of what's wrong" at the Fish and Wildlife Service when it comes to protecting endangered species, Grifo said.
McDonald shamefully illustrates the baldly political Bush administration approach to science. Trained as a civil engineer, she had no expertise in biology or species protection. And when the science pointed to conclusions not to her bosses' liking, she simply put the screws to those working under her to "fix" the findings. She told them to lie, in other words.
The episode recalls any number of similar efforts by the administration to subordinate science to politics, as when federal scientists were prohibited from talking about the effects of climate change on declining polar bear numbers, and when former White House official Philip Cooney (previously an oil-industry lobbyist) single-handedly redacted and altered scientific conclusions in a key report on climate change.
Whatever one thinks about the validity of the (sorry, overwhelming) conclusions of climate scientists or the efficacy of the Endangered Species Act, surely we can agree that untrained political hacks should not be the arbiters of "truth" in science.
One of the most disturbing developments in the past seven years has been the growing currency of the notion that science is just another political philosophy, based on the opinions of scheming scientists (though what, exactly, they're scheming for is never made clear).
The McDonald decision is a welcome reversal of that trend - which never would have happened if both Congress and the White House had remained in GOP hands.
Clay Evans is guest editor for the Camera editorial board
© 2007 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC.