Government deceit uncovered at proposed Darby National Wildlife Refuge

Published February 1, 2001

“I’m astounded at these FOIA documents—that three organizations think they can get together and partition an entire county.”
David Dhume
Commissioner, Madison County

LONDON, Ohio—Claims that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may have violated federal “sunshine laws” in the process of developing its proposal for a Little Darby National Wildlife Refuge could have merit.

Several USFWS documents released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and obtained by The Madison Press, show the Service was part of a refuge planning “partnership” and attended numerous private meetings throughout the 1990s with, among others, The Nature Conservancy and Columbus and Franklin County MetroParks to plan strategies and proposals for establishing a refuge in Madison County.

Federal law prohibits U.S. government agencies from holding private meetings with advisory teams, to enhance public accountability and combat undue influence by special interests in the policy-making process. Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) enacted by Congress in 1972, any such meetings must be listed in the Congressional Record and notice must be given to the public, so the meetings can be open to public scrutiny.

A document dated March 13, 1993, prepared by USFWS employee Bill Hegge, project manager for the Service’s Darby proposal, shows the Service belonged to an Ohio Refuge Planning Team, dominated by several environmental special-interest groups including The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Hegge wrote: “This information is confidential and should not be discussed with the public or with media representatives. It is in our interest to maintain confidentiality at this point in the process.”

Another Service document, outlining a “Darby Watershed Corridor and Upland Protection and Restoration Concept,” details a March 11, 1997 meeting between Hegge, Columbus and Franklin County MetroParks, and TNC, in which participants carved the Darby watershed into three different regions, with each group taking responsibility for a certain area in order to develop a comprehensive refuge plan.

At that meeting, the document reports, it was decided that “USFWS will draft a proposal, with support from the partners, to their regional and national office for ‘approval for planning’ and to begin the public hearing process.” The document further states that, “Partners agreed that this program be brought to the Congressional level (and other appropriate political levels) before it be brought before the public.”

Madison County Commissioner David Dhume expressed outrage over the USFWS documents. “I’m astounded at these FOIA documents,” Dhume said, “that three organizations think they can get together and partition an entire county. It appears to me that there’s been a partnership arrangement, a committee formed and plans put together almost to completion, without input from anyone in Madison County.”

Tom Larson, USFWS chief of ascertainment and planning in its regional office in Fort Snelling, Minnesota, defended his agency’s work with special-interest groups. “We have worked with The Nature Conservancy for a lot of years,” Larson said. “Often, it’s the conservation groups that start the process,” he noted. “The Nature Conservancy started working on Big Darby Creek. They got discussions going. Eventually, the idea for a refuge came about. But the actual proposal for the refuge was a Service initiative.”

Larson’s public statements notwithstanding, a February 24, 1998 email message to Hegge suggests Larson was concerned about possible FACA violations.

“I would caution you against relying too heavily on TNC for advice that is translated to a FWS position,” Larson wrote. Pointing to FACA, he warned Hegge that, “We need to be aware of the perception of working with a specific group like the TNC and be careful that we are only obtaining technical information from them and not ‘taking their advice or arriving with a consensus with them about the project.'”

David Weeks, executive director of the Ohio Chapter of TNC, called the conservation group’s meetings with the Service “conceptual discussions about what is in the best interests” of the Darby watershed. “We were looking at a policy pooling all of these programs together,” Weeks said of TNC’s meetings with Hegge. “We need to be thinking holistically about this system.”

Weeks said his organization had done a “tremendous amount of outreach in the local community” and called the USFWS planning “a very open process from the get-go.” “Our first corporate value is integrity beyond reproach,” Weeks added.

“The Nature Conservancy has been committed to preserving the Darby system for well over a decade. We’re out there because we feel deeply about this system. What we need to be doing is looking for a way to make things work, not to shoot things down,” Weeks said. “We are looking for solutions. We are looking for a way to meet in the middle.”

Chris Walker, attorney for the group Citizens Against the Refuge Proposal, which filed the FOIA request, called USFWS claims that they want meaningful, public input a myth. “The Service is saying ‘trust us,’ but their conduct shows they are not deserving of the public’s trust,” Walker said.

According to Walker, FACA challenges in the past have had mixed results. He noted that in one FACA challenge in the South, the courts issued an injunction prohibiting the FWS from using the work product of the advisory committee. Walker said CARP is currently “evaluating its options,” which could include a lawsuit, for addressing a possible USFWS violation of FACA in Ohio.

When asked why the public was not involved at the inception of the Darby refuge proposal, Larson explained the proposal process was complex. “When we’ve tried to (involve the public) at the start of a project, rumors start flying and people start panicking,” he said. “We see it in a lot of places . . . especially in an area like (Ohio) that has next to no public land.

“We try to get a proposal out quick,” he noted, “but even when you do that, there’s still a lot of misinformation.”

Melissa Tell is a staff writer for The Madison Press. This article first appeared there on October 9, 2000 and is reprinted here with permission.