Federal phonies in feline fraud
Reports that employees of the federal government and Washington state submitted bogus cat-hair samples to a laboratory sound like the usual public-sector shenanigans, but there's more at stake than usual. If successful, efforts by government workers to convince the world that the odd-looking Canadian lynx lives in places where it doesn't could have closed the phony feline habitat to many popular uses.
Of course, the cat counters at the center of the controversy don't admit to any wrongdoing; they insist that they submitted the hair of critters in captivity as examples of animals in the wild to test the accuracy of the lab's DNA analysis. As excuses go, that's like explaining to a Secret Service agent that you passed funny money just to see if he was on the ball.
Also impeaching the claims of innocence are the enormous implications of a successful scam. The Canadian lynx is classified as an endangered species in the United States; that means that areas in which the cats are found to live are objects of special scrutiny and restrictive regulation.
Among the objectives cited under the Forest Service's "Lynx Conservation Assessment and Strategy" is: "Manage human activities … to minimize impacts to lynx and lynx habitat." Achieving that goal involves plans to restrict grazing and such pastimes as skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Roads that provide access to lynx habitat are to receive minimal upkeep -- or even be closed.
Such tight regulation is popular among some absolutist environmentalists, but it's a source of friction between the government and people who use national forests for a variety of purposes, including resources and recreation. Battles over competing priorities for the land are contentious enough without government employees trying to load the dice in favor of tough controls -- especially when the "purity" of regulators' motivation is in doubt.
As the Heartland Institute pointed out in an article published just last summer:
Property rights advocates have long contended environmentalists use the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to further such unrelated interests as limiting population sprawl, restricting natural resource recovery, and restricting the construction of new roads, airports, and dams.
Cooking the data to impose regulations where they wouldn't normally apply lends credibility to such suspicions.
This isn't the first time that "experts" have been caught playing fast and loose with the truth on behalf of government control. A recent column for Fox News by the Cato Institute's Steve Milloy described a similar scandal involving Steven F. Arnold, a former researcher at the Tulane University Center for Bioenvironmental Research. The federal Office of Research Integrity slapped Arnold for "scientific misconduct by intentionally falsifying ... research results..."
Arnold's fraudulent research inspired a federal law requiring the screening of thousands of chemicals used in food and industry -- at a cost to private businesses that's expected to tally up to billions of dollars.
But government regulation doesn't have to be based on fraud to exact a high price. Just last summer, controversy erupted in Washington state over the deaths of four firefighters consumed by a wilderness blaze. Citing Endangered Species Act protection for local fish, Forest Service officials delayed letting fire-fighting helicopters draw water from nearby streams and rivers. Permission finally came, but too late.
No wonder some members of Congress and many skeptics of government regulation want to trim or even jettison the Endangered Species Act, among other restrictive laws.
Advocates of tighter controls may be their own worst enemies, not just in the legislative arena, but also on the land where their favored animals roam. A 1995 study by Richard L. Stroup of the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) found that the tight land use restrictions imposed under the Endangered Species Act actually put animals in danger.
[B]y focusing the enormous power of the federal government on the supposed protection of rare species, the Act has made rare species unwanted and has even encouraged some people to get rid of them.
Many people who want to escape tight controls on the use of their property change the way they manage their land to make it a less welcoming habitat for species protected by the law. In some cases, they'll even "shoot, shovel and shut up" -- that is, they'll quietly dispose of animals that might bring their property under government control.
The result, according to Stroup, is perverse.
An official of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wrote in 1993 that more habitat for the black-capped vireo and the golden-checked warbler has been lost in Texas since they were listed under the Endangered Species Act than would have been lost if the ESA had not applied at all to them.
Revelations that government employees tried to have land falsely designated as habitat for legally protected species will only serve to encourage evasion of the law. Why should land owners, who are already troubled by the threat of onerous restrictions, play by the rules when regulators don't?
Many environmental regulations are already controversial because of the high costs they impose on people in terms of money, property rights and even life. Like it or not, the debate will continue into the foreseeable future over the wisdom and effectiveness of such controls. Advocates of those regulations undermine their cause by using fraud to extend their authority beyond the generous boundaries already allowed by the law.