Can she save ecosystems?

  • Mollie Beattie stands by an Alaska river while a bear looks on

    Walter Stieglitz
  • Mollie Beattie

    Tami Heilemann

Mollie Beattie got an uncomfortable preview of the realpolitik that still pervades the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last summer while she waited for Senate confirmation as the agency's director.

One Republican senator after another anonymously exercised the right to place a "hold" on her confirmation.

Some, no doubt, were simply curious about this 46-year-old former Outward Bound mountaineering instructor, who lived in a solar-heated house in the woods of Vermont.

But others wanted to see what chips they could cash in for confirmation votes.

"It was an odd practice," Beattie recalls. "One senator said he wouldn't support me because I hadn't come to see him. I heard another senator didn't like my stand on sea turtles."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had a more direct concern. Robert Schumacher, manager of the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta Refuge on the United States-Mexico border, had recently turned down a request from the Marine Corps to conduct military aircraft maneuvers as low as 50 feet above the refuge, which is home to desert bighorn sheep and rare Sonoran pronghorn antelope. Schumacher said the noise startled wildlife, causing injury and even death. "I was concerned about the impact on the refuge - on all things great and small," he says.

McCain, arguing that the flights were protected by Arizona wilderness legislation, went to work to get Schumacher's decision rescinded. The issue eventually reached the desk of Tom Collier, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's chief of staff. He overruled the refuge manager.

McCain withdrew his hold on Beattie's confirmation, and Beattie was confirmed Sept. 10. The military overflights went ahead in October.

It was a maneuver familiar to anyone who knows the history of the agency during the Reagan years, an era when science was suppressed and dissidents found forced transfers waiting on their desks.

"We never made a case that we were trading wildlife for my confirmation," Beattie says of the flap over the Cabeza Prieta refuge. But she adds ruefully, "It was a strong message about where we are."

Beattie is bent on restoring the agency's integrity. It's a task her predecessor, John Turner, attempted during the Bush years with only marginal success. Turner has given her some tips on political survival, but Beattie won't share them.

These days, she sees her most important role as traveling the country to defend the Endangered Species Act, which comes up for reauthorization this year. In her stump speech, she tries to knock down what she calls the three big myths about the act: that it has failed to restore populations of threatened and endangered species, that it protects insignificant species not worth saving, and that protection of imperiled species carries a high economic cost.

She says the first myth is untrue, the second is based on a misunderstanding of how ecosystems work, and the third is greatly overstated. Where extreme measures are required, she argues, it's because development in the past has proceeded at an unsustainable pace.

Even in the case of the northern spotted owl, which has had an undeniable economic impact on loggers, she told a meeting of Western states lands commissioners on Jan. 10: "Had Congress, federal agencies and the timber industry engaged in long-term planning in the 1970s to ensure a sustainable, ecologically sensible timber harvest, the spotted owl would still be an obscure bird rather than the staple of editorial cartoonists."

Beattie touts the importance of the small, unsung creatures - the insects, snails and fungi without which most ecosystems would collapse in days or even hours.

"It's a message that I give just about anywhere, regardless of what I'm asked to speak on," she said in an interview at Sunriver Resort in central Oregon. She had come to speak to state officials about partnerships in ecosystem protection.

Sipping an orange soda as she took a break from the conference, she reflected on her sudden immersion in the turbulent world of Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department.

Even in a skirt, Beattie's unmistakably an outdoorswoman. In the photograph she had hung outside her office at the U.S. Department of the Interior, she's wearing hip waders and standing 30 feet from some cavorting Kodiak bears she encountered in Alaska on her first official trip out of Washington last fall. The photo makes its own statement beside the portraits of her 12 predecessors. They are all men in suits.

Beattie has the muscular hands of a canoeist, and direct, forthright eyes. She's articulate in a wry, understated way. She has the right résumé for the job: master's degrees in forestry from the University of Vermont and in public administration from Harvard; experience as deputy secretary of Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources; commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation; and executive director of the Richard A. Snelling Center for Government.

She also has what may be the most important qualification of all - a love for wildlife and the outdoors. Back in Vermont, she didn't need a television set; she spent hours watching the animals in the woods outside her cabin, she says. She feels a special affinity for the Colorado Rockies, where she taught Outward Bound classes for three years in the 1970s.

Beattie vowed early to get out in the field often. "You have to keep your passion up. You have to remember how much you love what you're doing. Every day spent inside, you should be wishing you're outside."

That vow is proving difficult to keep. Beattie inherited an agency that's undergoing several simultaneous crises: saving the Endangered Species Act, addressing severe environmental problems on many of the nation's 491 wildlife refuges, handling an enormous backlog of listing petitions, and enforcing international wildlife treaties.

Lawsuits and negotiated settlements dictate how the agency spends much of its $1.2 billion budget this year.

The service just transferred 1,500 staffers, the heart of its scientific research branch, to the new National Biological Survey. Research now in progress will continue, but the scientists, working for a separate branch of the Interior Department, will eventually be deployed to conduct the first inventory of all the nation's plant and animal communities.

Beattie's boss, Secretary Babbitt, has run into resistance from private landowners over getting access to their lands to conduct the inventories. It's part of the overall challenge he faces as he tries to lighten the effect of the Endangered Species Act on private property owners. Despite his energetic efforts to avoid endangered species "train wrecks," the act remains a flashpoint for controversy.

Private property-rights advocates have thrown their support to a bill that would require federal compensation if they are denied use of their property to protect endangered species. Babbitt has called the bill one of the greatest threats ever to face government nature conservation efforts. Can Babbitt neutralize the threat? Beattie admits it won't be easy because of the "enormous backlash" against the Endangered Species Act. Even if the act survives, Beattie will have to make some hard choices about where to put her agency's limited resources.

"I'm not shy about facing the fact that we won't do some things," she says. "Generally speaking, we will do the things related to ecosystem management. Anything that focuses on high protection of a single species gets lower priority."

The service doesn't have carte blanche to spend where it wants, however. Under the settlement of a suit brought by the Fund for Animals, the agency agreed to make listing decisions on 400 candidate species over the next four years. Most are on the West Coast and in Hawaii, and that means less attention will be paid to species elsewhere in the nation.

The nation's federal wildlife refuges demand their own tough reform agenda. In a 1989 General Accounting Office study, 59 percent of more than 400 refuge managers surveyed said at least one use harmful to wildlife was occurring on their refuges.

The activities posing a threat to wildlife, as varied as the refuges themselves, are often supported by powerful constituencies. Ranchers push for killing predators, farmers discharge poisonous irrigation runoff into refuges, and military training exercises drop chalk bombs and fill the air with noise. The growing popularity of the refuges for recreation, from powerboating to off-road vehicles, poses another set of incompatible uses.

Many of these uses increased during the Reagan years as Interior Secretary James Watt directed refuge managers to find ways of increasing "economic activity" on the refuges' 91 million acres of public land.

But what goes around comes around. Last October, the administration settled yet another lawsuit, this one brought by the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife and The Wilderness Society. It agreed to review all secondary refuge uses within a year to determine whether they are compatible with protecting wildlife.

If not, those uses must stop.

Beattie places high hopes in a bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., that would for the first time give the refuge system a congressional mandate.

"It will say that the purpose of the national wildlife refuges is the maintenance of biological diversity," she said. "It complicates your life if no one says what your purpose is."

Enforcing international wildlife treaties will get new emphasis under Beattie's tenure. One of the most immediate challenges will come in California's Central Valley, where selenium-laced waters in evaporation ponds on private, irrigated farmland are poisoning and deforming birds in numbers that dwarf deaths to waterfowl at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in California. Kesterson is now closed.

Although federal prosecutors say privately that the operations clearly violate the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the agency could not convince the Justice Department to bring cases during the Bush years.

Beattie says the Clinton administration won't look the other way. "There's no way for us to pull our punches. Wildlife is our responsibility."

Finally, there's the clubby male culture of the agency itself. Like most state wildlife agencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been a masculine refuge. Seventy percent of its 6,500 employees are men, and hunting and fishing interests dominate.

"In the sense of our own diversity, we've been practicing single-species management for too long," she says.

Is Beattie the right choice to turn the Fish and Wildlife Service back to its original mission? Early reviews from the field are hopeful.

"People whose opinions I respect seem very pleased with her performance in the first few months," says David Riley, an associate chief in the service's West Coast region, who survived political purgatory after former director Frank Dunkle tried to transfer him.

Schumacher, the manager at Cabeza Prieta, says, "She's coming in fresh. She talks about things our younger managers are talking about - biodiversity, ecosystem management. I think her philosophy is in tune with what the refuges are all about."

In her home state of Vermont, even timber industry leaders give Beattie grudging good marks for listening and being accessible.

What has surprised her most about her new job? Beattie says it is how process-oriented Washington is. "I don't know if that's why it's hard to get things done or if that is how things get done."

Kathie Durbin writes about natural resources for The Oregonian in Portland.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Why care about a snail the size of pinhead?

- Agency ends cattle grazing at Idaho refuges

- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: A chronology

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