WASHINGTON — Democratic senators are demanding to know why the Department of Interior has been delaying the disbursement of grants and cooperative-agreement funding for conservation projects. According to a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, written by Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii and signed by 10 colleagues, a political appointee has been put in charge of vetting payments of more than $50,000. The senators charge that the resulting delays have created “the appearance of improper political interference in program decisions that should always be merit-based.”
Interior has not yet responded to the letter, which was obtained exclusively by Yahoo News.
“DOI appears to be politicizing the federal grant process and improperly withholding federal funding from organizations that advance the public interest — and it’s causing real life consequences,” Sen. Duckworth told Yahoo News. “Taxpayer-funded federal grants should be awarded on merit, not politics. Secretary Zinke’s decision to hire a childhood friend with no relevant experience to oversee the grant review process raises serious ethical questions that DOI needs to address.”
Reports of grant screening by political appointees was first reported by the Washington Post in January. The policy was instituted by the deputy assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget, Scott J. Cameron, and is being overseen by Steven Howke, a senior adviser in that office. Both are political appointees. Howke attended kindergarten with Zinke in Whitefish, Mont., and the two later played high school football together. Before joining the Department of Interior, he ran a credit union in Montana. He does not have any apparent familiarity with the workings of the federal apparatus, nor any known experience that would qualify him for the complex processes of tending to the nation’s lands and natural resources, both of which are within Interior’s purview.
Environmental groups have sharply criticized his installation in the upper echelons of the agency. “Grants are now being reviewed by someone getting paid over $131,000 per year, who has no previous experience or qualifications for reviewing government grants that often involve complex scientific research, among other important research that deals with our public lands and wildlife,” says Jayson O’Neill of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based watchdog organization. “It appears that it’s purely political in nature with the intent of delaying, limiting and/or restricting grant funds to those not in favor with the administration or conducting research contrary to the corporate special interests that brought them into office.”
The Post obtained a memorandum that outlined the priorities which Cameron and Howke would consider in evaluating grants. These included a focus on border security and mineral extraction, as well as a call for “regulatory balance,” a conservative euphemism for rolling back federal regulations. Any “non-profit organization that can legally engage in advocacy” would also come in for increased scrutiny under the new guidelines. That could cover virtually any cause-based organization, no matter how seemingly benign its cause may be (river restoration, for example). Grants to colleges would also be more closely reviewed. A spokeswoman for Interior told the Post at the time that the added review was necessary for “the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.” But a former Interior official, David J. Hayes, who served under Presidents Clinton and Obama, described the new process as “arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”
Howke did not respond to requests for comment from Yahoo News. Neither did Cameron. Officials from Interior’s communications department also did not respond to requests for comment.
Besides Duckworth and Hirono, the letter was signed by Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. All represent traditionally Democratic states, though Wisconsin and Michigan went very narrowly to Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election.
The letter asks what share of Interior grants is being reviewed by Howke and seeks documents pertaining to that review and information about how Interior is approaching these decisions. “The funding uncertainty and opacity we have seen as a result of these new review and approval processes jeopardize key projects and make it difficult for partners to effectively plan and manage resources,” the senators write.
According to E&E News, a trade publication on environmental and energy regulation, during Fiscal Year 2016, Interior awarded about $1.5 billion in 18,000 separate grants and cooperative agreements for joint projects in which municipal or state-level agencies work with the federal department.
Among the groups affected is the Chicago Botanic Garden, which had expected funds it had previously received from Interior to work on the National Seed Strategy. Started in 2015, the National Seed Strategy called for the “rehabilitation and restoration to help foster resilient and healthy landscapes.” The garden has suddenly found its federal funding cut off, without explanation.
“It’s very hard to know what is actually going on over there,” says Robert H. Bradner, who serves as the Chicago Botanic Garden’s counsel in Washington. “Congress has appropriated specific money for these activities.” According to Bradner, the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control Act severely curtails the power of the executive branch to withhold funds Congress has authorized. “You can’t simply choose to impound appropriated money” the way Zinke and his political appointees have, Bradner says.
Few organizations were willing to speak on the record about what they see as Interior’s motivations, citing fears of political retribution. Charges of political favoritism and retaliation have been raised against Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana. In the summer of 2017, he made political threatsagainst Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski for her refusal to vote for the Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And when Zinke announced the expansion of offshore drilling earlier this year, the only state exempt from the new guidelines was Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott is running for the U.S. Senate.
And although every administration has its own political imperatives, individuals who have long worked with Interior say that the department has never been this political in its decision-making process before, including under previous Republican administrations. Seemingly routine disbursements of funds to continue operations — whether in land management or other aspects of conservation — are now being subjected to a process critics describe as inscrutable.
“There are thousands of non-controversial projects for backlog maintenance, recreation, and conservation needs at risk of cancellation,”said one official at a national conservation group that frequently works with a number of bureaus within Interior. “For all President Trump and Secretary Zinke’s talk of cutting red tape, addressing the maintenance backlog, and enhancing lands and recreation access, this political and inefficient review is instead adding massive bureaucratic delays, and adding to the backlog. The longer the review continues, the more damage we do to Americans most treasured parks and natural resources.”
One high-ranking fish and wildlife service official at the state level says that the notion that longstanding grants and cooperative agreements need additional scrutiny from an inexperienced political appointee is a transparent “ruse.” The state official believes that Howke has been tasked with ferreting out grants that may fund programs that have to do with climate change — even if only indirectly.
“I also wonder if they aren’t looking to make sure the grants aren’t passed through the states to organizations who don’t share the administration’s views,” the official says.
Among the projects whose funding was held up is the Sagebrush in Prisons Project, run by the Oregon-based Institute for Applied Ecology. The program teaches prisoners to plant sagebrush in six Western states, thus restoring sage-grouse habitat that has been shrunk by highways, suburban developments and forest fires caused by climate change.
Last September, as the program’s funding from Interior was about to end, Oregon’s two senators, Wyden and Merkley, wrote to Zinke asking why the prisoner program had not received the support it needed to continue. They wrote again in February, seeking an explanation. Two months later, the sagebrush project received $330,000 from Interior. Tom Kaye, who heads the Institute for Applied Ecology and directs the sagebrush project, was grateful for the funds. But because they were so late, and were a fraction of what he’d gotten before, he was forced to close the program in five prisons.
There is something of survivor’s guilt, too: The documentation Kaye received from Interior was numbered “1,” which made him think this was the first grant administered to an organization like his in a long while. He knows that many other nonprofits are still waiting, hoping the money from Washington will finally come.
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