Monumental Disaster at the Department of the Interior
Washington, D.C. — This is a tough time to be a federal scientist—or any civil servant in the federal government. The Trump administration is clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources.
At the Department of the Interior (DOI), with its mission to conserve and manage America’s natural and cultural resources, the Trump administration’s political appointees are stumbling over one another to earn accolades for disabling agency operations. I should know; I was one of dozens of senior executives targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment in a staff purge just six months into the new administration.
From that day onward, Zinke and his political staff have consistently sidelined scientists and experts while handing the agency’s keys over to oil, gas and mining interests. The only saving grace is that Zinke and his colleagues are not very good at it, and in many cases the courts are stopping them in their tracks. The effects on science, scientists and the federal workforce, however, will be long-lasting.
A DAMNING REPORT
In a new report, Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has documented some of the most egregious and anti-science policies and practices at the DOI under Secretary Zinke. The report describes suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats.
It is a damning report and required reading for anyone who values public lands, wildlife, cultural heritage, and health and safety.
It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.
Why is this administration so scared of science? Why cancel a study into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining so soon after lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands? Why keep scientists from speaking with the press? Because, while science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.
THE ATTACKS ON SCIENCE NEVER STOP
It is challenging to keep up with the relentless attacks on science coming from Secretary Zinke and his team of political appointees. Since the finalization of UCS’s report, we have seen Secretary Zinke blame “radical environmental groups” as the cause of wildfires, with no mention of climate change, which scientists know is creating the conditions for bigger, hotter, more ferocious fires. Like President Trump, he continues to suggest that poor forest management is the real reason for the deadly fires, regardless of whether they occur in suburbs or shrublands, far from federally managed forests. His ignorance of science is perhaps only surpassed by that of his boss.
It has also recently come to light that DOI has taken steps to roll back protections for individuals impacted the most by the agency’s anti-science actions. In November, it was reported that DOI rescinded two environmental justice policy memos that were put in place over 20 years ago to reverse decades of environmental racism and the marginalization of low-income communities. This is an affront to Native American communities suffering from the ongoing impacts of fossil fuel development.