The Mercury News, February 12, 2009
Bay Area mouse spurs national debate over stimulus bill
It was the mouse that roared.
A 1-inch-tall endangered rodent found in the marshes of San Jose and other San Francisco Bay Area cities became a national symbol of wasteful spending Thursday for opponents of President Barack Obama's stimulus plans.
"Pork for Rats?" CNN trumpeted. "Pelosi's mouse slated for $30M slice of cheese," proclaimed the Washington Times.
Trouble is, the facts were mostly wrong. But the lightning speed of Internet news enabled it to take on urban legend stature within hours.
The tale began Wednesday, when Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent an e-mail to reporters and political leaders that noted Republican staff members have been asking federal agencies how they would spend the stimulus money.
"One response? Thirty million dollars for wetland restoration in the San Francisco Bay Area — including work to protect the Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse," wrote Steel.
The Washington Times then wrote a story citing Steel and claiming that $30 million for the mouse project is contained in the bill. The paper suggested the money was put there by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco. Blogger Matt Drudge, whose Web site receives 26 million hits a day, posted a link to that story.
And by midday Thursday, the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse — and Democratic supporters of the stimulus bill — had been ridiculed by hosts Megyn Kelly and Bill Hemmer on Fox News; Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, on CNN; MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and by bloggers from coast to coast.
Steel, however, said The Washington Times story is incorrect.
"There is no language in the bill that says this money will go to this project," Steel told the Mercury News. "There are large pots of money in the bill that go to various agencies. One of those agencies said the salt marsh harvest mouse project is something we'd do if you gave us the money."
Pelosi spokesman Drew Hamill agreed that funding for the mouse is not in the bill, and said she did not lobby for it to be on any list.
Then where did the $30 million figure come from, if it's not in the bill? It turns out that $30 million is the total amount that the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, recommended more than a month ago to numerous federal agencies looking for lists of "shovel ready" projects as part of the stimulus bill planning.
The conservancy's wish list included five major ongoing wetlands restoration projects totaling nearly 4,000 acres, said civil engineer Steve Ritchie, a Coastal Conservancy staff member who helped draw it up. And the federal Army Corps of Engineers included all five projects on its own list of possible ways to spend stimulus money.
The projects, which range from Napa County to Silicon Valley, involve moving levees, creating islands and converting former industrial salt ponds back to marshes. Each could begin by year's end and would benefit dozens of species, including salmon, steelhead trout, ducks, egrets, and yes, the endangered mouse, Ritchie said.
The work also would provide increased flood protection to homes and businesses around San Francisco Bay, he said. In 2003, the Bush administration endorsed and helped fund the largest of the projects, the purchase of former Cargill salt ponds for wetlands restoration.
"This isn't school kids planting little sprigs of plants. We are talking about thousands of acres, building levees and islands with heavy equipment," Ritchie said. "It's at least 100 new jobs."
Even if the stimulus passes, there's no guarantee the projects will get the money, since they're not named in the bill. That will be up to the Army Corps of Engineers, which does everything from harbor dredging to building dams to restoring wetlands.
Is Ritchie upset his "wish list" became a national punching bag?
"In the atmosphere we're in you expect it," Ritchie said. "But the disappointing part is that this isn't just about one creature. It's about jobs, construction, flood control — there's a lot there."
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