Baboons in our midst and Fort Reno’s “redundant, outdated and duplicative” research — Tax dollars at work?

(Part 1 of a two-part Analysis)

OKLAHOMA CITY – Just three weeks ago, a front-page story in Oklahoma’s largest newspaper, building on earlier television reporting, described recent problems in the University of Oklahoma’s Baboon Research Program.

This is an old story, but in this era of increasingly limited resources for good journalism, it’s gratifying to see leading news organizations paying attention to a real story that is a bit off the beaten path.

News9’s Kelly Ogle kicked off the renewed focus in July.

Keying off aerial photographs taken by helicopter pilot/journalist Jim Gardner (whose work we normally see in the context of storm coverage or grass fires and such things), Ogle guided work on a news package that raised awareness of a baboon program that was announced in 1999 and which has operated since mid-2001 under a steady series of grants form the National Institute of Health.

The program is not well-known. Official reports are sketchy when it comes to its costs or benefits.

Jessica Ganas, who has worked at animal research facilities around the country (but not with baboons), advocated in discussions with Ogle more transparency, saying animals at such programs “suffer, no matter how much enrichment you give them. … [M]y experiences and what I saw no matter what you did, the conditions in the lab never make it OK to what’s happening.”

Ganas now works in Newcastle at a rescue/sanctuary, where monkeys (but not baboons) used in experimentation can “retire,” News9, the CBS affiliate here, reported.

OU officials have not wanted to talk about the baboons, but early this month Andrew Kittle reported for The Oklahoman that University President David Boren had ordered a “full internal review” of the school’s use of animal testing at the facility located at historic Fort Reno in western Oklahoma.

Kittle reported OU “has been cited numerous times in recent years for not complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act,” and that the Fort Reno program “sends baboons all over the country to other research institutions and laboratories.” 

One of Boren’s aides, spokesman James Tomasek, said Boren – who cited the public’s “interest” in the program after News9’s reporting – wants a review to help determine if the program is “compliant” with research protocols. And, OU is looking at its research to see if programs are sustainable in an era of “declining or uncertain federal research funding.”

Over the life of the baboon research, Kittle reported, the “long-running” baboon program has received sustaining grants from NIH. For the 2015 fiscal year, the sum was $1,260,949. Estimates of the total since 2001 is at least $25 million.

New interest in this particular program raises an opportunity to renew scrutiny of the varied activities taking place at the historic military post.

Although they Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma were promised, in 1869, that land at and around the post would be used for “military purposes exclusively,” the area has for more than a half-century been retained by the federal government and provided to non-military uses.

Problem is that that Two Tribes were promised in 1869 that if and when the land was no longer needed for the U.S. Military, it would revert to the Native Americans.

Aside from the Baboon research, there is an Agricultural Research Service facility (Grazing Lands Research Laboratory) at what is deemed the “Fort Reno Science Park.”

That ARS station has been designated for closure at times (and was even deemed “excess property”), but congressional maneuvers have extended the life of the federal Agriculture unit which conducts research done just as well or better elsewhere (including at the small town of Marshall).

Almost two decades ago, ABC News concluded in a “Your Money” piece that continuance of the station at Fort Reno was a “form of national park.”

That was not merely an expression of journalistic opinion. The Congressional Research Service in 1994 (and the Agriculture Department did not disagree), and deemed the facility “redundant, outdated and duplicative.”
The last time I delved into the ARS station, its annual budget was $2.1 million, with fewer than a dozen employees. 

The modest work at Marshall costs about $230,000, and has been carried out with the help of Oklahoma State University. 

Bottom line: Whatever its real value, the ARS work at Fort Reno can be done elsewhere, and can be done cheaper. The historic literature on the work there indicated the facility costs much more than the value of the work done merits.

Over the past several decades, Congress has developed the habit of pushing through another appropriations bill every few years to spend good money, after bad, to upgrade facilities at what we now call the “Park.”

Hasn’t this gone on long enough?

Why use a “Science Park” to impede fulfillment of promises made repeatedly in modern political campaigns to combat wasteful federal spending?

And why, for that matter, is the U.S. government holding on to several thousand acres which that same government pledged would revert to its original owners, in due time?