New Report Documents Two Years of Attacks on Science at Department of the Interior

By Ignoring and Suppressing Science, Secretary Zinke and DOI Political Leaders Put Health, Ecosystems and Heritage at Risk

Published Dec 4, 2018

WASHINGTON (December 4, 2018)—Scientific studies canceled. A chilling effect on discussion of climate change.  Thousands of acres of public lands opened to polluting industries. It all happened on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s watch.

The damage Zinke has inflicted could be long lasting, as Interior’s scientific work has been severely constrained, according to the report “Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior,” released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report, which analyzed nearly two years’ worth of actions by the Department of the Interior (DOI), documents Zinke and other top political appointees sidelining key scientific functions and ignoring the agency’s obligation to protect public lands, endangered species and cultural heritage.

“Under Secretary Zinke’s watch, it’s clear that the Department of the Interior has been steered away from its mission,” said Jacob Carter, a research scientist at UCS and the lead author of the report. “It’s not subtle.”

Many of the department’s political appointees have come straight from the industries they’re now charged with overseeing. Most glaringly, David Bernhardt, Zinke’s chief deputy, lobbied for oil, mining and chemical companies in his previous positions Despite this long list of blatant conflicts of interest, Bernhardt has been charged with making decisions that have undermined conservation and consideration of climate change science. Meanwhile, Zinke has re-assigned staff and shifted priorities, upending the work of DOI staff and driving many scientific experts out of public service.

“There’s a real atmosphere of hostility to science in the Trump era,” said Joel Clement, a former DOI scientist who was reassigned from his work on climate adaptation policy to an accounting-management job. Clement, who left DOI and now serves as a senior fellow at UCS, saw a political motive at work. “It’s clear to me that Zinke and his team made these moves to undercut the science enterprise and reduce the effectiveness of DOI, in the process pushing a lot of good people out of their jobs.”

While the agency’s mission statement focuses on conservation, science and upholding the nation’s commitments to Native American communities, in the Trump era it has been re-oriented to serve powerful industries like oil and gas extraction. Most notably, Zinke has moved to radically shrink public land protected as national monuments—including Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument. These lands were set aside to protect vital ecosystems and landscapes, as well as historic and sacred Native American sites. Internal DOI documents show that the reductions in protected land were aimed at making it easier to mine and drill in these irreplaceable environments.

“Secretary Zinke’s tenure has been devastating for science and for public lands,” said Adam Markham, deputy director of the Climate and Energy Program at UCS. “Despite making promises before taking office, he has been determined to undo protections for our lands and hand public resources over to the mining and drilling industry. In the process, he’s left the department’s responsibilities by the wayside and done long-term damage to both the department and the communities it’s supposed to serve.”

The UCS report details how information about climate change has been hidden from the public and how Zinke’s team has slowed down research and pushed to roll back public health and environmental protections, including safeguards for endangered species like gray wolves and grizzly bears. The report also offers recommendations to contain and reverse the damage done.