Gag order is, indeed, absurd

Published 7:07 am Wednesday, February 7, 2007

By Staff
Just when we’re sure the whole outlying landing field scheme can’t get any more ridiculous than it already is, something comes along and surprises us. The latest confirmation of the idiotic nature of the OLF plan is the gag order the U.S. Department of the Interior has placed on biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Why would the Interior Department gag biologists? On the face of it, the idea doesn’t make any sense. Do biologists really have pull when it comes to where the Navy wants to put an OLF? The Navy, after all, is charged with defending the country. In comparison, biologists seem, well, rather small on the food chain.
Yet, FWS biologists have been forbidden to talk to the media about the proposed OLF, which, if it ever becomes a done deal, would be placed about three miles from the Pungo unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. But, as of a few days ago, questions about the OLF’s impact on the refuge must be answered only by the FWS media contacts in the Atlanta office.
That’s ridiculous.
As good as the media spokesmen in the Atlanta office may be, there’s no way they can possibly have the best understanding of what is happening more than 500 miles away from them. An understanding, yes. But the best understanding? No.
So why would the Interior Department tell the biologists right here not to talk anymore? Derb Carter, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which handles the legal opposition to the OLF, has a theory as to why the folks on the ground were told to be mum.
Carter may have hit the nail on the head. What other explanation is there, really?
When local biologist Wendy Stanton said she saw a record number of birds at the Pungo unit of the refuge in December, she was simply offering observations. Stanton said she saw in one day’s aerial survey around 26,000 tundra swans and at least 75,000 snow geese. That constitutes the most birds she’s seen there in about nine years, she said.
Those are observations — not indictments. There’s something wrong with a system that takes trained, local professionals out of the refuge-OLF equation.
FWS spokesman Tom MacKenzie, who handles media calls for the Southeast region of the U.S., said the reporter-referral process is “a matter of trying to have a coordinated response to a complicated issue.” That may well be what it is.
But it may be an effort on the part of somebody bigger than FWS to stonewall the media until the Navy issues its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement about the effects of an OLF here. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to come to that conclusion.
And why would anyone do such a thing unless it makes the Navy’s planned pad for pilots here look, well, as flawed as the Navy’s first impact statement?
Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery called the notion that a gag order was issued “absurd” when he spoke to a Daily News reporter last week. That brings to mind Shakespeare’s famous line: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Vickery may not call the media-referral directive a gag order, but if what it does is keep biologists from talking to the media, then it’s a gag order.
And it smells rotten.