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Alaska scientists put on ice over polar bear talk

3/9/2007

The federal agency responsible for protecting Arctic polar bears
has barred two Alaska scientists from speaking about polar bears,
climate change or sea ice at international meetings in the next few
weeks, a move that environmentalists say is censorship.

The rule was issued last month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service but was made public this week. The federal government has
proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species, and the
wildlife agency is receiving public comment on the proposal.

``It's a gag order,'' said Deborah Williams, a former high-level
Interior Department official in Anchorage, Alaska, who received
documents on Wednesday from Alaska scientists who chose to remain
unnamed. The documents make the subjects of polar bears, climate
change and sea ice off limits to all scientists who haven't been
cleared to speak on the topics.

Two of the memos are copies of those prepared for Craig Perham and
Janet E. Hohn, who are traveling to Russia and Norway this month and
in April.

The scientists ``will not be speaking on or responding to
these issues'' of climate change, polar bears and sea ice, the memos
say. Before any trip, such a memo must be sent to the administrator of
the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington.

According to the memos, agency scientists must obtain a memorandum
designating which official, if any, is allowed to respond to
questions, particularly about polar bears, and include ``a statement
of assurance that these individuals understand the Administration's
position on these issues.''

Tina Kreisher, communications director of the Interior Department,
which oversees the wildlife agency, said in an interview Thursday that
the government isn't trying to prevent scientists from talking about
their findings — but doesn't want them to make policy statements.

At a news conference, Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall
denied that the memos were a form of censorship. He described the
content of the documents as part of a policy to establish an agenda
and the appropriate spokesperson for international meetings.

Considering the high-profile nature of climate change and the
issues that might come up, it was prudent to know ahead of time what
everyone was going to discuss, he said.

``We are not gagging scientists,'' said Hall. They can speak with
other scientists at international gatherings in conversations or at
dinner but may not speak for the United States government in a formal
setting, he said. The agency would frown on their going to news
conferences in a host country, he added.

When asked for the administration's position with which the Alaska
scientists would have to be familiar, Hall said, ``The Earth is
warming, and we have to understand how to deal with that and to slow
down greenhouse gases and manage the changes that will occur.''

The agency has taken steps to evaluate whether the polar bear
should be listed and has significant questions about scientific
studies, including those dealing with when sea ice will melt and the
effects on the bear, he said.

Environmentalists who petitioned for the new protections for polar
bears hope that a listing would force mandatory limits to greenhouse
gases.

At present, the administration prefers voluntary programs to
cut emissions and has taken the position that carbon dioxide, the
predominant greenhouse gas, can't be regulated as a pollutant under
the Clean Air Act.