BOOK REVIEW:Science under Siege, the Politicians War on Nature and Truth
by Todd Wilkinson. Johnson Books, Boulder, CO 1998.
"Every single day dedicated employees venture out into the public lands of the United States to carry out their responsibilities to the owners who happen to be us – you and me – the taxpayers. Every single day they face an onslaught of obstacles to performing their duties.
What are these obstacles? They range from U. S. senators, western governors, entrenched exploitative industries, so-called Wise Use groups, and a deliberate lack of funding to uncommitted political appointees and meek second-level managers. What a life! What a war zone!"
– from the Introduction by Jim Baca
(Jim Baca is a former director of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management. He was fired by Bruce Babbitt in 1994 for going to the defense of his own scientists and for trying to bring about reforms in the agency. Todd Wilkinson lays out the details of his principled and competent leadership and of his subsequently being fired in the text of this book.)
This book should be required reading for anyone who has aspirations for being an environmental activist. For if you had a hunch that things were bad, your hunch is several negative quantum leaps from the true reality of how bad things really are. Or maybe anyone who has aspirations for being an environmental activist should NOT read this book – it might discourage her or him to the point of inaction, of "what’s the use"! So be warned – this is a depressing book on some counts. Consider, however, that it also bears tribute to the many honest and dedicated public servants doing their jobs against only too many vile encroachments from above.
In Todd Wilkinson’s very thoroughly researched and thoughtful book, he brings to light many cases of how our government has sold out science and the public trust. He spares no one agency. We can guess the Forest Service (FS), but is the Fish and Wildlife (FW) any better? And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is fraught with politics and hypocrisy. It appears that our very essence of government bureaucracy is corrupted ultimately by wealth and those who exploit or plan to exploit.
He shows how the whistleblower laws do not work to protect the whistleblower. Not until Jeff DeBonis started Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has there been any protection for civic minded, honest public employees who will not stand pat and allow violations, some of which are of an unbelievable magnitude
Things really started to get bad in these agencies when Ronald Reagan took office. Reagan’s "truth" led to a purging of dedicated public servants. The "good guys" in important positions were weeded out, more or less, and the "bad guys" were put in to replace them. When Clinton took office there was a promise that things would change, mostly based upon Clinton’s own words. But they have not, and Clinton’s words more often than not have turned out to be completely hollow and meaningless. It is a tribute to an undercore of fine, responsible scientists and other bureaucrats that anyone stays in the government service, especially when the better one does her or his job, the more likely one is to get into trouble.
One product of the Reagan actions is that when resistance to an enemy is escalated (as was the Cold War), one becomes more like that enemy. In many ways, we today in America are getting to be more and more like the Soviets – a de facto one-party system, and loss of democracy being two of the more significant characteristics.
It is no wonder that it is getting to be more difficult to find competent and principled scientists for government work. I suppose if you’re working on a new weapons system, then the best science may win, but if you’re doing research in any biological or ecological field and the very best results from your diligence and skill are contrary to some decision that will come afoul of some money making concern, then you might as well forget it.
Take the case of Dave Mattson who has been regarded in the scientific community as the most knowledgeable concerning the grizzly bear. He comes back to his office one day and finds everything a mess. All his notes and floppy disks that held his many years of research results have been summarily removed. It appears that the scientific truths that he had uncovered were in conflict with "facts" need by his superiors to bolster a management decision which favored the way the political winds were blowing. As a result the grizzly is far more threatened today that it has even been.
Most of us probably know of Jeff DeBonis, the founder of PEER. At one time Jeff was a remarkable "timber beast" for the FS, one who gets out the cut with great efficiency. When he appeared to have a sudden transformation in his attitude about the usual practices of logging on the national forests, his timbering buddies were non-plussed and felt betrayed. He saw how those who disagreed with the decisions of the higher ups in FS management were exposed to ruin through being professionally discredited, and in many cases disgraced as having "characterological" defects.
We in West Virginia know about Bruce Babbitt and his role in allowing the coal giants to violate the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In this book Bruce comes out even worse – as one of the most back stabbing hypocrites to occupy high office in some time. While working at giving the impression of being "green" he time and again decides in favor of the exploiters. Those within his own bureaucratic domain who are defenders of the truth, the laws and the mandate of the Department of the Interior are one way or another relieved of influence in decision making, whether it be by transfer to some "Siberia" of a bureaucratic post, or by out-and-out firing.
We learn about more gutsy people who take risks with their careers to do what is right. One of those is David Ross, a graduate of West Virginia University in biology. On assignment in Utah, David was made an example of because he chose to follow good science rather than greed-driven politics. Utah Governor Leavitt cooked up a scheme to purge a whole cadre of non-game biologists which included David.
We learn of one strong western group, the Cowboy Caucus, who makes it quite clear that they hate the US government and all its attendant bureaucracies, yet have been and are ripping off the American taxpayer by means of huge subsidies. Career government workers do get assaulted and the perpetrators are not called to account for it -- even the workers’ own agencies often won’t prosecute the offenders. Apparently the rage of groups like this is an infantile one. Being dependent on government dole, they want even more handouts, and resist any notion at all of government having any say as to how to manage our government land, and resist possible cutbacks in the uncompetitive advantage they have.
We learn about how the EPA engaged in a systematic and protracted harassment of one of their biologists, Jeffrey van Ee. He would not doctor up his results to conform to what the political dictate was in Nevada. EPA Director Carol Browner, who, in spite of her repeated stated dedication to high environmental principles about her agency fighting the corruption that is inherent in the Republican take-over of the Congress, belies her words by allowing her agency to promulgate this harassment on a continuing basis. When confronted on this issue, she deflects the question and refers it to an underling who basically stonewalls any information as to why van Ee is being harassed.
In West Virginia we know only too well how easily Browner compromises her avowed principles for politics. When Peter Kostmeyer demonstrated the absurdity and environmental monstrousness of the proposed Corridor H and would not back off from his stance, Browner squashed him like a bug.
The one person who can be considered a whistle blower who operates at a high level in the established bureaucracy is FS Chief, Mike Dombeck. Considering, however, that other relatively high ranking persons who held the same kinds of energies, competence and integrity as Dombeck having been sacrificed by the Clinton administration in deference to politics and greed, one wonders how long he will be allowed to hold sway as FS Director.
It is a marvel that Todd Wilkinson has been able to uncover so much wrong doing considering the power of the forces of secrecy and cover up that are in place. It is a wonder that he was able to make any discoveries at all that point up this depth of corruption in our government. We own him a great debt for his work on this. One can only wonder if this is not the tip of the iceberg – that good science is becoming more and more of a rarity in government because of the dominance of special interests who promote each their own brands of greed.
"There will always be scientists who come up with bad decisions because they get paid well and have no conscience. For the professionals who suffer doubt and have a heart, I have one word: Persevere. For the rest of you, who value wildness, who support good science by exercising your influence in our democracy, you are a great hope for tomorrow. We need a government institution that can encourage the use of whistle, or equivalent alarms, to help the big corporate CEO’s and their big investors to worry about what their actions cost the earth and our future."
--- From the forward by David Brower