Trump’s Fish and Wildlife pick is entangled with industry

Aurelia Skipwith has ties to water interests fighting endangered species protection and worked for ag giant Monsanto.

 

A Fish and Wildlife Service employee, the current nominee to become the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Aurelia Skipwith and Midwest Acting Deputy Regional Director Thao Tran get a closer look at some of the work performed at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin.
Photo by Larry Dean/USFWS

This article was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has links to powerful agricultural interests opposed to protections for endangered species she would oversee, the Guardian has learned.

Aurelia Skipwith, who is already a top official at the Department of the Interior, formerly worked at the agrochemical giant Monsanto.

New revelations show she also has ties to the Westlands Water District, a political powerhouse with a history of chafing against Endangered Species Act regulations that can interfere with farmers’ demands for water in California.

Yet a Senate committee approved Skipwith’s nomination Wednesday in a party-line vote of 11-10.

Jayson O’Neill, the deputy director of Western Values Project, a public lands watchdog group based in Montana, claimed that Skipwith’s resume – she is a lawyer with a master’s degree in genetics – shows she is unqualified. He said David Bernhardt, Trump’s Interior secretary, is hiring her for her “deep ties to the swamp and special interests.”

Skipwith’s fiance, Leo Giacometto, is a former lobbyist who worked on behalf of Westlands from 2005 to 2010 in his role as the founder of Gage International. Skipwith has said she was an “unpaid adviser” for Gage starting in 2013.

Bernhardt, who would be Skipwith’s new boss if she is to be confirmed, also lobbied for Westlands. Bernhardt once sued the U.S. government on behalf of Westlands, aiming to roll back protections for winter-run Chinook salmon in California.

Under Bernhardt’s watch, Westlands has benefited from policy changes enacted by the Interior Department and its subagency, the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Interior Department is currently working to loosen protections for imperiled fish in California, which would be a boon to Westlands and other irrigators who want to pull more water out of regional rivers and reservoirs. The rollback would likely harm endangered salmon, delta smelt and other aquatic species in California.

As the director of Fish and Wildlife, Skipwith would be crucially placed to shape the outcome of those efforts.

According to Senate lobbying records, Gage, Giacometto’s firm, lobbied for Westlands between 2005 and 2010. During that time, Westlands paid Gage more than $200,000 to influence House and Senate policy on “water resource management issues.” Gage also lobbied for another influential California water district, the San Luis & Delta Mendota Water Authority, during approximately the same period.

Shortly after Westlands ceased work with Gage in 2010, it hired Bernhardt’s former firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to help lead its lobbying operations.

Skipwith is not required to disclose any information about her fiance’s financial ties or involvement with Westlands because they are not yet married. Giacometto was prominent at Skipwith’s confirmation hearing, where he was introduced as her fiance.

Skipwith’s ties to Giacometto and Gage, and through them to Westlands, raise questions about whether she will be able to act impartially when making critical decisions about water and wildlife policy in California, which are top priorities for Bernhardt and his Interior Department.

At her confirmation hearing earlier this month, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse highlighted Skipwith’s past work for Monsanto, a leading producer of an herbicide that has been linked to negative effects on honeybees and other wildlife. Skipwith worked for Monsanto between January 2006 and July 2012, according to her resume, mainly in crop science and corporate affairs.

In a written statement, the Interior Department said Skipwith is in “full compliance” with federal ethics rules.

Russell Newell, spokesperson for the Interior Department, said, “Ms. Skipwith has actively sought and consulted with senior career ethics officials. Ms. Skipwith started as an adviser with Gage International in 2013 well after the water district ended its contract with Gage in 2010.”

Jimmy Tobias is a contributing writer for the GuardianEmily Holden is an environment reporter for Guardian US. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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