Craig Manson.

Craig Manson is the man President Bush selected to protect America’s critters. And like many top dogs in this administration, he’s not exactly considered a good friend of the environmental community.

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As assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, Manson implements the Endangered Species Act, determines the direction of the National Park System and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and oversees some 30,000 employees. Manson took a roundabout path to his post within the Bush administration, via the Air Force, a law practice, the California Department of Fish and Game, and a judgeship in the Superior Court of California in Sacramento.

Environmental organizations, including the Endangered Species Coalition and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, vehemently opposed Manson’s appointment, accusing him of having worked within the California DFG “to aid politically connected developers and other permitees, to frustrate strict enforcement of resource-protection laws, and to work, usually behind the scenes, to weaken interpretations of key statutes and policies,” as PEER put it in a statement.

Manson has since been condemned by critics for changes to ESA enforcement and for controversial public statements about species extinction. But the criticism rolls off him like water off a duck’s back.

When Grist checked in with Manson to explore these concerns, the former judge was unflinching in his belief that the FWS and other agencies he oversees are making great strides forward. Manson shared his views on endangered species and plenty more, including the role of science in national policy, Darwinian science, and his comical efforts as a youth activist to clean up a local beach.

I’d like to start by asking you broadly, what do you think are the most undue and misbegotten criticisms of the Bush administration’s environmental policies?

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I think one of them has to do with our use of science. There seems to be this notion that we manipulate science to suit our own ends, and that’s simply not true. One of the things that people have to understand is that policy-makers of all stripes and in whatever administration take science and use science to inform their policy decisions. That’s not a manipulation of science. That’s the role science is supposed to play. The science tells policy-makers the state of the world and not necessarily what to do about it. We have policy-makers who make decisions in areas that involve science who frequently are not scientists. There’s nothing wrong with that because they are supposed to weigh and balance a wide spectrum of public-policy concerns and in many cases not just the science.

Can you give an example here where science cannot determine policy?

I read a study that said meat eaters are X number of times more likely to get colon cancer than vegetarians. Let’s say that the science is good and we can say that this is a scientific fact. OK? Now, we have policy-makers at the Department of Health and Human Services who must decide whether they should put dollars into research or prevention programs or other remedial programs. They might say we want to start an education program, or ignore it entirely, or say we need legislation banning meat because science tells us it’s dangerous. Any one of those things in a theoretical world is a valid public-policy choice, but the point is that it’s up to public-policy makers — not scientists — to decide among those and other competing public-policy options. The science has told us the state of the world, but not what to do about it.

What do you make of the widespread claims that this administration’s environmental policies are more damaging to the environment than those of any other administration in history?

It’s sheer, naked politics. And there’s the sense on the part of some that there’s only one way to do things and that any departure from the one way to do things is a complete abandonment of the environment. And that the only way to do things is strict control by the government.

So you believe the criticism from the environmental community of Bush’s record is really just a partisan argument unrelated to the policies themselves?

In part, yes. It’s not wholly partisan in the sense of Republican and Democrat. But there are people who have political goals, who want to aggrandize themselves or their organizations or their movements.

We otter protect species.

Photo: FWS.

In my experience, environmentalists are very concerned about policy — take, for instance, the Endangered Species Act, which has been reworked under your tenure.

You know, some people were deathly afraid that we were going to repeal the Endangered Species Act, and others hoped that we would repeal it. What we have done through collaboration and cooperation is improve the way the ESA works. The law is still there — it’s being enforced, but implemented in a different way.

How so?

Like a lot of environmental laws, the ESA was based on the principle that you prohibit things, and if people do the prohibited things you prosecute them and you fine them. And that was the way for many, many years the ESA was implemented. And right from the get-go that sets up an adversarial relationship between the government and people who are trying to do nothing more than perfectly legal things like farm their land or build their houses — things that they certainly don’t think of as criminal.

We are now in an era of cooperation under the ESA and other environmental laws, where the first thing out of the mouth of FWS is not, “No!” It’s, “Let’s see how we can make this work.” Which is not to say that in every case things can work, but that approach breaks down the barrier between the service and people who are trying to do perfectly legal things on their property.

How do you propose to make it work on a more friendly level?

Our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has over the last three years provided hundreds of millions of dollars to private landowners to restore and enhance habitat on their lands. It’s a voluntary program. We don’t go around and say, “Hey, you better sign up for this.” Instead, it’s a voluntary program and all of that money has been spent and it’s restored thousands of acres of habitat, thousands of miles of streams and river habitat. We’ve done the same thing in our landowner incentive program and our private stewardship grant program. How much better it is to get people to feel good about doing things with the land than have them fearing doing things on the land.

I’m confused about the philosophy of making people “feel good about doing things with the land” when clearly development can have terribly damaging consequences. Why would corporations want to save endangered species? At a recent National Association of Manufacturers conference, the top priority of manufacturing executives was to do away with the ESA entirely on the grounds that it’s completely at odds with their bottom line.

Well, in the time that I’ve worked on ESA, the circumstances under which someone has had to be forced to do something have been rare and far between. But in terms of it meeting corporations’ bottom line, there are frequently ways in which economic development and environmental protection can coexist.

Why would it be in corporations’ economic interest?

There are a lot of reasons: It may gain them a favorable image and standing with the public. It may be that the preservation of habitat is compatible with their business goals. And as I said, some of the biggest companies in America have collaborated with us, but you can’t get them to do that if constantly you have people showing up and saying, “You’re evil, you’re bad, you’re going to jail.” That’s just the wrong way to treat people.

You made a comment at a Santa Barbara conference that riled a lot of environmentalists, in which you called into question the inherent harm of species extinction: “If we are saying that the loss of species in and of itself is inherently bad,” you said, “I don’t think we know enough about how the world works to say that.” Can you explain this comment and what you think may be the sunny side of species extinction?

The reaction to that comment illustrates something about the character of the science that some people would have us use — which is, “Don’t question the orthodoxy of anything.” I mean, do we know? The orthodoxy is that every species has a place in the ecosystem and therefore the loss of any species diminishes us in some negative way. That’s the orthodoxy. Now that certainly has validity with respect to most things, maybe almost everything. But it’s a presumptuous thing to suggest that we know for sure that that is a fact. And it sort of flies in the face of Darwinian science.

How so?

Darwinian science suggests that some species are lost because they are unable to adapt to changing circumstances. And those changing circumstances may be natural circumstances, they may not be artificial or human-caused. If that’s the case, then we don’t know whether to label the loss of that species as good or bad as a scientific matter. That does not mean that we shouldn’t enforce the Endangered Species Act. Some people made a leap in logic from that discussion to, “Let’s not enforce the ESA.” That’s fallacious to make that sort of leap of logic.

There is vast and alarming evidence that the rate of extinction has escalated tremendously in the last several decades. We often hear statistics along the lines of: More species have been lost in the last several decades than have been lost cumulatively in the last several millennia. As the man responsible for species protection in the United States, can you explain why we “don’t know enough” to deduce that this is linked to human activity and is an unnatural and potentially catastrophic trend?

There are statistics like that out there. I don’t know what those statistics mean.

As in, you don’t know whether they are well-founded?

Well, let’s assume for a moment that you had a study that said more species have been lost in the last 50 years than in the preceding 10,000 years. And that’s all the study tells us — somehow we are able to figure that out. Well, what does that mean? I don’t know what that means.

So you don’t know whether the cause of that phenomenon is natural or human-made?

Right. Now, if there’s a study out there that tells me the causes, then that gives some context. But people throw around numbers like that as if the numbers themselves have inherent meaning. And they don’t without context.

Don’t studies show that the rate of extinction directly correlates to the rate of industrial development and population growth?

The most that one could say on that evidence is that there may be some connection. And it is a logical fallacy to suggest that because two things happen concurrently that they are necessarily related, without further evidence.

I was at a congressional hearing on the Endangered Species Act and a congressman said to me, “My 15-year-old son is sitting out in the audience today and can you assure me that no species will go extinct during my son’s lifetime?” And he was serious! [Laughter.] And I said, “No! I can’t assure you of that. There are going to be species that go extinct in your son’s lifetime and maybe hundreds of thousands of them.”

Environmentalists have been very concerned about the question of listing new species under the ESA — that FWS is de-emphasizing the need to identify new species that are going extinct. Can you explain this shift in focus?

The emphasis on listing is shortsighted. It misses the mark. That supposes that the idea behind the statute is to see how many species we can get on the list — and it’s not. The purpose of the statute is to provide for the recovery of species which have declined to such a point that they have become listed. It’s not about listing, and it’s not about prohibiting things that are otherwise lawful. It’s about recovery of species.

There are some 260 species on the ESA candidate list that are presumed to be on their way out. What do we do about those we’ve already identified as threatened?

What needs to be done with those is they need to benefit from enhanced habitat restoration, because habitat loss is probably the key factor in the decline of many species. Do they necessarily need to be listed to get the benefits of enhanced habitat restoration? Not necessarily. And again, the focus is not on how many of those we need to move onto the list of threatened or endangered species, but how do we move them away from the status that they are currently in now as candidate species.

Tit for habitat.

Photo: FWS.

You say habitat loss is the key factor in the decline of many species. And yet you have rolled back “critical habitat protections,” a tool that environmentalists see as one of the most important ways to preserve habitat. Can you explain your objection to protecting critical habitat?

This is one of the most misunderstood issues surrounding the ESA, and here’s how it goes. First the glib part: While habitat is critical, “critical habitat” is not. Now here’s what I mean by that: Everybody knows that habitat loss is one of the key factors in the decline of species that leads to them being threatened or endangered. So habitat is necessary for them to thrive and survive and not become extinct.

What the ESA does is set up a legal construct called critical habitat. It’s not the same as real habitat that you can go out and touch and feel and critters can live in. Critical habitat is a legal process. It’s an administrative exercise and it entails drawing lines on maps, at its simplest. And it creates a tremendous social and economic disruption to the communities that are affected. And at the same time, it adds very little additional benefit to a listed species. And this is not something that Craig Manson made up — this is something that you can go back and find [former Clinton-era Interior Secretary] Bruce Babbitt and [former Clinton-era FWS Director] Jamie Clark saying. It’s an attitude that the FWS has held for 20 years or so — that critical habitat adds very little additional benefit to the conservation of a listed species.

So the point is that you believe critical habitat is drawn haphazardly without attention to what’s vital to the survival of the species?

I wouldn’t say haphazardly — I’d say annoyingly, because it’s a make-work exercise that takes up a lot of time with no additional benefit.

One last thing on listing: I understand you asked for substantial increases in the budget for listing species under the ESA, but that it’s simply to cover litigation costs.

In 2003, we requested a 30 percent increase in the listing budget — the biggest increase in the budget’s history. A lot of that is, frankly, because of the number of lawsuits we have over either critical habitat or listing itself. Without the lawsuits, the listing budget would remain somewhat flatter than it is.

And yet there was a decrease in the recovery budget.

There was a decrease in the recovery budget. But, you know, part of the problem is you can’t do everything at a time when budgets across government at all levels are relatively tight. Frankly, if I were king, I’d take that money out of listing and put it into recovery. But essentially the listing process is being run by the federal courts and not by the FWS.

How did you develop an interest in the environment? And do you have environmentally friendly living habits?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. Do I recycle? Yes.

And are you concerned about low-impact living issues like energy efficiency, for instance? Do you drive an energy-efficient car?

I probably can’t afford an energy-efficient car.

What kind of car do you drive?

I drive a ’97 Honda Civic.

That’s very energy efficient! How about other things — like eating organic foods …

Well, I probably don’t eat healthily at all, because there are too many things that I like.

Were you interested in nature as a kid?

I’ve always been interested in the natural world. I grew up primarily in New Mexico where I hiked and camped and fished in the Sandia Mountains and learned to love the desert, which takes some getting used to for some people but seems quite normal and natural to me. And after growing up primarily in New Mexico, I eventually graduated from high school in Monterrey, Calif. And you cannot fail to appreciate the natural beauty of the Monterrey Peninsula. It just knocks you over every morning when you get up.

I had a biology teacher who I’m still in contact with who was a real hands-on kind of guy. He would take us out of the classroom and out into the real world and touch things and feel things and experiment with things. And that was a perfect way to appreciate science and the science of the natural world for me. So that’s my foundation in this stuff. It’s real on-the-ground stuff and not just theoretical things.

So you consider yourself a hands-on type?

Oh yeah. When I was in high school, I did a lot of things, some of which nearly got me kicked out. [Laughter.] So we had a group called ECOY, which stood for Environmentally Concerned Youth. And one of our concerns was the state of Monterrey Beach, which was in such terrible shape. So we decided to have “Day at the Dunes” — an event to which we invited city officials and we planned to have a luncheon in which we were going to serve them garbage. We made up these menus and, well, one of the kids in my class, his dad was the city manager, and they got early wind of our plan and of course they weren’t cooperating and didn’t show up. And our luncheon of garbage went to waste, so to speak. [Laughter.] So I’ve been on the activism side of this too.