Ellen Wooldridge, the 19th-ranking Interior
Department official, arrived at her desk in
Room 6140 a few months after Inauguration Day
2001. A phone message awaited her.
is Dick Cheney," said the man on her voice mail,
Wooldridge recalled in an interview. "I understand
you are the person handling this Klamath situation.
Please call me at -- hmm, I guess I don't know
my own number. I'm over at the White House."
wrote off the message as a prank. It was not.
Cheney had reached far down the chain of command,
on so unexpected a point of vice presidential
concern, because he had spotted a political
threat arriving on Wooldridge's desk.
Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney
ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent,
drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about
to be cut off from the irrigation water that
kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal
biologists said the Endangered Species Act left
the government no choice: The survival of two
imperiled species of fish was at stake.
and science seemed to be on the side of the
fish. Then the vice president stepped in.
Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides
said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge
the science protecting the fish, according to
a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for
of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed
itself and let the water flow in time to save
the 2002 growing season, declaring that there
was no threat to the fish. What followed was
the largest fish kill the West had ever seen,
with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on
the banks of the Klamath River.
Cheney left no tracks.
Klamath case is one of many in which the vice
president took on a decisive role to undercut
long-standing environmental regulations for
the benefit of business.
combining unwavering ideological positions --
such as the priority of economic interests over
protected fish -- with a deep practical knowledge
of the federal bureaucracy, Cheney has made
an indelible mark on the administration's approach
to everything from air and water quality to
the preservation of national parks and forests.
was Cheney's insistence on easing air pollution
controls, not the personal reasons she cited
at the time, that led Christine Todd Whitman
to resign as administrator of the Environmental
Protection Agency, she said in an interview
that provides the most detailed account so far
of her departure.
vice president also pushed to make Nevada's
Yucca Mountain the nation's repository for nuclear
and radioactive waste, aides said, a victory
for the nuclear power industry over those with
long-standing safety concerns. And his office
was a powerful force behind the White House's
decision to rewrite a Clinton-era land-protection
measure that put nearly a third of the national
forests off limits to logging, mining and most
development, former Cheney staff members said.
pro-business drive to ease regulations, however,
has often set the administration on a collision
course with the judicial branch.
administration, for example, is appealing the
order of a federal judge who reinstated the
forest protections after she ruled that officials
didn't adequately study the environmental consequences
of giving states more development authority.
in April, the Supreme Court rejected two other
policies closely associated with Cheney. It
rebuffed the effort, ongoing since Whitman's
resignation, to loosen some rules under the
Clean Air Act. The court also rebuked the administration
for not regulating greenhouse gases associated
with global warming, issuing its ruling less
than two months after Cheney declared that "conflicting
viewpoints" remain about the extent of the human
contribution to the problem.
the latter case, Cheney made his environmental
views clear in public. But with some notable
exceptions, he generally has preferred to operate
with stealth, aided by loyalists who owe him
for their careers.
the vice president got wind of a petition to
list the cutthroat trout in Yellowstone National
Park as a protected species, his office turned
to one of his former congressional aides.
aide, Paul Hoffman, landed his job as deputy
assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife
after Cheney recommended him. In an interview,
Hoffman said the vice president knew that listing
the cutthroat trout would harm the recreational
fishing industry in his home state of Wyoming
and that he "followed the issue closely." In
2001 and again in 2006, Hoffman's agency declined
to list the trout as threatened.
also was well positioned to help his former
boss with what Cheney aides said was one of
the vice president's pet peeves: the Clinton-era
ban on snowmobiling in national parks. "He impressed
upon us that so many people enjoyed snowmobiling
in the Tetons," former Cheney aide Ron Christie
Cheney's encouragement, the administration lifted
the ban in 2002, and Hoffman followed up in
2005 by writing a proposal to fundamentally
change the way national parks are managed. That
plan, which would have emphasized recreational
use over conservation, attracted so much opposition
from park managers and the public that the Interior
Department withdrew it. Still, the Bush administration
continues to press for expanded snowmobile access,
despite numerous studies showing that the vehicles
harm the parks' environment and polls showing
majority support for the ban.
now in another job at the Interior Department,
said Cheney never told him what to do on either
issue -- he didn't have to.
genius," Hoffman said, is that "he builds networks
and puts the right people in the right places,
and then trusts them to make well-informed decisions
that comport with his overall vision."
F. Smith had grown desperate by the time he
turned to the vice president for help.
former Republican congressman from Oregon represented
farmers in the Klamath basin who had relied
on a government-operated complex of dams and
canals built almost a century ago along the
Oregon-California border to irrigate nearly
a quarter-million acres of arid land.
April 2001, with the region gripped by the worst
drought in memory, the spigot was shut off.
by the federal government's scientists concluded
unequivocally that diverting water would harm
two federally protected species of fish, violating
the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Bureau
of Reclamation was forced to declare that farmers
must go without in order to maintain higher
water levels so that two types of suckerfish
in Upper Klamath Lake and the coho salmon that
spawn in the Klamath River could survive the
and their families, furious and fearing for
their livelihoods, formed a symbolic 10,000-person
bucket brigade. Then they took saws and blowtorches
to dam gates, clashing with U.S. marshals as
water streamed into the canals that fed their
withering fields, before the government stopped
the flow again.
they didn't know was that the vice president
was already on the case.
had served with Cheney on the House Interior
Committee in the 1980s, and the former congressman
said he turned to the vice president because
he knew him as a man of the West who didn't
take kindly to federal bureaucrats meddling
with private use of public land. "He saw, as
every other person did, what a ridiculous disaster
shutting off the water was," Smith said.
recognized, even before the shut-off and long
before others at the White House, that what
"at first blush didn't seem like a big deal"
had "a lot of political ramifications," said
Dylan Glenn, a former aide to President Bush.
and Cheney couldn't afford to anger thousands
of solidly Republican farmers and ranchers during
the midterm elections and beyond. The case also
was rapidly becoming a test for conservatives
nationwide of the administration's commitment
to fixing what they saw as an imbalance between
conservation and economics.
does the law say?" Christie, the former aide,
recalled the vice president asking. "Isn't there
some way around it?"
Cheney called Wooldridge, who was then deputy
chief of staff to Interior Secretary Gale A.
Norton and the woman handling the Klamath situation.
praise Cheney's habit of reaching down to officials
who are best informed on a subject he is tackling.
But the effect of his calls often leads those
mid-level officials scrambling to do what they
presume to be his bidding.
what happened when a mortified Wooldridge finally
returned the vice president's call, after receiving
a tart follow-up inquiry from one of his aides.
Cheney, she said, "was coming from the perspective
that the farmers had to be able to farm -- that
was his concern. The fact that the vice president
was interested meant that everyone paid attention."
made sure that attention did not wander. He
had Wooldridge brief his staff weekly and, Smith
said, he also called the interior secretary
months and months, at almost every briefing
it was 'Sir, here's where we stand on the Klamath
basin,'" recalled Christie, who is now a lobbyist.
"His hands-on involvement, it's safe to say,
elevated the issue."
the Water Flow'
was, as it happened, an established exemption
to the Endangered Species Act.
rarely invoked panel of seven Cabinet officials,
known informally as the "God Squad," is empowered
by the statute to determine that economic hardship
outweighs the benefit of protecting threatened
wildlife. But after discussing the option with
Smith, Cheney rejected that course. He had another
idea, one that would not put the administration
on record as advocating the extinction of endangered
or threatened species.
thing to do, Cheney told Smith, was to get science
on the side of the farmers. And the way to do
that was to ask the National Academy of Sciences
to scrutinize the work of the federal biologists
who wanted to protect the fish.
said he told Cheney that he thought that was
a roll of the dice. Academy panels are independently
appointed, receive no payment and must reach
a conclusion that can withstand peer review.
worried me that these are individuals who are
unreachable," Smith said of the academy members.
But Cheney was firm, expressing no such concerns
about the result. "He felt we had to match the
also wasn't sure that the Klamath case -- "a
small place in a small corner of the country"
-- would meet the science academy's rigorous
internal process for deciding what to study.
Cheney took care of that. "He called them and
said, 'Please look at this, it's important,'"
Smith said. "Everyone just went flying at it."
Kearney, a spokesman for the National Academies,
said he was unaware of any direct contact from
Cheney on the matter. The official request came
from the Interior Department, he said.
was Norton who announced the review, and it
was Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove
who traveled to Oregon in February 2002 to assure
farmers that they had the administration's support.
A month later, Cheney got what he wanted when
the science academy delivered a preliminary
report finding "no substantial scientific foundation"
to justify withholding water from the farmers.
was not enough clear evidence that proposed
higher lake levels would benefit suckerfish,
the report found. And it hypothesized that the
practice of releasing warm lake water into the
river during spawning season might do more harm
than good to the coho, which thrive in lower
temperatures. [Read the report.]
flew to Klamath Falls in March to open the head
gate as farmers chanted "Let the water flow!"
And seizing on the report's draft findings,
the Bureau of Reclamation immediately submitted
a new decade-long plan to give the farmers their
full share of water.
the lead biologist for the National Marine Fisheries
Service team critiqued the science academy's
report in a draft opinion objecting to the plan,
the critique was edited out by superiors and
his objections were overruled, he said. The
biologist, Michael Kelly, who has since quit
the federal agency, said in a whistle-blower
claim that it was clear to him that "someone
at a higher level" had ordered his agency to
endorse the proposal regardless of the consequences
to the fish.
later, the first of an estimated 77,000 dead
salmon began washing up on the banks of the
warm, slow-moving river. Not only were threatened
coho dying -- so were chinook salmon, the staple
of commercial fishing in Oregon and Northern
California. State and federal biologists soon
concluded that the diversion of water to farms
was at least partly responsible.
filed lawsuits and courts ruled that the new
irrigation plan violated the Endangered Species
Act. Echoing Kelly's objections, the U.S. Court
of Appeals for the 9th Circuit observed that
the 10-year plan wouldn't provide enough water
for the fish until year nine. By then, the 2005
opinion said, "all the water in the world" could
not save the fish, "for there will be none to
protect." In March 2006, a federal judge prohibited
the government from diverting water for agricultural
use whenever water levels dropped beneath a
summer, the federal government declared a "commercial
fishery failure" on the West Coast after several
years of poor chinook returns virtually shut
down the industry, opening the way for Congress
to approve more than $60 million in disaster
aid to help fishermen recover their losses.
That came on top of the $15 million that the
government has paid Klamath farmers since 2002
not to farm, in order to reduce demand.
science academy panel, in its final report,
acknowledged that its draft report was "controversial,"
but it stood by its conclusions. Instead of
focusing on the irrigation spigot, it recommended
broad and expensive changes to improve fish
habitat. [Read the final report]
farmers were grateful for our decision, but
we made the decision based on the scientific
outcome," said the panel chairman, William Lewis,
a biologist at the University of Colorado at
Boulder. "It just so happened the outcome favored
J.B. Ruhl, another member of the panel and a
Florida State University law professor who specializes
in endangered species cases, said the Bureau
of Reclamation went "too far," making judgments
that were not backed up by the academy's draft
report. "The approach they took was inviting
criticism," Ruhl said, "and I didn't think it
was supported by our recommendations."
then head of the EPA, was on vacation with her
family in Colorado when her cellphone rang.
The vice president was on the line, and he was
was the agency dragging its feet on easing pollution
rules for aging power and oil refinery plants?,
Cheney wanted to know. An industry that had
contributed heavily to the Bush-Cheney campaign
was clamoring for change, and the vice president
told Whitman that she "hadn't moved it fast
enough," she recalled.
protested, warning Cheney that the administration
had to proceed cautiously. It was August 2001,
just seven months into the first term. We need
to "document this according to the books," she
said she told him, "so we don't look like we
are ramrodding something through. Because it's
going to court."
the vice president's main concern was getting
it done fast, she said, and "doing it in a way
that didn't hamper industry."
issue was a provision of the Clean Air Act known
as the New Source Review, which requires older
plants that belch millions of tons of smog and
soot each year to install modern pollution controls
when they are refurbished in a way that increases
officials complained to the White House that
even when they had merely performed routine
maintenance and repairs, the Clinton administration
hit them with violations and multimillion-dollar
lawsuits. Cheney's energy task force ordered
the EPA to reconsider the rule.
had already gone several rounds with the vice
president over the issue.
and Cheney first got to know each other in one
of the Nixon administration's anti-poverty agencies,
working under Donald H. Rumsfeld. When Cheney
offered her the job in the Bush administration,
the former New Jersey governor marveled at how
far both had come. But as with Treasury Secretary
Paul H. O'Neill, another longtime friend who
owed his Cabinet post to Cheney, Whitman's differences
with the vice president would lead to her departure.
through Cheney's task force meetings, Whitman
had been stunned by what she viewed as an unquestioned
belief that EPA's regulations were primarily
to blame for keeping companies from building
new power plants. "I was upset, mad, offended
that there seemed to be so much head-nodding
around the table," she said.
said she had to fight "tooth and nail" to prevent
Cheney's task force from handing over the job
of reforming the New Source Review to the Energy
Department, a battle she said she won only after
appealing to White House Chief of Staff Andrew
H. Card Jr. This was an environmental issue
with major implications for air quality and
health, she believed, and it shouldn't be driven
by a task force primarily concerned with increasing
agreed that the exception for routine maintenance
and repair needed to be clarified, but not in
a way that undercut the ongoing Clinton-era
lawsuits -- many of which had merit, she said.
listened to her arguments, and as usual didn't
say much. Whitman said she also met with the
president to "explain my concerns" and to offer
wanted to work a political trade with industry
-- eliminating the New Source Review in return
for support of Bush's 2002 "Clear Skies" initiative,
which outlined a market-based approach to reducing
emissions over time. But Clear Skies went nowhere.
"There was never any follow-up," Whitman said,
and moreover, there was no reason for industry
to embrace even a modest pollution control initiative
when the vice president was pushing to change
the rules for nothing.
decided to go back to Bush one last time. It
was a crapshoot -- the EPA administrator had
already been rolled by Cheney when the president
reversed himself on a campaign promise to limit
carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming
-- so she came armed with a political argument.
said she plunked down two sets of folders filled
with news clips. This one, she said, pointing
to a stack about 2-1/2 inches thick, contained
articles, mostly negative, about the administration's
controversial proposal to suspend tough new
standards governing arsenic in drinking water.
And this one, she said as she pointed to a pile
four or five times as thick, are the articles
about the rules on aging power plants and refineries
-- and the administration hadn't even done anything
you think arsenic was bad," she recalled telling
Bush, "look at what has already been written
Whitman left the meeting with the feeling that
"the decision had already been made." Cheney
had a clear mandate from the president on all
things energy-related, she said, and while she
could take her case directly to Bush, "you leave
and the vice president's still there. So together,
they would then shape policy."
happened next was "a perfect example" of that,
EPA sent rule revisions to White House officials.
The read-back was that they weren't happy and
"wanted something that would be more pro-industry,"
end result, which she said was written at the
direction of the White House and announced in
August 2003, vastly broadened the definition
of routine maintenance. It allowed some of the
nation's dirtiest plants to make major modifications
without installing costly new pollution controls.
that time, Whitman had already announced her
resignation, saying she wanted to spend more
time with her family. But the real reason, she
said, was the new rule.
just couldn't sign it," she said. "The president
has a right to have an administrator who could
defend it, and I just couldn't."
federal appeals court has since found that the
rule change violated the Clean Air Act. In their
ruling, the judges said that the administration
had redefined the law in a way that could be
valid "only in a Humpty-Dumpty world."
researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.