Fishy politics

Call us cynical, but we have a hard time believing the U.S. Department of the Interior when it says politics weren’t at play when it overruled local Fish and Wildlife Service scientists last week and reduced the amount of land designated as critical habitat for 15 vernal pool fairy shrimp and plant species.

It was justified by an economic analysis that allowed the department to decide designating the species would cause too much economic damage in several counties, including Butte and much of neighboring Glenn. Seemingly overnight, 1.7 million acres of land destined for protection in California and Oregon dropped to 740,000. The 69,000 acres on the maps in Butte went to zero.

“The science is one thing. The science is good,” Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson said last week. “Another part of the process is determining whether there are reasons to exclude on an economic basis or any other basis. Politics in no sense played a role in this.”

To hear the Department of the Interior’s spin, the buck stopped there and officials exercised their right to save a buck—1.5 billion bucks over 20 years, if the economic analysis is correct. On the flip side, Manson said, “the benefits of including [the counties in the designation] are small.”

The officials are contradicting themselves. If the critical habitat designation won’t change how well species are protected, why would it cost so much to implement? And if the Department of the Interior was just going to override the local USFWS offices, why spend nearly $1 million on what Manson called a “broken” process including scientific studies and public hearings in the three years leading up the designation?

The farm and development lobby won this round. Now, Butte Environmental Council, which forced the designation of the habitat with a 2000 lawsuit, is rallying its lawyers again. We’re rooting for the enviros.