Science, the Obama Administration and a new era of reason

Ahhh, Science!

Hardworking, honest and, until recently, greatly under-valued and disregarded government scientists have been greatly cheered, even moved, by President Obama’s inaugural pledge to “restore science to its rightful place.”

The government scientists are not alone.

We scientists, whether academics, public servants, or those doing their research in the nonprofit sector, spend our careers in pursuit of the “Aha!” moments when the data reveal new insights or contradict conventional wisdom to light a new path forward. How welcome, after eight years during which science and scientists were ignored on issues ranging from climate change to endangered species, to now have an “Ahhh” moment and the hope that science will now receive a proper hearing.

There are already some good signs. In his confirmation hearing, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar stated “There’s no substitute for good science to guide the kinds of issues that [come before] the Fish & Wildlife Service. So we’ll make sure that that’s what guides us as we move forward with decision-making. And I assure you that the people we will bring in to oversee those efforts will be people who will make the calls based on the ‘balls and strikes’ of science, not the balls and strikes of politics.”

Less than a week later, and on his first full day in office, President Obama gave the scientists a chance to pitch by staying a last-minute move by the Bush Administration to remove protections from grey wolves in the Rockies. Obama’s order doesn’t guarantee any particular outcome, but as he and Secretary Salazar promised – and as is proper in any scientific endeavor – it provides time for a full consideration of the facts.

“Ahhh!”

Another issue under Secretary Salazar’s purview and where the science has been disregarded for too long has to do with snowmobiles and their damaging impact on Yellowstone National Park. Way back in 2000, and after more than a decade of scientific investigation, The National Park Service decided to phase out snowmobile use in Yellowstone. In its independent review, the Environmental Protection Agency commented that it had “seldom seen a more thorough and substantial body of science justifying a NEPA decision.”

But since 2001, the Bush administration attempted to replace and/or circumvent the scientific evidence of snowmobiling’s impact on impact on Yellowstone’s air quality, quiet, wildlife and other park resources and values. Additional studies conducted during the past eight years have only verified that public access can be provided with significantly less harm to Yellowstone’s resources and values with snowcoaches rather than snowmobiles.

Last fall, D.C. District Judge Sullivan vacated the Bush administration’s plan to allow 540 snowmobiles per day in Yellowstone, ruling that the plan was “arbitrary and capricious, unsupported by the record, and contrary to law...”

The facts are there in the record: eliminating snowmobiles would improve Park visitors’ experience, reduce harassment of wildlife and improve air quality for Park Service employees, visitors and wildlife alike. And, as President Obama pledged upon introducing his science team, his administration “will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

In this case, the bold action would be to finally do what the Park Service recommended years ago – phase the snowmobiles out of Yellowstone. That would indeed bring a breath of fresh air.

All I can say to that is “Ahhh!”

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