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Susan Combs Joins Trump’s Assault on the Endangered Species Act

Former Texas Comptroller nominated to be assistant secretary of the interior.

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Illustration by Anna Donlan. Photo by Steve Maslowski/U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While the national news media has been fixated on President Donald Trump’s Russian connections, failures on tax and health care revisions, and the lack of his promised border wall, his administration has been building a U.S. Department of Interior team to effectively dismantle the Endangered Species Act. Trump’s latest addition is the appointment of former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs as assistant secretary of interior for policy, management, and budget.

A Vassar College graduate from a ranching family in Brewster County, Combs is no stranger to the critter versus people wars. Combs has been vocal in her opposition to how the Endangered Species Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1973, has been implemented. Environmentalists have used the law not only to protect individual species of plants and animals for their sake as well as genetic diversity, but also to protect natural areas from development and industrial activity. Fundamentally, for Combs, this has meant the federal government puts animals ahead of property owner rights. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which administers the act, is an agency within the Department of Interior.

“Susan Combs’ appointment as assistant secretary of the Interior is not welcome news for conservation,” said Joan Marshall, executive director of the Travis Audubon Society, in an email. “Combs and the Trump administration aim to roll back environmental protections in the name of economic progress. … If we manage nature for short-sighted, short-term gains, nothing will be left for future generations.”

Susan Combs addressing local leaders during a town hall meeting in Lufkin in 2012.

AP Photo/The Lufkin Daily News, Joel Andrews

As a state representative in the 1990s, Combs passed a law designed to restrict the state from sharing data with the Fish and Wildlife Service, data that might be used to designate species as threatened or endangered. She also passed a law allowing landowners to sue if state environmental actions devalued their property by more than 25 percent. During Combs’ tenure as comptroller, state protections of endangered species were moved from the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife to her agency, which manages state fiscal and tax matters. She once referred to potential endangered species listings as “incoming scud missiles” on the state economy.

Combs successfully kept federal officials from putting the rare dune sagebrush lizard on the endangered species list by working with the oil and gas industry to create the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation to mitigate drilling activities in the area where the lizard lives. The current comptroller, Glenn Hegar, fired the foundation for doing nothing to mitigate damage to the lizard habitat.

In 2015 Combs worked with Land Commissioner George P. Bush and the Texas Public Policy Foundation to press the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the Golden-cheeked Warbler from the endangered species list. Having the bird on the list limits ranchers’ ability to clear brush, but it also restricts commercial and residential real estate development in the Austin to San Antonio corridor. The Fish and Wildlife Service turned down the Combs petition. Since then, Bush and the policy foundation have sued the federal agency in an effort to get the bird taken off the endangered species list.

“Susan has always been a champion of property rights and restraints on the Endangered Species Act, said Robert Henneke, general counsel of the public policy foundation. But he demurred when I asked whether he thought Combs would play an inside role in pressing for the delisting of the warbler. “I don’t expect she’ll have any involvement in our lawsuit in her new role.”

Combs had argued that a study by Texas A&M University scientists found that the warbler habitat was widespread and that the number of birds was nineteen times greater than when the bird was first studied in 1990. The problem, according to Combs, is that the act was designed to protect species until the population recovered to a sustainable level, but she said once a species goes on the list it rarely comes off.

Combs contended the warbler was back to a sustainable population. “This is wonderful news and should be celebrated, but don’t expect much, because it turns out the listing and delisting process is less about actual animals and more about agendas,” Combs wrote in a 2015 op-ed. Earlier, in the Washington Times, Combs urged the regulatory power to protect endangered and threatened species should be moved from the feds to state and local government. “Solutions that involve the community can succeed where top-down bureaucratic edicts fail,” Combs wrote. “It’s time to work together to craft solutions we can all live with.”

The wildlife service rejected Combs petition as lacking commercial or scientific evidence that the warbler was ready to be removed from the endangered list. “The golden-cheeked warbler has not been recovered, and due to ongoing, widespread destruction of its habitat, the species continues to be in danger of extinction throughout its range,” the agency reported in the Federal Register.

The federal wildlife agency is not always opposed to delisting species, though. In 2011, the agency delisted the Concho water snake that lives in the upper Colorado and Concho rivers. The agency reported the snakes’ recovery as a “dynamic process.”

Combs is the third interior official appointed by Trump with a history of wanting less regulation of endangered and threatened species. Trump named U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, as interior secretary, which prompted more than 165 environmental and wildlife protection groups to sign a joint letter opposing his confirmation. Since taking office, Zinke has signed orders removing the Yellowstone Grizzly Bear and the Florida manatee from the endangered species list. Zinke also signed an order to create additional cooperation between state and federal governments to protect the sage-grouse.  According to an agency news release, Zinke said, “While the federal government has a responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to responsibly manage wildlife, destroying local communities and levying onerous regulations on the public lands that they rely on is no way to be a good neighbor.”

Trump’s first pick for a spot as one of Zinke’s deputies was Washington lobbyist David Bernhardt, whom the Los Angeles Times described as “laden with conflicts of interest.” The newspaper reported that Bernhardt’s law firm represented Cadiz Inc. in its effort to win approval to pump Mojave Desert groundwater and send it to Southern California cities. The Times reported that Bernhardt also has repeatedly sued the Department of Interior for clients and fought protections for California salmon. Newsweek reported that as an Interior Department lawyer under President George W. Bush, Bernhardt authored legal opinions to weaken protections for endangered species.

In a news release, Zinke praised Trump’s appointment of Combs. “Susan is highly qualified and will be a huge asset as we work to make government more efficient and more accountable to the people.” In her role, Combs will oversee policy development as well as the agency’s fiscal affairs. Though he did not mention the endangered species act, Texas’ junior senator, Ted Cruz, said Combs “understands, like most Texans, that the federal government isn’t the answer to every challenge. She also understands the power of freedom, and the benefit of collaboration and working with state and local interests.”

But Luke Metzger of Environment Texas said, “Given [Combs’] track record as comptroller, and after leaving office, with attacking the Endangered Species Act and opposing new listings, it definitely seems like the administration is putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”

Amal Ahmed contributed to this report.

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  • WUSRPH

    Let us hope that she is as good as this as she was as Comptroller. If so, all the endangered species and everything else the Interior Dept. protects will be absolutely safe.

    • r.g. ratcliffe

      She’s going to be over the department budget, among other things.

    • She was responsible for the SSNs of 3.5 million Texans being left out in the open:

      https://arstechnica.com/security/2011/04/texas-exposes-addresses-ssns-of-35-million-residents/

      Job competence not being her strong, suit, let’s hope you’re right.

      I frankly was looking forward to her next pornographic novel.

      • Amycjones

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  • donuthin2

    She will fit right in with the administration.

  • John Bernard Books

    We’ve gone from dems screaming in unison “there is no voter fraud” to indictments:
    ” A Dallas County grand jury has issued an indictment in an ongoing voter fraud investigation in Dallas after hundreds of mail-in ballots were sequestered from the May city elections.”
    https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/texas/articles/2017-07-11/dallas-county-grand-jury-indicts-man-in-voter-fraud-case

    so far not a peep out out of TM……..on perhaps the biggest story in our life time.

  • WUSRPH

    On a slightly different subject:

    People sometimes say what is a liberal….this definition from an article in the New Republic of a political
    liberal (distinguished from an economic liberal) is about as good as I have seen in some time:

    Understood in a political sense, liberalism is a philosophy that treats individuals as the bearers of certain rights recognized within a system of sovereign law. Most crucially, they have the right to life and the necessities that go with that, which includes certain economic necessities. Property has long been recognized as a fundamental individual right within liberal frameworks, which partly accounts for the connection between political and economic liberalism. A crucial premise of all liberal thought and politics is that individuals all possess an equal status as legal subjects, regardless of other inequalities and differences that might divide them. Often (but not necessarily) this is complemented with a philosophy of equal democratic citizenship. William Davies, The New Republic, 7-13-17

  • SpiritofPearl

    “Pave paradise,
    Put up a parking lot.”

    —– Joni Mitchell

  • BCinBCS

    …a study by Texas A&M University scientists found that the warbler habitat was widespread and that the number of birds was nineteen times greater than when the bird was first studied in 1990.

    Using statistics in this manner is meaningless. Did the nineteen-fold bird population increase go from 100 to 1,900 birds or did it increase from one million to nineteen million birds?

    This article documents yet more examples of how the “the states should make the rules because local governance is best” when there are federal rules that conservatives, like Combs, hate except that now that she and Republicans are in power, the federal government should prevail. It’s also an example of its twin rule that “the states should make the rules because local governance is not best” when it comes to cities and counties that pass ordinances that conservatives hate.

    • WUSRPH

      You can destroy a lot of questionable claims when you raise that old question “percentage of what’?

    • Jon White

      The A&M study grossly overestimates golden-cheeked warbler populations in all but the highest density sites. Many areas, with no warblers at all, are projected by the A&M methodology to be occupied or to have to have significant numbers of warblers. The technique erroneously identifies areas as populated and systematically exaggerates the population in other areas.

  • WUSRPH

    The Trump Administration (SIC) has proven it loves “alternative facts” and that it lives in a kind of alternative reality, but now it hasgone so far as to create its own economic theory…….It is called MAGAnomics which stands for Make America Great Again economics and which is the term Trump mouthpieces are using to describe his economic program….They are using it most often when someone points out that a Trump proposal will not do what he claims or is potentially harmful. When that happens the response is that the person making the comment is wrong because they do not understand the new doctrine of MAGAnomics….Maybe MIT needs to start a new department of MAGAnomic Thought so we can all catch up with these new concepts.

    • BCinBCS

      It’s six months into Comrade Trump/Bannon’s administration and he has finally worn me down. His daily, sometimes hourly, mistakes, lies, ignorance, faux pas and screw-ups are so common that they have become non-events. Now his kids are getting into the act. I don’t have enough time in my day to point out on this blog all of the unpresidential actions that the Grifter-in-Chief and family do.

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bab7cf92b88f9ce7b5ced6477993e0aa1aadb9ac9049385fbd48f31b02d014a3.gif

      • WUSRPH

        Have you considered the possibility that wearing you down was part of the strategy…..if you become accustomed to him doing something weird every day you may stop watching…

        • SpiritofPearl

          This is called “normalization.” Don’t be deceived.

        • BCinBCS

          Have you considered the possibility that wearing you down was part of the strategy…

          Yea but it takes a lot of effort to remain justifiably outraged.

  • John Bernard Books

    This has to pizz off liberals…
    “President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate former Texas Agriculture Commissioner and Comptroller Susan Combs to be assistant secretary of policy management and budget at the U.S. Department of Interior.”
    http://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Trump-picks-Combs-for-Interior-post-11280370.php

    another woman running thingyies….

  • WUSRPH

    The sixteen things you have to believe in order to believe that Trump is the victim of a witch hunt, according to The National Review:

    http://tinyurl.com/y8n2qg2z

    But then some people can believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast.

    • BCinBCS

      I read some of the comments.
      There are some crazy, misinformed RWNJ’s out there.

      • WUSRPH

        They are not “misinformed”….They were “informed” of the real information. They just choose to deny it….They are deliberately malinformed.

  • WUSRPH

    The National Review has now gone further and said that there can no longer be any doubt that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

    http://tinyurl.com/yagxa74g

    • SpiritofPearl

      “Boogie Nights” analogy is great!

      • WUSRPH

        Junior can’t claim he, Manafort, and Kushner never sought to collude with the Russian government when he admits that he, Manafort, and Kushner eagerly took a meeting for the express purpose of colluding with Russia

        Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/g-file/449516/donald-trump-russia-benefit-doubt-now-gone?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=170714_G-File&utm_term=GFile

        • SpiritofPearl

          Rob Goldstone, Alex Jones, Newt Gingrich, and Chris Christie are brothers from another mother.

          • WUSRPH

            I heard on a NPR comedy show today that Jr. was called “Fredo” at the campaign. It seems to be spreading as there are several stories about it……..Funny that he is also said to like fishing.

          • SpiritofPearl

            Uh oh!

        • SpiritofPearl

          The definition of “collude” seems to escape them.

          How long before President Loco fires Mueller?

  • GrandSlam

    There are WAY to many endandered species – and too many $$ thrown at saving them. Species come and go with evolution………+ it’s way too hyped. Feed some kids…………

    • SpiritofPearl

      Well, no, species just go. They never come back.

      How about less money for defense to feed kids?

    • BCinBCS

      There are WAY to (sic) many endandered (sic) species….

      Yes. And that’s the problem.

  • WUSRPH

    Getting the truth, or even a close approximation of it, out
    of the Trump Administration (Sic) is like peeling an artichoke…..layer after
    layer until the you get to the core which It will probably turn out is rotten.

    First, there was no meeting with the any Russians.

    Okay, there was a meeting, but it was about Orphans

    Well, yeah, it was about getting Kremlin data about Clinton.

    There were only us three and her.

    Okay, Okay, there was a another guy—a former (sic) Russian
    spy..

    But we got nothing from it

    Uh, You say he says we were given a file

  • WUSRPH

    Don’t you just like the way that the Trump mouthpieces keep trying to say that there was nothing wrong with meeting with whom you BELIEVED was a representative of a hostile foreign power in an attempt to get their help in winning the presidency BECAUSE they got no useful information? (Which is still unknown whether that it true or not)? Kind of like my pointing a gun at your head—thinking it was loaded—and when I pulled the trigger having happened.……I TRIED but you should ignore it because I didn’t kill you after all.

  • WUSRPH

    Do you think it will make any difference if evidence emerges that proves that the Trump campaign went way beyond just Jr. trying to have a meeting to actively involvement and approval of what the Russians were doing including advance knowledge of major moves? What it is proven that Trump people worked with the paid Trolls the Russians used to plant all kinds of stories, rumors, charges (mostly lies) about Hillary?……..Will this make any difference? I’m beginning to doubt it…..Or are we truly facing a situation where Trump could literally admit it all is true and still go on as it nothing had happened? After all, this is a man who brags that he could shot someone to death on 5th Avenue and walk away without any bad effects. What if this virtually true?

    Of course, it is not likely that Trump will admit anything…His bloated ego would not let him admit that he did not win solely on his own magnificence. He has to believe he got more votes and that “I ALONE” did it…..

    • BCinBCS

      But W, you know the meeting was only about adoption of Russian children.
      .

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b9e01d1b0ed22bc4d0ef675afb622ad9465141da75b2bc374af5011f8c5745a9.jpg

      • WUSRPH

        Maybe there is hope after all. More support impeaching him then they did Nixon.

        http://tinyurl.com/y93vl9ou

        • SpiritofPearl

          But then we get Pence – far worse . . .

          Best bet is to work hard for the 2018 midterm candidates, either those in Texas or in other states.

          • BCinBCS

            Pearl, you are 1000% correct.

          • SpiritofPearl

            I hadn’t planned to spend my retirement battling fascism, but here we are.

          • BCinBCS

            I detest hypocrites but the Republican party, the party that was quick to label many in my generation “pinko commies”, question our loyalty to this country, the party of patriotism and national security, that party now has the audacity to support a fake president who is in all likelihood in bed with the Russians.

            Simply incredible.
            smh

          • WUSRPH

            We have heard a lot about Trump’s connections/collusion etc. with the Russian government….but The New Republic has a major article about his connections to another well-known, non-governmental Russian organization….The Russian Mafia. It appears he and they go way back……It isn’t on the web yet….but should be soon.

          • Jon White

            There is no difference between the Russian government and Russian organized crime. Putin is head of the largest crime syndicate ever.

          • SpiritofPearl

            “Keep on keeping on.”

    • José

      The problem is that this is a political matter more than anything else, and the politicians aren’t being pushed to do much of anything. True, a lot of us are up in arms but not yet enough to overcome the inertia and cowardness and cynical opportunism of Congressional Republicans. It doesn’t seem to matter what the Dems say. Or commentators, regardless of their integrity and qualifications. Or even the many principled conservatives who have spoken out against him. Trumpkins are quite willing to ignore or disbelieve all logic and evidence. As long as the Tweeter in Chief and his hired dissemblers and his fawning followers like Hannity and O’Reilly keep churning out excuses and misinformation they are satisfied to stay with him. I don’t know what it will take to break this impasse. Perhaps when Special Counsel Mueller issues his report with accusations of crimes and treachery, backed up with evidence, then enough folks will sit up and say “No mas!” and Congress will finally take action.

      • SpiritofPearl

        Wanna take bets on what happens if/when he fires Mueller?

        • WUSRPH

          When the “smoking gun” of Richard Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in became known on Aug. 5, 1974, there was a sound heard across the length and breadth of the land—-the sound of outrage coming from an American public that finally had has enough of his lies and was no longer willing to allow such a man to remain as their president. The White House and Congress were flooded with telegrams and telephone calls…Congressmen and senators of both parties declared that he must go… Barry Goldwater went to the WH and delivered the bad news…and within five days Nixon was gone—resigned in disgrace.

          I don’t expect that to happen again…To be fair, we don’t have the evidence on Trump that they had on Nixon although we could eventually…but, more importantly Nixon at least had enough respect for the country and intelligence to accept that, for the good of the nation, he had to resign. If a similar situation were to develop, this guy will scream and howl like a child and refuse to leave.

          ……

          • SpiritofPearl

            Agreed about the current climate, although when it happens (not “if”), it will be quite a performance for the former game show host. The GOP will decide when he becomes too much of a liability, then pull the plug.

  • WUSRPH

    Does this qualify as a “sincerely held religious belief”?

    “Nuns build a chapel in their Pa. cornfield in bid to deter proposed gas pipeline
    The order of nuns says the pipeline violates its religious land ethic in a case set to go before a judge on Monday

    (Washington Post)

    I wonder if this was in Texas which side Patrick/Abbott/Paxton would be on……But I bet their adoration of the oil and gas industry would win out.

    • BCinBCS

      Patrick/Abbott/Paxton – a Christian right decision versus oil and gas industry decision: three heads simultaneously explode.

  • WUSRPH

    I presume you saw where Trump is just totally mystified by the failure of the US Senate to be able to come up with a plan to “repeal and replace” the ACA. He just cannot understand what it taking so long…..and why they have not “cut a deal” long ago. Of course, when you have no principles or political philosophy it is easy to cut a deal…so he is finding it hard to understand that other people might have problems with doing some things.

  • Jon White

    “The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
    ― Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold

  • Jon White

    As Comptroller, Combs had great difficulty counting money. She was supposed to be the expert, but her poor projections of revenues were crippling to Texas’ budget process. I wonder why she believes she will be better at counting birds – about which she knows nothing.

  • Kozmo

    No matter how inept and incapable Combs proves herself to be, time and time again, she keeps falling uphill. Just like Dubya Bush in that way.