Federal Agencies Feel Heat from Their `Green' Workers Employees Serve as In-House Environmental Watchdogs

Article excerpt

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. …