Saturday, June 20, 2015

Some words in defense of Public Lands

This is a newspaper column I just wrote.

I felt this sentiment many times during my two decades as a Pennsylvanian.
And it recurred earlier this decade while holding down a homestead in Vermont. (Actually, it was a condo).
I first experienced this feeling as a youthful hiker, camper and angler in New Mexico. Then the Gregory family moved to Idaho, which is blessed to have big, wide-ranging public lands.
And then came the three years that then-Air Force Capt. Alan Gregory spent in far upstate New York State and took hike after hike in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park, more than half of which is now owned by New Yorkers.
I write about the gift that such public land offers Americans. It’s a legacy for our children and grandchildren.
To find and experience it, just take a walk into and across a wild place; a place that Nature still holds onto despite all that the boosters of using up “natural resources” have done to break it, pave it, pollute it and build on it.
Walking into the woods on public land brings with it the means of experiencing the kind of solitude and grace and sense of belonging that only a natural landscape can offer.
For me in Pennsylvania, there were hikes along Nescopeck Creek in what became Nescopeck State Park. And the three-mile loop hike on public land atop the high ground overlooking the Lehigh River and Jim Thorpe across the valley below.
The hike in Hickory Run State Park to a cliff overlooking that river was also special. Exploring nature there once yielded the discovery of a nest in progress of Cedar Waxwings.
Across the country, though, opportunities nowadays to see and feel the land as it was shaped by Wild Nature are increasingly hard to come by. All Americans – once the booster hat of “development” is tossed aside – know this.
 That thought was amplified many times for me while living in Pennsylvania. In one instance (there were many case-studies), a butterfly census took me to the remnants of a Pocono cranberry bog, fragmented and degraded when subdivided into housing lots. The ecological heart of that natural place was forsaken to make way for a cluster of trophy homes and McMansions.
(I forget the name of the development, but it’s not far from Long Pond).
These thoughts came rushing back as I stood on public land (our public land!) in southeastern Oregon earlier this June.
Conservationist and friend Dave Foreman calls it the Big Outside. You know you have reached the Big Outside when you stand still for a moment and see only Wild Nature – the flora and fauna that Nature put there – for as far as your eyes, binoculars and telephoto lens can see.
My watching post was next to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management sign bearing the words “your public lands.” Less than a yard away was a grand-daddy Big Sagebrush, a characteristic native plant of the Great Basin Desert. Thousands and thousands more dotted the landscape all the way off to the horizon.
And the crowning touch to that viewscape: No sign anywhere of a human activity. Just Wild Nature
Lay people ask this rhetorical question whenever the topic of the public owning natural land comes to the fore: “But what good is it?”
There are a host of “good things” that come with public land: Open space, hunting and fishing, a good quality of life and sense of community, clean water and air, and the chance to reconnect with Wild Nature in this era of growth for the sake of growth and “progress.”
But this notion comes first: Because that land is part of the foundation for all the life – flora and fauna – we share the planet with.
The more natural land held in public ownership, the better for Wild Nature.
And the better for our natural heritage.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Science, the public good, and integrity

Dear Alan:
Weeks into his presidency, Barack Obama pledged to end the blatant practice of the Bush administration rewriting scientific documents, on topics ranging from climate change to contraception, to suit its political agenda.  President Obama directed all science-based agencies to adopt rules to prevent political alteration or suppression of science and to adopt safeguards protecting scientists from retaliation. 
He put his White House Office of Science & Technology Policy in charge of ushering in these new rules.  But OSTP dithered for months and ultimately produced “guidance” so mushy that it in essence let agencies do whatever they wanted. 
The predictable result is a mish-mash of differing policies, some incomplete, others so vague as to be largely useless. Take the EPA, for example, which adopted its Scientific Integrity Policy back in February 2012.  Today, however, there are –
  • Still “no formal processes for receiving or resolving allegations” of policy violations, according to the program’s latest annual report.  Yet without any procedures, EPA has resolved more than a score of complaints – largely by dismissing them, as others languish for months.  To date, EPA has yet to substantiate a single instance of “loss of integrity”;
  • Still no clearance procedures so EPA scientists know when they are allowed to publish scientific works or present posters at scientific conferences; and
  • Still no media protocol spelling out when scientists may respond to press inquiries or interview requests or publicly discuss findings, despite numerous journalist complaints. Instead of clarifying access rules, EPA Public Affairs has added five new staff.
These missing elements are not mere details – they are the guts of the policy without which it is just an empty promise.  At least EPA is not as bad as USDA which uses its Scientific Integrity Policy as a tool to gag scientists and forbid them “from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently.”   
Perhaps the worst is the Interior Department.  After scientists’ complaints of fraud within the Fish & Wildlife Service were validated, Interior then gutted its policy to make such embarrassments far less likely. As a result, these new guarantees of scientific integrity are about as laughable as the Obama claim to operate “the most transparent administration in history.” 
At PEER, we are concerned because these policies are often the only legal protection for the integrity of scientific work as well as those specialists who create them.  So, we are –
Government agencies should not be allowed to fabricate their own set of facts and bury inconvenient truths.  Help us wage and win this fight.

Jeff Ruch
Executive Director