Trump's New Interior Pick Loves Oil, Hates Wildlife
July 27, 2017
Chris D'Angelo / The Huffington Post & Eric Dexheimer / American-Statesman
Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs once likened proposed Endangered Species Act listings to "incoming Scud missiles" headed for her state's oil and gas-rich economy. Combs, also a former state representative and agriculture commissioner, regularly sparred with the US Fish and Wildlife Service over species listings. In 2015, she petitioned to have protections removed for an endangered songbird native to central Texas, claiming the bird jeopardized military readiness.
Trump Interior Nominee Has A History Of Contempt
For The Agency She's About To Lead
Oil-friendly Texan Susan Combs is waging
a "personal crusade to fight endangered species"
Chris D'Angelo / The Huffington Post
WASHINGTON (July 27, 2017) -- Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs once likened proposed Endangered Species Act listings to "incoming Scud missiles" headed for her state's oil and gas-rich economy.
Combs, also a former state representative and Texas's first female agriculture commissioner, regularly sparred with the US Fish and Wildlife Service over species listings, petitioning in 2015 to have protections removed for an endangered songbird native to central Texas.
She secured $10 million in state money for the comptroller's office to fund scientific studies on species subject to federal listing -- with a clear goal of protecting Texas's economy, but which critics allege sought to undermine the federal government's assessment and keep species off the list, according to a 2015 investigation by the Austin American-Statesman.
President Donald Trump this month tapped Combs to serve as his assistant secretary of the Interior Department's Office of Policy, Management and Budget. If confirmed by the Senate, she will join the likes of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry as top Trump officials with vehement opposition to agencies they're tasked with helping to lead.
Combs will play a key role in the Interior Department decisions on finance, policy, management and environmental affairs. That includes the US Fish and Wildlife Service, one of two federal agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act, among America's bedrock conservation laws.
At a hearing last week before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Combs said she was "deeply honored" to be recommended. As a fourth-generation Texas rancher, she said she learned to "hunt, ride and shoot," and "to be careful stewards of the land and to nurture it for the next generation." She said she will bring the same "collaborative approach" to the Interior job that she did with endangered species issues.
She did not respond to HuffPost's request for comment.
As with many Trump nominees, Combs troubles conservationists.
Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost that Combs has "made it her personal crusade to fight endangered species." To have her in a position where she could potentially harm endangered species via the withholding of funds, he said, would be "devastating."
"She's really bad news," Hartl said. "There's not a single thing in her record that suggests she cares a whit about endangered species."
Last week, some 70 conservation groups sent a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee urging members to reject the nomination, describing Combs as someone who "built her career favoring big corporations and special interests over the needs and survival of imperiled species."
"We are concerned that Ms. Combs will wrongly use her office at the Department of Interior to interfere with scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service from doing their jobs of assessing the status of imperiled species based only on the best available science," the letter reads. "Ms. Combs should not be placed in such a pivotal and important position in a department whose mission she clearly does not believe in."
Combs's public distaste for the Endangered Species Act dates to at least the 1990s, when she served in the Texas House of Representatives. Among the legislation she championed is a law that prohibits state wildlife officials from gathering endangered species data from private lands without permission, and restricts the state from sharing endangered species data, including with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the Austin Chronicle.
In 2011, during her tenure as the Texas comptroller of public accounts, the state's endangered species program was transferred to her financial agency -- thanks to an amendment to a bill pushed by Texas Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.
Combs described the pace of proposed federal listings for threatened and endangered species as "extraordinary," and said, "Washington is running amuck."
"The process that they use for so-called listing, I think to call if flawed is friendly," she said at a 2011 event for a property-rights association. "I think it's non-existent."
By 2011, the fight over the dune sagebrush lizard, a species found in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, was already underway. The Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed listing the small, spiny lizard as endangered, citing threats to its native habitat from ranching, agriculture and oil and gas development. Combs went to work to protect Texas landowners ― namely fossil fuel interests in the oil and gas-rich Permian Basin ― negotiating a voluntary conservation plan that ultimately kept the species off the endangered species list.
"This is a major victory for Texas jobs and the nation's energy economy," Combs said at the time, according to Reuters.
(Last year, Glenn Hegar -- who replaced Combs as state comptroller in 2015 -- fired the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation, an energy industry-funded organization set up to manage protection of the dune sagebrush lizard, for failing to perform required habitat restoration or monitor drillers and landowners, the Austin American-Statesman reported.)
As comptroller, Combs also set up a website called Keeping Texas First that details potential impacts to the state economy of Endangered Species Act listings and other environmental policies. "By working together, we can protect our economy and our environment better than the federal government or any single interest group," the website says.
In 2013, the year she compared Endangered Species Act listings to "incoming Scud missiles," Combs convinced the state legislature to allocate $5 million for a research program to be run by the comptroller. It has been accused of working to keep species from being given federal protections. As The Texas Observer reported, "Combs was clear about her mission: to guard the Texas economy against the scourge of the federal government and the Endangered Species Act." The legislature gave the program another $5 million in 2015.
Since retiring from public office in 2015, Combs has continued her fight against Endangered Species Act listings. She headed a political action committee, Texans for Positive Economic Policy, pushing a similar agenda, according to the American-Statesman.
She led three groups in petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for the golden-cheeked warbler, arguing that studies show the agency was "wrong in its original conclusion that the warbler species is rare" and that the songbird should not have been listed as endangered in 1990.
"The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to recover species that are in danger of extinction," Combs wrote in a 2015 op-ed about the need to delist the species. "This is a sensible and noble goal, and one that requires innovative conservation efforts to succeed.
Considering that less than 1 percent of all listed species have been taken off the endangered list since the act became law in 1972, environmental advocates could use a win. When scientific proof demonstrates such an effort has succeeded, one would expect a celebration with shouts of "we've saved a species," but the actual reaction is much different."
The Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately rejected Combs' petition, finding that it "does not present substantial scientific or commercial information" to show removing protections is warranted. The golden-cheeked warbler remains on the endangered species list.
Environmentalists said Combs' nomination is part of a Republican "perfect storm" assault on the Endangered Species Act. Last week, the House Committee on Natural Resources took up five GOP-backed bills targeting portions of the 1973 law intended to safeguard threatened species and the habitats critical to their survival.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee's chairman, argued that the act "doesn't work," has been "misused to try and control land."
Trump's 2018 budget request calls for slashing the Interior Department's funding by $1.6 billion to $11.7 billion. That includes a cut of $220 million, or 14.5 percent, to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke -- who had a poor track record on threatened species and a paltry 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters as a Montana congressman -- has prioritized energy development and infrastructure over endangered species and habitat restoration.
Zinke praised Combs for her experience both as an elected official and in the private sector. "Susan is highly qualified and will be a huge asset as we work to make government more efficient and more accountable to the people," he said in a statement.
Members of the Texas delegation in Congress, including Sen. John Cornyn (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R), called Combs "a fierce advocate for rural Texans" and "a committed public servant" who "understands that Interior can safeguard our resources while also encouraging beneficial economic growth."
But Joan Marshall, executive director of Texas-based conservation nonprofit Travis Audubon, said Combs, if confirmed, will "have a much bigger arsenal to wage a much larger war" against America's imperiled species.
"We're at a critical moment in our history and need to decide what kind of world we want to live in: A world that includes birds and birdsongs, wild spaces and clean rivers, or a world paved over with parking lots," Marshall said in a statement to Texas Monthly. "If we manage nature for short-sighted, short-term gains, nothing will be left for future generations."
How Texas Fights Endangered
Species Protections, Critter by Critter
Eric Dexheimer / American-Statesman
(August 1, 2015) -- Susan Combs and George P. Bush had a rare bird problem.
Last month, the former state comptroller and the current Texas land commissioner argued that the endangered species designation of a Central Texas songbird jeopardized military readiness. But an official at Fort Hood contradicted them by saying the post no longer operates under training restrictions due to the golden-cheeked warbler. An internal study and a review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this summer backed that up.
After the American-Statesman twice reported Fort Hood's position, Combs, who is pushing to remove the bird from the endangered species list, and Bush's chief aide, Anne Idsal -- who hails from a politically connected ranching family with longstanding ties to Combs -- reached out to the staff of the three-star general in charge of the post.
Within hours, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland sent out a statement that warbler protections had, in fact, diminished military operations.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the flip-flop at Fort Hood, which is home to 50,000 acres of prime warbler habitat, illustrates the high stakes of endangered species disputes and how political ideology can drive the debate over how imperiled plants and animals are selected for federal protection -- particularly in Texas, where more than 95 percent of property is privately held and landowner rights are sacred.
Combs and others say vigorous resistance is necessary to combat an outdated and heavy-handed species law that has been applied arbitrarily to the detriment of the state's residents. The battle against the warbler's status is just the latest in a campaign against endangered species protections in Texas, an effort mostly funded by taxpayers that critics say at times has elevated politics over science.
Led by the comptroller's office, the state has set aside $10 million for research to cast doubt on scientific work leading to potential listings of species -- and has retained veto power over the publication of the funded research.
Two administrators with the US Fish and Wildlife Service who tangled with Texas officials say they were pushed out of the state over species listings.
The comptroller's office has meanwhile cultivated ties with Texas A&M University researchers who themselves have ties to property-rights groups long critical of endangered species listings and have pushed for conservation plans with little public oversight compared with traditional endangered species protections.
Now Combs, who didn't run for re-election, is head of a political action committee that is pushing the same agenda as the comptroller's office as she circulates a petition to delist the warbler.
States can be valuable partners in managing endangered species, said Melinda Taylor, director of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law and Business at the University of Texas School of Law. "The problem in Texas, though, is the effort has been all about how to minimize the degree of protection species are afforded, to thwart the meaning of the act."
For years, Texas' oversight of the Endangered Species Act was managed by the state's Parks and Wildlife Department, where knowledge of the land and biology made it the logical agency for the job. But in 2011, in an eleventh-hour legislative end-run favored by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, lawmakers shifted much of that authority to the comptroller's office, a move Combs sought to inject more discussion of economic impact into endangered species decisions.
Two years later, a bill that would have moved the job to a coalition of state agencies led by the wildlife department easily passed the Legislature only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry -- a move the bill's author, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, termed "unfathomable."
"What are we doing with an environmental program in the comptroller's office?" he said. "I don't think an office making biological decisions belongs in the comptroller's office."
Texas appears to be the only state in the country where its top financial official is in charge of protecting plants and animals threatened with extinction by the actions of humans. "I'm not aware of any other state comptroller or economic development agency that's in charge of endangered species issues," said Eric Holst, an endangered species specialist for Environmental Defense Fund.
A West Texas rancher, Combs has been vocal in her defense of property rights and private landowners' ability to protect wildlife.
As agriculture commissioner -- the job she held before moving to the comptroller's office -- Combs helped develop a system in which private landowners could sell rights to their undeveloped warbler habitat to Fort Hood, allowing the base to use its own property more intensively.
As comptroller, Combs was steadfast in her opposition to Texas species earning federal protection. During a 2013 legislative briefing she referred to proposed species listings as "incoming Scud missiles."
Records show that Combs found fault with nearly every listing proposal from Washington, citing inadequate science, low-ball economic impact projections or insufficient notification of local residents.
"I heard that over and over again, even when the argument was ludicrous," said Gary Mowad, who ran the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Texas office from 2010 to 2013.
Last year, after federal analysts determined that listing two species of shiner fish in the Brazos River in the Panhandle would only modestly hamper business because of the relatively low overall level of economic activity in the region, Combs responded that giving the shiners federal species protection would put the entire $344 million annual economy of the area at risk. She urged delaying any decisions.
The persistent refrain has made some observers suspicious. Claims of inadequate research from endangered species opponents can be a smokescreen, said Taylor: "The big argument is that there's not enough science, so we have to provide the federal government with science -- to stop a species from being listed."
Combs declined interview requests with the American-Statesman but through a spokesman said she "wants decisions based on accurate data and not passions."
The Endangered Species Act is intended to provide protection for imperiled species "whatever the cost," as the Supreme Court once held. Yet at the comptroller's office, the question of what federal protection might cost Texas in lost business has been central to its approach.
Over the past three years, the agency has secured $10 million from the Legislature to pay for scientific studies purporting to provide updated and more accurate information on species proposed for federal endangered species protection.
"The state must gather data on species under review so it can respond appropriately to proposed listings under the ESA and find the right balance of protecting our natural resources and our state's economy," the agency's website explains. It so far has earmarked nearly $4 million to fund roughly a dozen studies on species as diverse as the Texas kangaroo rat, the western chicken turtle and the desert massasauga rattlesnake.
The comptroller's office says it is seeking only the best available science, and even environmentalists agree that endangered species science can be lacking. But critics have said the comptroller's taxpayer-funded studies appear to be aimed at supporting the state's hostile position.
The call for better science "always appears to be going in one direction, which is to promote development," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which advocates for government scientists. "On the other side are career scientists who have political tire tracks across their backs."
As it contracts with scientists for new research, the comptroller's office has included an unusually restrictive clause regarding the discussion of any scientific findings in its agreements with the researchers it hires.
"No release of any information pertaining to this Contract . . . shall be made without express, prior written consent of Comptroller and in accordance with Comptroller's explicit written instructions," reads the instruction.
Thomas McGarity, an expert in how financial sponsors can influence how research is prepared and published, said such language is a red flag.
"There are simply too many studies showing a high correlation between the identity of the sponsor and the outcome of sponsored research for us to assume that researchers will not be influenced by the implicit threat of the sponsor to decline future funding," he said. "When the sponsoring entity has veto power, there is even more reason to be suspicious of the conclusions of the research."
Robert Gulley, who oversees endangered species matters for the comptroller's office, told the Statesman the clause is meant to prevent breaches in confidentiality of landowners participating in habitat protection programs. "This is not an attempt to stifle information getting out," he said, calling it "boilerplate."
But one Texas university biologist said he had never seen such a "draconian" clause in his nearly 30 years of doing scientific work. A recipient of comptroller money to study a coastal species, he added that he could not permit his name to be used for fear of losing a source of funding: "I am not supposed to release any information about the contract . . . without prior approval," he said. "I have two graduate students who depend on this grant for their research and livelihood."
Banished to New Mexico?
The state's steady pressure to resist federal species listings has created friction with local US Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Over the past decade and a half, two top Texas administrators said they were forced out because of their clashes with Texas officials over endangered species.
David Frederick, the federal agency's top Texas administrator from 1998 to 2002, said he was banished to the Albuquerque office following a dispute over a proposed plan he thought was insufficient to protect the Houston toad. "I wouldn't sign a document I thought was biologically incorrect," he said. "It was done for political reasons."
Frederick's Texas tenure followed a rancorous endangered species debate over environmental protection and private property rights in the 1990s, as the Fish and Wildlife Service sought to protect newly listed endangered songbirds and prepare for the eventual listing of the Barton Springs salamander.
The listings of the animals became flash points in disputes over the Hill Country's future because scientists tied land development to species habitat destruction. Landowners said designating swaths of the Hill Country as the home of endangered species would ruin property values. One of Frederick's predecessors received death threats.
Some of the tension was reignited several years ago after environmental groups successfully pushed to get the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider hundreds of species for listing, including many that call Texas home.
Soon, the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Texas office at the time said he, too, found himself in trouble for opposing state officials' efforts to fend off a federal listing. Mowad, a biologist and 26-year veteran of the federal agency, said his problems began in 2012, when the question of whether to list the dune sagebrush lizard -- a reptile found primarily in the Permian Basin, historically Texas' most productive oil patch -- came to a head.
That fall, relations between the federal agency's Texas bureau and the comptroller became so strained over several endangered species discussions that Mowad instructed the Texas staff to stop working with the comptroller's office.
"I firmly believe her actions jeopardize our ability to develop and use the best science," he wrote about Combs in an email included as part of his subsequent whistleblower lawsuit into retaliation and misconduct in the federal agency's Southwest office.
In an interview, Mowad said that due to pressure from Texas officials, for example, the agency's sagebrush lizard assessment "wasn't like for a normal review – look at the data, all the science, all the threats and make an assessment. It was, 'We need to find a way to not list this lizard – whatever rules we need to bend to not list this lizard.'"
Federal officials declined to comment about the Frederick and Mowad personnel moves.
Eventually, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to a conservation plan organized by Combs' office in place of officially listing the lizard. Funded chiefly by oil and gas companies, it called for Permian Basin landowners -- petroleum companies, primarily -- to voluntarily keep track of the animal and preserve its habitat. Progress is monitored by a biologist paid by energy companies; federal biologists are not permitted to know which properties are included in the plan.
Though hailed by Combs as a win-win for Texas property owners and the species, Mowad and others said shielding the conservation plan from outside evaluators was illegal. "It was our opinion that the state comptroller's plan wasn't only not enforceable, it wasn't even verifiable" -- standards set by the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups have unsuccessfully challenged the decision not to list the lizard, though an appeals court decision is pending.
Three months after clashing with his bosses, Mowad, like Frederick, was assigned to the New Mexico office where he says he arrived to find no phone, computer or housing.
After being isolated and denied a transfer to Washington, D.C., he retired. The suit was settled last year with the agency agreeing to pay Mowad an unspecified award. The Fish and Wildlife Service's Texas administrator job, meanwhile, was eliminated.
Nesting in a Parking Lot
Combs has continued to wage her campaign against the Endangered Species Act from the private sector. Seeded with $300,000 in leftover campaign money, her political action committee, Texans for Positive Economic Policy, paid $25,000 to a Washington, D.C., law firm that filed the golden-cheeked warbler delisting petition, filings with the Texas Ethics Commission show.
The cornerstone of the effort to remove the bird's federal protections is a controversial study by Texas A&M researchers. Funded by a $690,000 grant from the Texas Department of Transportation, which was concerned about road projects, the research was overseen by Neal Wilkins, an ecologist who has served as a board member with Combs on the Texas Wildlife Association, a property rights group that supports the warbler delisting effort.
The study concluded Central Texas' warbler population was much greater than previously thought, calling into question the need for its endangered species protection. (In his prepared statement, Fort Hood base commander Sean MacFarland approvingly cited the Texas A&M data in his support for Combs' effort.)
Mowad said the comptroller's office pressured the US Fish and Wildlife Service to adopt the findings as early as 2012. "Susan Combs wanted us to use the model that hadn't been approved and wasn't the best available science," he testified in his lawsuit.
As an example of the A&M study's failings, federal biologists at the time noted that according to its population model, warblers could be found in a wide expanse of asphalt at Fort Hood. Citing such glitches, the agency concluded the paper's methodology over-predicted the number of warblers by as much as tenfold, Mowad testified.
Since then, Austin and Travis County biologists have said the A&M paper inflated Texas' warbler population, mainly by improperly applying the results of bird surveys conducted in warbler-rich preserves in western Travis County to the entire Texas range.
"It's been discounted by everyone," said Tom Hayes, a research biologist who heads the nonprofit Environmental Conservation Alliance and who has written about changes in golden-cheeked warbler habitat and reviewed the A&M model.
But not everyone has panned the study, which was later published in peer-reviewed journals. Texas State biologist Butch Weckerly, who has also researched warblers in Central Texas and himself received research funding from the comptroller's office, called the study "scientifically defensible." "I'm familiar with challenges of doing this stuff," he added. "Anyone can come up with criticism of work."
Wilkins, who recently left A&M to lead the East Wildlife Foundation, which promotes wildlife conservation on private land, said he was proud of the study and pleased it was cited in the petition. If there is bad science, he added, it was the original surveys first used to list the warbler as endangered in 1990.
"We need more science and less emotion," Wilkins said. He said Mowad left his post with "a big load of resentment and unresolved frustration."
And he said his service at the Texas Wildlife Association "has always been consistent with my professional obligations," pointing out that other academic scientists have served as vice president of the association, as he did.
The Battle Goes On
The Fish and Wildlife Service appears unlikely to approve delisting the warbler; just a year ago, the agency said it should remain on the endangered list.
If nothing else, then, the delisting campaign thus far points to Combs' persistence and political reach.
Interviews and emails show that Combs and Idsal were in contact with the commanding general's aide before MacFarland issued his statement to "clarify" Fort Hood's position on the warbler.
Combs and Idsal "were interested in seeing the statement the commanding general was going to make," said Ron Perry, director of mission support at the post.
He told the Statesman after the communication from Combs and Idsal he briefed MacFarland on the warbler and the Texas A&M research. He said Combs and Idsal did not review or edit MacFarland's statement -- but emails show they received it hours before the Statesman.
"Susan and Anne, the statement below will go out . . . today," Perry wrote in an email obtained through a public information request. The Statesman -- which originally published the contradiction -- "will be told that this is the Ft. Hood position on the petition as stated by the Commanding General LTG Sean MacFarland. Hope this is helpful."
MacFarland wasn't made available for an interview. Idsal didn't respond to requests for comment.
Perry said delisting the warbler would ease administrative manpower and financial burdens for Fort Hood, but he declined to provide details.
So far, the trail Combs blazed for the comptroller's involvement in endangered species matters is being followed by her recently elected successor, Glenn Hegar.
Rhetorically, at least, Hegar is not as pointed; he says he wants to make the endangered species reviews "more collaborative." He has met with state Parks and Wildlife Department Executive Director Carter Smith and Bush to talk over endangered species matters.
Asked if he considers the US Fish and Wildlife Service an opponent or a partner, he says: "All of the above."
His office successfully won another $5 million from the Legislature to pay for research it says is necessary to make informed decisions about species such as the fatmucket mussel, the spot-tailed earless lizard and the monarch butterfly.
"Who else is going to quarterback the data?" Hegar says.
Endangered in Texas
There are more than 50 species listed as endangered in Texas, and many more under review. Here are some key species at the intersection of politics and conservation:
Golden-cheeked warbler: Known for their yellowish cheeks, the bird is typically less than 5 inches long. The birds nest only in Texas, chiefly in juniper trees. Male warblers use their song to attract females and issue warnings during danger. They have been listed as endangered since 1990; former Comptroller Susan Combs is leading a coalition to delist it.
Dune sagebrush lizard: A small, light brown lizard found in Southeastern New Mexico and West Texas, the species faces loss and fragmentation of habitat due to oil and gas operations. As state comptroller, Susan Combs helped put together voluntary conservation agreements that have kept the lizard off the endangered species list.
Houston Toad: A small, greenish-brown, speckled amphibian; males cast a high-pitched, trill-sounding call. Found in forests of loblolly pine, the toad counts Bastrop County among its chief habitat. David Frederick, the federal agency's top Texas administrator from 1998 to 2002, says he was banished to the Albuquerque office following a dispute over a proposed plan he thought was insufficient to protect the species. The species has been listed as endangered for decades due to habitat destruction caused by urban development and agricultural conversion.
Texas kangaroo rat: The nocturnal rat lives in underground dens at the base of small mesquites -- one of dozens of Texas species currently under review for possible endangered or threatened designation. With an eye to economic impact, the state comptroller's office is paying for research to examine whether such a listing is warranted.
A Politically Influenced Flip-Flop at Fort Hood?
July 1: Brian Dosa, who oversees environmental programs at Fort Hood, told the American-Statesman that warbler mitigation strategies "led to removal of all military training restrictions in warbler habitat across Fort Hood."
July 8: A Fort Hood spokesman said the base wanted to "clarify" its position with a prepared comment from post commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland: "I believe that the data cited in the petition should lead to the de-listing of the Golden- Cheeked Warbler, which would benefit Ft. Hood both operationally and administratively."
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