Ex-Government Scientist Published Damning Report on Department of Interior

The report breaks down the DOI's most anti-science policies into four categories.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a new report documenting the anti-science policies and practices of the Department of the Interior under Secretary Ryan Zinke. The report characterizes the department as one that’s more attuned to oil and coal interests than the protection of the natural environment. In response to the nonprofit science advocacy organization’s report, a spokesperson for the Interior Department responded that, well actually, “scientific integrity has been restored.” Regardless of the back-and-forth, what matters is documented facts. And this report contains some damning ones.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) manages the majority of the nation’s public lands, its natural resources, and federal relations with Native American tribes. The decisions made by the department intrinsically affect, but aren’t limited to, public health and climate change. The latter is not a subject of importance to Zinke — when he took office he indicated that the department would not consider it a priority. In turn, press releases and reports issued under the secretary have censored facts about and scrubbed language referring to climate change.

The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, issued Friday, breaks down DOI policies the authors see as the most dangerous into four categories: “systematically suppressing science; failing to acknowledge or act on climate science; silencing and intimidating agency scientists and staff; and attacking the science-backed laws that help protect America’s wildlife and habitats today and for future generations.”

Yellowstone National Park
Secretary Ryan Zinke removed Endangered Species Act protections for grizzly bears at Yellowstone National Park.

“Silencing and intimidating,” study co-author Joel Clement, Ph.D., said in an accompanying article, is something he knows well. A forest ecologist, Clement was the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the DOI. Zinke reassigned him to an accounting office that collects fossil fuel company royalty checks. He believes this move happened because he spoke out publicly about the dangers of climate change.

Other actions against scientists the report documents are as follows: reassigning other members of high-ranking staff to positions outside of their expertise, requiring scientists who attend a conference to submit their presentation titles in advance for political review and explain how their research relates to Zinke’s priorities, capping the number of Department scientists who can attend conferences, and requiring accelerated environmental assessments.

“The DOI and other agencies use these environmental assessments extensively as part of their decision-making processes,” the report reads. “For the DOI, this includes evaluating requests to allow oil and gas drilling and extraction and other forms of development on public lands, as well as the construction of publicly owned facilities … Secretary Zinke has deployed this tactic in seeking to accelerate potential oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s last great wildernesses.”

Secretary Zinke tells Native American tribes advocate Cassandra Begay "be nice, don't be rude" when asked about why he hadn't met with tribal leaders of the Bear Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.

These issues, the report argues, are not just surface-level disputes — they turn into actual policies that affect people, wildlife, water, and land. The report specifically lists four parks and monuments to which the DOI has caused “demonstrable harm by sidelining science and putting the interests of oil and gas companies ahead of the public good.” These are Isle Royale National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, and Yellowstone National Park.

At Isle Royale National Park, which is home to dwindling moose and wolf populations, the department removed all mentions of climate from its 2018 draft resources management plant. Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced in size by 47 percent in 2017, a reduction that removed protection covering 700 paleontological research sites and allowed for the potential extraction of coal, methane, and oil. Bears Ears National Monument, a region sacred to five Native American tribes, was shrunk by 85 percent; internal DOI documents show that the decision was made to reduce restrictions on mining and drilling. And at Yellowstone, grizzly bears lost their Endangered Species Act protections.

The report sums up with a call-to-arms. The authors state that “by raising our voices, calling for action” and holding all Americans accountable for the future of national lands, the DOI can fulfill its “science-based mission.”