Weird science

“Habitat plans must stand on solid scientific work,” concludes a Seattle P-I editorial (6/13) of a “disturbing new report by 119 independent scientists working under sponsorship of the National Science Foundation . . . [which] says that more than 200 of existing HCPs [habitat conservation plans] are based on such shaky science that they won’t protect the target species.” But a Science magazine article reached a different conclusion about the study. In “Qualified Thumbs Up for Habitat Plan Science” (12/19/97), authors Charles Mann and Mark Plummer say the study found that HCPs “are far from the junk-science giveaways to developers depicted by their harshest critics. Although the group also reported that the plans are frequently plagued by inadequate monitoring and a lack of key data, the analysis puts HCPs in a better light.” They quote Ron Pulliam of the University of Georgia, who attended a meeting held by the study’s authors: “What did surprise me was how well the science was used when it was available.” One study, two radically different interpretations. How did that happen? Well, if the P-I opiners based their comments on two June 11 news reports by their own reporter Rob Taylor (“State Is ‘Proving Ground’ for Habitat Plan, Babbitt Says,” and “Flaws Found in Plans for Species Protection”), no wonder they were confused.

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For starters, those “119 independent scientists” cited by both the editorial and Taylor actually comprise one UW professor (Peter Kareiva); 12 other ecologists; and 106 college students reviewing documents for class credit. One hundred and nineteen, yes; “independent scientists,” no. Equally important, the P-I showed an ignorance of the purpose of an HCP. It isn’t a stand-alone recovery tool designed to “protect the target species.” It is a voluntary management plan that contributes to the overall benefit of endangered species by giving applicant landowners incentives to meet strict standards. These include agreeing that: 1) any “take” of listed species will be incidental to other legal activities; 2) they will mitigate the impacts of these “takings” to the maximum extent practicable; 3) they will ensure adequate funding for the plan; and 4) the “taking” won’t appreciably reduce the survival and recovery of the species in the wild. HCPs are just one of many tools to help protect species, but they are not a mandated recovery plan for each and every targeted species. If they were, no landowner could afford to participate.

Finally, the paper should at least get its facts right. According to both the editorial and the news story, Plum Creek Timber’s HCP was “allowing harvest of 50 spotted owl sites over 50 years.” To its credit, the P-I did run a letter from Plum Creek setting the record straight (“Habitat Conservation Plan Protects Active Owl Nest Sites,” 6/25), but that seven-paragraph item hardly offsets the impact created by two stories and an editorial. This is a tough, complicated, and contentious issue. The study led by Professor Kareiva may offer valuable new information that will have both good and bad news about HCPs. Both sides should be heard from, however. For some balance, go to and read the Mann/Plummer analysis. Or go directly to the study’s site: Just don’t think you got the whole story because you “read it in the P-I.”

Brill’s Dis-Content

Our first issue of Brill’s Content arrived in the mail the other day. It’s the heavily hyped new media-critique magazine published by Steven Brill, former owner of American Lawyer and Court TV. In the premiere 152-page, ad-laden issue, Brill toots his own horn about how his rag will be accurate, with truth in labeling and sourcing, no hidden motives, and full accountability. Ombudsman Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation at Harvard, declares that the mag must “match or top in its own performance the standard it applies to others.” How ironic, then, that Brill’s been pilloried for his 30-page cover story, “Pressgate,” in which he calls media coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair “a true scandal,” alleging that leaks from Ken Starr’s office drove major stories. Starr has written a 19-page rebuttal, and journalists from Bob Woodward (Washington Post) to Michael Isikoff (Newsweek) to Michael Kelly (National Journal) have strongly disputed Brill’s charges. Also, Brill belatedly revealed that he was a big donor to Bill Clinton’s campaign. We’ll see if the next issue offers corrections, clarifications, retractions and/or explanations from Brill and Kovach.

Best of Media Ballot

READERS’ ALERT: You can still complete Watchdogs’ “Best of Seattle Media” ballot (6/18), by mail, fax, or online. (Due to an editing error, the online option was omitted from our last column, so we’ve extended the deadline to July 15.) Results will appear in the Weekly on July 30. Voters who include name, address, and phone number are eligible to win fabulous prizes in a random drawing. What are the best newspapers, TV and radio stations, and online services? Who are the best reporters, columnists, talk-show hosts, and anchorpersons? Help us pick the “Best of Seattle Media.” Woof!

John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail them at

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Brill’s Content