Environment: Thank You, Sirs, May I Have Another?

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Outside magazine, December 1995

Environment: Thank You, Sirs, May I Have Another?

Bruce Babbitt braces for another whipping
By Florence Williams

Jayne Belnap spent much of last year watching a ten-foot-long plastic tube suck air in the Utah desert. Hitched to a generator, the vacuum simulated the impact of wind on fragile cryptobiotic soils, a specialty of the ecologist, who also assesses soil erosion, monitors cheat grass invasion, and frets about nitrogen fixation–all to provide federal land managers with the data
they need to regulate everything from cows to campsites to armored personnel carriers.

But like the rest of the 1,400 scientists in the sinking National Biological Service, Belnap may soon be looking for a new place to hang her hat. The fledgling agency was set up two years ago by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to consolidate research on the nation’s public-land ecosystems, freeing scientists from the political and bureaucratic fetters of the seven agencies
that once housed them. But citing budget constraints, Congress last summer voted to abolish the NBS. At press time, it seems likely that Babbitt’s biological Dream Team could be stuffed and hung by Christmas, and NBS’s scientists will be dispatched to the U.S. Geological Survey with a 30 percent smaller budget.

All of which has supporters of ecosystem science wondering: Is the NBS being unjustly spiked? Or is it simply another example of the Clinton administration’s good intentions getting stymied by its own bumbling? The answer is, a little of both.

One problem was that when the agency came into being in 1993, it was never formally established by legislation. Babbitt opted to sidestep Capitol Hill and set the NBS up administratively, an action that was within his legitimate powers but alienated key Democrats and infuriated Republicans. Furthermore, consolidating so many scientists in one place created a fat, slow-moving
political target for conservatives. Though the vast majority of NBS research concerned public land, some of its work also affected private property–such as wetlands restoration–giving rise to conspiracy theories that the NBS might lead to more endangered-species listings and increased regulation on private landowners. “The NBS,” complained a staffer for Republican Senator Conrad
Burns of Montana, “was just some kind of superagency set up by Babbitt and special environmental interests to go onto private property and do whatever.”

NBS director Ronald Pulliam denies this, saying that the endangered-species research made up only about 10 percent of NBS’s science and that its data actually resulted in fewer listed species. He says that some NBS projects will be salvaged, but areas of research likely to be hurt include wetlands, migratory birds, and wolf recovery.

As for Belnap and her new home at USGS, she figures she’ll spend more of her days writing proposals for private grant money and scavenging lab equipment. “It’s trauma to me,” she says, “but fortunately, I’m a resourceful person.”

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