The Decay of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Here’s are extremely disturbing and previously unpublished letters provided to this blog by Hal Herring--one of the best environmental journalists in the nation. They bring to light how the Bush administration manipulates the flow of information on its behavior and how the Rocky Mountain Elk foundation--which has done some great things for habitat--is decaying under CEO Peter J. Dart. Mike Mansur Editor Society of Environmental Journalists Dear Mr. Mansur, I have held off in writing this personal story until a two-part series that I wrote, called “Elk Country and the Price of Energy” was safely published in Bugle magazine, the publication of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I don’t mean to be mysterious—the explanation follows. I am an SEJ member, freelance journalist and a contributing editor at Field and Stream. I am asking for advice from you or your readers as to how to proceed. I wrote a feature story for Field and Stream magazine about mercury pollution. The story ran under the title “Don’t Eat That Fish,” and appeared in the April 2004, issue. I was extremely proud that such a venerable and conservative magazine as F&S would run such a controversial story, and allow me to truly research and report it. And I was happy with the fact that I had overcome some obstacles in carrying it to publication. EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Berger had been helpful, but oddly unfriendly during our conversations about the plan for a “cap and trade” solution to the mercury pollution problem—at one point she responded to one of my (legitimate) questions by saying “it looks to me like you’ve already written your story.” Then, the fact checkers at F&S spoke with some one at EPA who told them that several of my facts—most notably one about dispersal of pollution from power plants—were wrong, and would have to be cut from the story. Since I had drawn these facts directly from EPA data or sources, I was puzzled, but was having a difficult time convincing my editor that I was correct, since some of the models and documents had been sent to me by email, and others were described to me over the telephone by EPA staffers. Whoever they were speaking to at EPA was simply denying the validity of the facts. Finally, a source that asked for anonymity gave me the volume and page numbers that contained the information, the fact-checkers quoted them to the EPA staffers, and the entire matter came immediately to rest. The story ran as I wrote it. In the June, 2004, issue F&S published this exchange of letters. MORE ON MERCURY In reference to Hal Herring’s “Don’t Eat That Fish,” the Environmental Protection Agency would like to point out that it recently proposed a rule that will, for the first time, require power companies to cut their mercury emissions and meet specific reduction requirements within specific deadlines. Your article echoed many of the inaccuracies that have been used to criticize this proposal. We need a regulation that sets aggressive emission reduction requirements, but that is grounded in what we can reasonably expect from emerging mercury control technologies. The EPA is charged with writing a regulation that works for an entire industry. Technology is not currently capable of getting a 90 percent reduction of mercury for every type of boiler burning every type of coal. Mike Leavitt, U.S. EPA Administrator Hal Herring replies: First, it should be noted that Mr. Leavitt declined my request to add his comments to the story. Second, he neglects to point out supposed “inaccuracies.” Third, the technology exists, right now, to achieve tremendous reductions in mercury from power plants. The fact that every single power plant can’t reduce its mercury pollution now is not a valid reason to wait until 2018—the EPA’s estimated date—for reductions. The EPA already issued its consumption advisory this year. So, what are we waiting for? I welcomed the exchange, and was flattered that Leavitt would respond to the article. I thought the matter was at rest. Over the following months I was lucky enough to land a dream assignment, researching the natural gas and coal bed methane boom’s impact on elk herds and other big game around the West, for the hunting and conservation magazine Bugle, the publication of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Bugle is a very well respected journal with a strong, traditional conservationist bent—it is perhaps the only magazine on earth that delves so deeply into hunting ethics, the notions of fair chase, and the responsibility that hunters have to support wildlife and wild places. I have worked for them for years. At one point in the reporting, my editor, Dan Crockett, asked me to call and arrange an interview with Rebecca Watson, the Deputy Director of the Department of the Interior, who is tasked with guiding energy development on public lands. Ms. Watson’s assistant was cordial and helpful, and immediately set up an interview for the coming week. When I returned from lunch that same day, Crockett called me. He said, “The CEO of the Elk Foundation just called me and asked me what we are doing. Why are we doing a story on energy development, and why do we have you doing it?”* ( email text of message available) Dart had told him that I was “noted critic of the Bush administration,” who had taken “many potshots at them in the past.” Neither Crockett nor I knew what that meant or where it could have come from. I did not link it to the F&S mercury story right away. We did link the questions to Dart’s recent trip to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and his subsequent column in Bugle about how sportsmen must support Bush. The column had caused some consternation because the Foundation is very divided on the issue of current politics, and for that matter, on the leadership of Mr. Dart, and it was believed that Dart’s message might raise questions about the Foundation’s 501c3 status. We discussed the answers to Dart’s questions, which seemed obvious—the energy boom was in the heart of elk country, many members had been writing and expressing their concern(and their horror) at what was happening. As for me, I had handled controversial stories for Bugle for over five years, much pre-dating the arrival of new Foundation CEO J. Dart, and I had written about natural gas issues in the West for the Economist and the Christian Science Monitor. Dart and Crockett spoke again, and Dart had asked if the story in any way criticized the Bush administration’s environmental, energy, or public lands policies, and said that this would not be acceptable. He also mandated that the story would not run until after the Presidential elections.( which turned out to be a moot point, because although I had finished writing it by then, the edits, corrections, rewrites were not complete.) Two days later Crockett called me again. This time he had received a call from Dana Perino, of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, who told him that they were concerned about what I would write, because I had written “inaccuracies” before in criticizing the Bush environmental plans. I do not have a transcript of this one, but it was clear to me that my reputation was being impugned. But the quote about “inaccuracies” rang a bell, and I realized where all this was coming from. I contacted Perino, told her that she had crossed the line, and demanded an apology and a call to Crockett to clarify what she had said. The runaround and silliness of email exchanges and phone calls that followed was difficult to believe. After several weeks, Perino did call Crockett, admit that she was not familiar with my work, and had not meant to impugn my reputation. But I was left in a bad position. The only reason that I had been warned about the calls to Dart and by Ms. Perino was that I had a long standing and trusted relationship with my editor. Had this happened to me with the editors of another magazine or newspaper with I work, or will work in the future, no one would have called meThey would have terminated my contract. So I wrote Michael Leavitt, explaining that our exchange of letters in Field and Stream, which was so welcome to me, had taken on a life of its own, and was being used to hinder my career as a reporter. I asked that Leavitt please list the inaccuracies that he found in the Field and Stream story, so that I could address them. I asked that he please do so within the month, because I was worried about the effect his words could have on my career—I am the sole breadwinner for my wife and two children, in a jobs-poor area of Montana. I received no reply. After a month I called Leavitt’s office and was told by a staffer that they did plan on responding to my request. To date, I have not received a response. The first part of my story on elk and energy development, called “Elk Country and the Price of Energy” appeared in the Jan/Feb. Bugle. Before it could appear, Dart emailed a copy of the manuscript to a man named Chris Smith at the White House, to make sure that it contained nothing offensive. I have not yet heard about the fate of part two. I would welcome your advice as to how I should proceed, or if perhaps, I should let the story end here. Thank you, Hal Herring Augusta, Montana