The coke-and-sex-crazed atmosphere at MMS may have been the most flagrant scandal at Interior during the Bush years, but it was far from the only one. "The place was like a vending machine," says Sen. Wyden. "The special interests could line up, and out would come the policies they were interested in." Insiders and government watchdogs say four other abuses typified the Bush approach to public resources:
More Drilling The Bush administration's determination to open the West to drilling verged on the pathological. Between 2001 and 2007, government figures show, Interior leased five percent of its entire holdings to energy firms for development. In its frenzy to bring new wells online, the Interior Department relied on "volunteers" paid by oil and gas companies to help rubber-stamp new drilling permits. In the end, the permits actually outstripped the capacity of oil and gas companies to keep up: Less than half of the acreage auctioned off under Bush is in production. For all of the violence done to the Western landscape in the past eight years – a toll visible to anyone on a cross-country flight looking down on the thousands of new wells that pockmark the Rockies – the oil companies can drill another 15 million acres without having to apply for a single new lease. And taxpayers will be left to handle the toxic aftermath: Under rules formalized by Bush, cleanup of oil and gas drilling is now purely voluntary.
More Favors Oil and gas lobbyists had a direct pipeline into Interior, thanks to Steven Griles. In 2001, Griles left a lucrative lobbying practice to become deputy secretary of the department – but he never ceased his lobbying. His partner continued to pay him $284,000 a year, and former clients regularly called on him to grease the regulatory skids for them. "Steven Griles was an all-purpose fixer," says Ruch, the director of PEER. "Whatever a lobbyist would call him up and complain about, he'd fix." This was especially true for disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whom federal prosecutors say enjoyed "secret, unique, sustained and unfettered access" to Griles. The deal was simple: Abramoff steered more than $500,000 to a pro-Bush group run by one of Griles' girlfriends; Griles did favors for Abramoff's clients. Griles – one of the few Interior officials to be punished – was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for committing perjury about the extent of his dealings with Abramoff.
Less Wildlife Julie MacDonald, a deputy assistant secretary at Interior, routinely overruled the department's biologists, limiting the amount of "critical habitat" protected from drilling and other development. Federal judges overturned several of her decisions as "arbitrary and capricious," and among federal scientists her name became synonymous with political interference. "It became a verb for us: getting MacDonalded," said one staffer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When the inspector general reviewed 20 listings for endangered species in which MacDonald played a role, he found that she had "potentially jeopardized" 13 of them – a track record that "cast doubt on nearly every [endangered species] decision issued during her tenure." Her decisions frequently benefited private interests, including her own: Her ruling that the Sacramento splittail fish is not an endangered species protected her family farm in California – an operation that clears as much as $1 million a year.
Decaying Parks By the time Bush left office, the National Park Service was stuck with a backlog of up to $14 billion in deferred maintenance. The marquee attraction at Dinosaur National Monument – a rock face of exposed Jurassic fossils – remains off-limits because the visitor center is unsafe, and inadequate storage facilities threaten to damage artifacts from the Battle of Little Big Horn. Because of the lack of funds, the government was unable to buy land surrounding Valley Forge and Zion National Park, putting the property at risk for "detrimental development." Worst of all, the administration's failure to create a grazing plan at Yellowstone Park to accommodate the plains buffalo – the animal that graces the Interior Department's seal – contributed to the deaths of more than 1,100 bison last year. It was the greatest buffalo slaughter since the species was driven to near extinction by hunters in the late 1800s.
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