WASHINGTON — Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs once likened proposed Endangered Species Act listings to “incoming Scud missiles” headed for her state’s oil and gas-rich economy.
Combs, also a former state representative and Texas’s first female agriculture commissioner, regularly sparred with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over species listings, petitioning in 2015 to have protections removed for an endangered songbird native to central Texas. She secured $10 million in state money for the comptroller’s office to fund scientific studies on species subject to federal listing — with a clear goal of protecting Texas’s economy, but which critics allege sought to undermine the federal government’s assessment and keep species off the list, according to a 2015 investigation by the Austin American-Statesman.
President Donald Trump this month tapped Combs to serve as his assistant secretary of the Interior Department’s Office of Policy, Management and Budget. If confirmed by the Senate, she will join the likes of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry as top Trump officials with vehement opposition to agencies they’re tasked with helping to lead.
Combs will play a key role in the Interior Department decisions on finance, policy, management and environmental affairs. That includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of two federal agencies that administer the Endangered Species Act, among America’s bedrock conservation laws.
At a hearing last week before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Combs said she was “deeply honored” to be recommended. As a fourth-generation Texas rancher, she said she learned to “hunt, ride and shoot,” and “to be careful stewards of the land and to nurture it for the next generation.” She said she will bring the same “collaborative approach” to the Interior job that she did with endangered species issues.
She did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
As with many Trump nominees, Combs troubles conservationists.
Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost that Combs has “made it her personal crusade to fight endangered species.” To have her in a position where she could potentially harm endangered species via the withholding of funds, he said, would be “devastating.”
“She’s really bad news,” Hartl said. “There’s not a single thing in her record that suggests she cares a whit about endangered species.”
Last week, some 70 conservation groups sent a letter to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee urging members to reject the nomination, describing Combs as someone who “built her career favoring big corporations and special interests over the needs and survival of imperiled species.”
“We are concerned that Ms. Combs will wrongly use her office at the Department of Interior to interfere with scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from doing their jobs of assessing the status of imperiled species based only on the best available science,” the letter reads. “Ms. Combs should not be placed in such a pivotal and important position in a department whose mission she clearly does not believe in.”
Combs’s public distaste for the Endangered Species Act dates to at least the 1990s, when she served in the Texas House of Representatives. Among the legislation she championed is a law that prohibits state wildlife officials from gathering endangered species data from private lands without permission, and restricts the state from sharing endangered species data, including with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to the Austin Chronicle.
In 2011, during her tenure as the Texas comptroller of public accounts, the state’s endangered species program was transferred to her financial agency — thanks to an amendment to a bill pushed by Texas Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.
Combs described the pace of proposed federal listings for threatened and endangered species as “extraordinary,” and said, “Washington is running amuck.”
“The process that they use for so-called listing, I think to call if flawed is friendly,” she said at a 2011 event for a property-rights association. “I think it’s non-existent.”
By 2011, the fight over the dune sagebrush lizard, a species found in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, was already underway. The Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed listing the small, spiny lizard as endangered, citing threats to its native habitat from ranching, agriculture and oil and gas development. Combs went to work to protect Texas landowners ― namely fossil fuel interests in the oil and gas-rich Permian Basin ― negotiating a voluntary conservation plan that ultimately kept the species off the endangered species list.
“This is a major victory for Texas jobs and the nation’s energy economy,” Combs said at the time, according to Reuters.
(Last year, Glenn Hegar — who replaced Combs as state comptroller in 2015 — fired the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation, an energy industry-funded organization set up to manage protection of the dune sagebrush lizard, for failing to perform required habitat restoration or monitor drillers and landowners, the Austin American-Statesman reported.)
As comptroller, Combs also set up a website called Keeping Texas First that details potential impacts to the state economy of Endangered Species Act listings and other environmental policies. “By working together, we can protect our economy and our environment better than the federal government or any single interest group,” the website says.
In 2013, the year she compared Endangered Species Act listings to “incoming Scud missiles,” Combs convinced the state legislature to allocate $5 million for a research program to be run by the comptroller. It has been accused of working to keep species from being given federal protections. As The Texas Observer reported, “Combs was clear about her mission: to guard the Texas economy against the scourge of the federal government and the Endangered Species Act.” The legislature gave the program another $5 million in 2015.
Since retiring from public office in 2015, Combs has continued her fight against Endangered Species Act listings. She headed a political action committee, Texans for Positive Economic Policy, pushing a similar agenda, according to the American-Statesman. She led three groups in petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for the golden-cheeked warbler, arguing that studies show the agency was “wrong in its original conclusion that the warbler species is rare” and that the songbird should not have been listed as endangered in 1990.
“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to recover species that are in danger of extinction,” Combs wrote in a 2015 op-ed about the need to delist the species. “This is a sensible and noble goal, and one that requires innovative conservation efforts to succeed. Considering that less than 1 percent of all listed species have been taken off the endangered list since the act became law in 1972, environmental advocates could use a win. When scientific proof demonstrates such an effort has succeeded, one would expect a celebration with shouts of “we’ve saved a species,” but the actual reaction is much different.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately rejected Combs’ petition, finding that it “does not present substantial scientific or commercial information” to show removing protections is warranted. The golden-cheeked warbler remains on the endangered species list.
Environmentalists said Combs’ nomination is part of a Republican “perfect storm” assault on the Endangered Species Act. Last week, the House Committee on Natural Resources took up five GOP-backed bills targeting portions of the 1973 law intended to safeguard threatened species and the habitats critical to their survival.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the committee’s chairman, argued that the act “doesn’t work,” has been “misused to try and control land.”
Trump’s 2018 budget request calls for slashing the Interior Department’s funding by $1.6 billion to $11.7 billion. That includes a cut of $220 million, or 14.5 percent, to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — who had a poor track record on threatened species and a paltry 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters as a Montana congressman — has prioritized energy development and infrastructure over endangered species and habitat restoration.
Zinke praised Combs for her experience both as an elected official and in the private sector. “Susan is highly qualified and will be a huge asset as we work to make government more efficient and more accountable to the people,” he said in a statement.
Members of the Texas delegation in Congress, including Sen. John Cornyn (R) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R), called Combs “a fierce advocate for rural Texans” and “a committed public servant” who “understands that Interior can safeguard our resources while also encouraging beneficial economic growth.”
But Joan Marshall, executive director of Texas-based conservation nonprofit Travis Audubon, said Combs, if confirmed, will “have a much bigger arsenal to wage a much larger war” against America’s imperiled species.
“We’re at a critical moment in our history and need to decide what kind of world we want to live in: A world that includes birds and birdsongs, wild spaces and clean rivers, or a world paved over with parking lots,” Marshall said in a statement to Texas Monthly. “If we manage nature for short-sighted, short-term gains, nothing will be left for future generations.”