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The War On Environmental Scientists
Apr 16, 1999 by twnet@po.jaring.my

A campaign of stifling attacks on the essence of scientific truth
is thriving both within the ranks of the United States' largest
employer, the federal government, and among natural resource
agencies in most of the nation's 50 states.

By Todd Wilkinson


In 10 years of tracking grizzly bears across Yellowstone National
Park, biologist David Mattson grew accustomed to the remains of
backcountry cabins that had been ransacked by powerful bruins -
stout doors pried from their hinges; floor planks splintered;
window glass strewn across the floor; the contents of cabinets
plundered by the forearms of 600-pound ursids.

But for the nation's premier expert on Yellowstone grizzly bear
ecology, the bone-chilling sensation of invasion, violence, and
trauma meeting him on the stoops of wilderness cabins was nothing
compared to the jolt he received when he arrived for work at his
office one cold winter morning.

Mattson discovered that someone had rifled through his personal
files at the headquarters of the federal Yellowstone Interagency
Grizzly Bear Study Team in Bozeman, Montana - the nerve centre
for bear research in one of America's largest and last wild
ecosystems. The intruder had seized eight years' worth of field
data, deleted key documents from Mattson's computer, and turned
his files upside down. The scene, Mattson said, looked as if a
grizzly had torn through the premises.

Only later did he learn that the raid was carried out at the
direction of his own government superiors, who had decided they
did not want Mattson's bleak forecast for the survival of
Yellowstone's famous bears to reach the public. David Mattson
ultimately was forced out of his job for threatening to blow the
whistle on federal policies that, he believes, could doom the
grizzly to extinction in the next century.

Mattson's story does not stand alone. Today in the United States,
hundreds of other 'combat scientists' are under fire by political
forces that have conspired to ensure that their knowledge never
sees the light of day. These dissidents carry on a public fight
boldly commenced more than 30 years ago by a US Fish and Wildlife
Service biologist named Rachel Carson. In 1962, with the
completion of her classic book, Silent Spring, Carson alerted the
world to the insidious effects of DDT and other harmful biocides.

Carson knew very well that she would be attacked by the chemical
industry. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to
discredit the book. Carson was described as an ignorant and
hysterical woman who wanted to turn the Earth over to the
insects.

Although she died before full vindication arrived with the
official banning of DDT in 1972, Carson showed generations of
women and men that ecologically based science and conservation
advocacy were not mutually exclusive. She believed that
scientists who fail to act on what the information tells them
have no soul.

Meeting Rachel's Children

It was this image that led me to a cavernous meeting hall outside
Washington, DC, where a convention of whistleblowers, sponsored
by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER),
became my first formal introduction to the growing army of
biologists, earth scientists, and public land managers who have
risked their careers to expose threats to our environment.

In street clothes, sans departmental badges and uniforms,
Carson's spiritual descendants came from every region of the
country. Here were some of the 'jackbooted government thugs'
decried by Rush Limbaugh; the people who should be brought down
with a rifle shot to the head, according to G Gordon Liddy; the
renegades who grew up believing, apparently ignorantly, that it
is a virtuous calling to be a natural resource scientist working
on behalf of other citizens.

A campaign of stifling attacks on the essence of scientific truth
is thriving both within the ranks of the nation's largest
employer, the federal government, and among natural resource
agencies in most of the 50 states.

Invariably, the pejorative perception of the average
whistleblower is of a burned-out, disgruntled, antisocial,
trouble-making martyr, castigated as an insubordinate
nonconformist, outlaw and snitch. 'Don't listen to the
whistleblowers,' a spokesperson for the US Forest Service said.
'They represent the fringe; they're renegades with a bone to
pick,' added a public relations specialist at the US Department
of the Interior.

As I researched the alleged transgressions of embattled
scientists, it became evident that the whistleblowers aren't the
ones breaking the laws: They are the heroes who deserve to have
their stories told on 60 Minutes.

Had Rachel Carson lived, it is likely that she would be appalled
by the current attempts of some elected officials to overturn the
ban on DDT, clearcut our remaining forests, suck dry our last
wild rivers, play fast and loose with the facts regarding the
importance of biological diversity, downplay global warming, and
weaken environmental laws that have made the US an international
beacon for protection of clean air and water.

Whistleblowing in the Dark

The federal workers inspired by Carson are, right now, at the end
of a millennium, trying to create a voice for the last great
bears in the northern Rockies, the wilderness caves of southern
New Mexico, the giant cedars of Oregon, the last free-flowing
rivers in Arizona, the tiny stalks of rare wildflowers in the
Appalachians, the frogs of Utah, the tortoises of California's
Mojave Desert, and the ancient bull trout of the Northwest.
Risking their careers and livelihoods, they have taken on corrupt
politicians and bureaucrats wedded to logging and mining
companies, industrial polluters, the livestock industry, water
developers, and energy conglomerates that have left ecological
destruction in their wake.

Whistleblowing is not for the faint of heart; it comes with the
inherent risk of self-destruction. The Government Accountability
Project (GAP) alone has defended 2,000 whistleblowers against
retaliations and firings over the past three decades. One US
Justice Department worker suggests that 'suffering through
whistleblower retaliation teaches you a lot about your own
strengths and weaknesses, about what really matters in life,
about who your friends are, and about what human beings are
capable of doing to each other in even the most civilised of
settings'.

When Howard Wilshire, a distinguished, decorated senior geologist
with the US Geological Survey, angered Wise Use movement
proponents by documenting the impacts of off-road vehicles on the
fragile desert environment of the Mojave, the USGS tried to
discredit him and have him fired.

When US Forest Service fisheries biologist Al Espinosa said that
overcutting the Clearwater National Forest was eviscerating
habitat for half a dozen species of trout and salmon, he was met
with racial epithets and intimidation by government managers
friendly with the timber industry.

When Utah herpetologist David Ross started compiling a report on
the status of rare spotted frogs along the Wasatch Front, the
state's entire nongame division, which reviews the status of
threatened and endangered species, was eliminated, apparently at
the behest of developers.

When EPA pollution specialist Jeff van Ee spoke out on behalf of
the imperilled desert tortoise and open space preservation, he
found himself threatened with dismissal and jail time.

An Environmental Gulag

'Our natural resource laws are like the old Soviet-bloc
constitutions - meant to be genuflected to but not obeyed,'
observes High Country News publisher Ed Marston. 'Civil servants
who attempt to implement the Endangered Species Act, for example,
quickly learn that their agencies exist to subvert the law and
its spirit, rather than to follow it.'

Science is not just under repression; the attack is akin to the
burning of books that occurred in Nazi Germany. Our elected
leaders are marshalling a campaign of ignorance against the
American public. The authors of the Contract with America are
unabashedly beholden to industry lobbyists who are waging an
all-out war to weaken key environmental laws, mobilising to gut
the budgets of environmental regulatory agencies, obliterating
vanguard agencies such as the National Biological Service that
protect the nation's wealth of diverse species, and arranging
sweetheart deals with special interest constituencies to ensure
that private industry makes a profit at the public's expense.

During his term in the White House, George Bush appointed a
39-member scientific advisory board to identify pressing issues
relating to the global environment and human welfare.
Conservationists protested that certain biologists were
deliberately left off the panel at the behest of Republicans.
Nonetheless, in October 1990, the scientists reported
overwhelming consensus on four problems that demanded immediate
attention: (1) loss of species/biological diversity; (2) loss of
species habitats; (3) depletion of the ozone layer; and (4)
global warming.

'This wasn't some kind of agenda spearheaded by Beltway
liberals,' says Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger
Schlickeisen. 'These were credible scientists respected across
the board who reached the same conclusion. The only people who
tried to refute the findings or claim that we are not in the
midst of an environmental crisis were those trained in political
science.'

Today, one of the most endangered species in America is the
scientific whistleblower. If we as citizens stand idly by and
tolerate the repression of government scientists in the public
workplace, then where does the repression end? If it can happen
here, among people whom we rely upon to tell us the truth about
the health of our environment, it can happen anywhere; in our own
offices; in our homes and schools.

If anyone has doubts about how pervasive the problem of silencing
reformers is, talk to Jim Baca, former director of the Bureau of
Land Management, recently elected mayor of Albuquerque, New
Mexico. Baca was relieved of his command by Secretary of the
Interior Bruce Babbitt for putting science above political
science and for declaring that the free lunch was over for miners
and ranchers on public lands in the West.

Whistleblower laws have done little to stop agencies from purging
scientists who disagree with the findings of their superiors. If
you are a government employee and choose to exercise free speech
that does not mesh with resource-extraction notions, there is
usually a hired-gun politician who will pressure your superiors
to have you struck down.

Reagan's Children

There is a clear pattern of quashing dissent that started in
earnest with the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Speaking before the national meeting of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science in 1996, Vice President Al Gore
criticised the Republican majority in Congress for scientific
suppression. 'Congress is saying we don't know and we don't want
to know' about scientific matters, he declared. 'They are
approaching science with the wisdom of a potted plant. Most
approach science with policies appropriate for Fred Flintstone.'

But no political party has a monopoly on the ability to
manipulate science or flout environmental laws for political
gain. Even under the Clinton Administration, government
scientists have not had the freedom to follow the scientific
method.

It's the same old game with new faces, says Andy Stahl, executive
director of Oregon-based Forest Service Employees for
Environmental Ethics (FSEEE). 'Speaking out,' Stahl notes, 'is
still regarded as traitorous activity. We've progressed little
from what are regarded as the repressive years of the 1980s.'

Stahl played an important role in spearheading conservation
efforts for the northern spotted owl and salmon that led to
major, court-ordered decreases in the volume of timber harvested
on national forest lands in the Pacific Northwest. He asserts
that the Forest Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service could
easily have averted titanic conflicts in the
timber-vs.-spotted-owl battle had the agencies listened to their
best scientists who had sounded the alarm over habitat
destruction years before.

'I look around for evidence that things are changing, and I still
see taxpayer-run agencies that resemble the very types of
government that we condemned in Eastern Europe during the Cold
War,' offers Stahl. 'One wonders: Is it a problem of evil people,
or is it one of an evil institutional system? I've seen some of
each, but more often than not what I've seen are boring people
acting stupidly and ignorantly because of the institutions they
work for... In a democracy, a person shouldn't have to worry
about losing [their] job for speaking the truth.'

Undoubtedly, Rachel Carson would agree. - Third World Network
Features

-ends-


About the writer: Todd Wilkinson is the author of Science Under
Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth (Johnson Books,
Boulder, CO 80301), foreword by David Brower. The above, which
is excerpted from that book, first appeared in Earth Island
Journal (Fall 1998).


When reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network
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