Federal Agencies Feel Heat From Their `Green' Workers

Employees serve as in-house environmental watchdogs

A SMALL but growing army of ``green'' whistle-blowers is putting pressure on government natural-resource and environment agencies.

Federal employees - sometimes openly, sometimes anonymously - are exposing what they say is the official coverup of timber theft on national forests, speaking out against the suppression of scientific data in national parks, and criticizing political favoritism shown to Western ranchers and miners operating on federal land.

They also are organizing support and lobbying groups, such as the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and the Reclamation Employee Organization for Ethics and Integrity. Several months ago, an umbrella group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) opened offices in Washington, D.C.

In general, the Clinton administration has welcomed such activity even though not all its policies have met with environmental whistle-blowers' approval.

``Their participation is a good thing,'' says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. ``I think it's positive.''

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who oversees the Forest Service, quietly met with a group of environmental whistle- blowers shortly after his Senate confirmation earlier this year. Last week Mr. Espy promised to investigate charges of environmental violations in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska brought by a Forest Service timber planner there.

Jim Baca, head of the Bureau of Land Management, has interceded on behalf of a BLM hydrologist critical of development pressures on water resources. After investigating the situation personally, Mr. Baca reversed the man's forced transfer.

Assistant Agriculture Secretary Jim Lyons, in charge of federal timber policy, has agreed to meet with 30 special agents of the Forest Service who charge that agency managers have been covering up the theft of timber by private companies.

``Certainly we have a lot more access now,'' says Jeff DeBonis, executive director of PEER. Mr. DeBonis was a timber planner with the Forest Service for 12 years before quitting in frustration at what he saw as overcutting. In 1989, he founded the Forest Service employees group, which now numbers 11,000.

Government whistle-blowing gained prominence in the 1980s, mainly with reports of military cost overruns. Employees wanting to report fraud and abuse in their departments gained some measure of safety with passage of the ``Whistle Blower Protection Act'' four years ago.

But this kind of internal dissent in natural resource and environmental agencies is a relatively new thing. There are two reasons for this, says Louis Clark, executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a public-interest law firm that defends whistle-blowers and also helps them leak information to the press and to members of Congress.

First, employees feel freer to do so after 12 years of Republican administrations in which politically powerful business interests strongly influenced policy - and, in the case of political appointees, made that policy. Also, the younger generation of agency professionals is more likely to align itself with the cause of environmentalism.

``A lot of people who work in environmental and natural- resource agencies are environmentalists - really committed people,'' Mr. Clark says. ``Unlike the Pentagon or the post office, these agencies are brimming with potential whistle-blowers.''

Recently, a group of BLM district managers, fisheries and wildlife biologists, and range conservationists anonymously produced a report highly critical of their agency's policies and practices regarding cattle-grazing on federal land.

``There are a few examples of good land management in the BLM, but when taken in the overall context of the total amount of public land being managed [272 million acres], they are insignificant,'' the report states. ``BLM resource specialists and managers routinely make decisions for the benefit of individuals in the livestock industry and to the detriment of both overall ecosystem health and future generations of Americans.''

Later this month, a group of National Park Service scientists under the auspices of PEER will report on what they allege is the suppression of scientific information that calls into question certain Park Service practices. Also later in September, six of the 30 special law enforcement agents in the Forest Service will testify before a congressional committee about timber thefts.

While more government employees are willing to speak out these days, DeBonis says, ``a lot of these employees are still very fearful about going public.'' The report on BLM grazing practices, for example, could not carry its authors' names because ``we didn't feel the administration could protect these folks,'' he adds.

Environmentalists and their allies within government agencies were delighted when President Clinton filled a number of senior administration slots with appointees from environmental organizations like the Wilderness Society and the League of Conservation Voters. But they remain concerned that the thousands of career managers spread throughout those agencies will remain resistant to change. For example, PEER described Secretary Babbitt's recently announced changes regarding grazing on public lands (including a doubling of fees charged to ranchers) as ``a step in the right direction.''

``But the overall problem of the agency catering to special interests is not addressed,'' DeBonis says. ``The same old people will be administering the new policies, unless the fundamental culture of BLM is changed. That could be the graveyard of these reforms, no matter how well-intentioned they might be.''

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