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The Nation

Park Workers 'Openly' Opposing Bush Policies

Tension between the administration and government agencies grows as two employees in disguise criticize environmental stances.

November 14, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For the first few months of the Bush administration, if career employees at the agencies charged with protecting the environment disagreed with the new president's agenda, they expressed their concerns primarily among themselves -- or sometimes, demanding anonymity, to reporters.

Then several left their government jobs and started openly criticizing the administration, calling it hostile to wilderness, wildlife and clean air. Others stayed -- but tried to sabotage, or at least expose, administration initiatives by leaking documents to the media.

On Thursday, disagreements between the administration's environmental officials and some of their employees took a turn toward the bizarre.

Two longtime National Park Service workers -- disguised by dark glasses, hats and scarves -- arrived at the National Press Building in a sedan with tinted windows. Long before reporters filed in for a news conference, they hid behind a thick blue curtain.

Then, with their voices modified by a "voice disguiser" from a counterespionage store, they denounced the administration for "enacting policies and laws that will destroy the grand legacy of our national parks," as one put it.

The fact that the two men resorted to tactics usually reserved for organized-crime informants or witnesses in espionage cases suggests the intensity of the conflict between the administration and some longtime government employees who have spent their careers protecting natural resources.

David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service and a 28-year veteran at the agency, said the spectacle made him "angry."

He questioned whether the employees were who they claimed to be, and said their statements did not reflect the views of most of the agency's 17,000 permanent employees.

The environmental group that sponsored the news conference, the Campaign to Protect America's Lands, on Thursday released a survey of National Park Service employees that suggested broader dissatisfaction with the administration's leadership.

The Washington-based organization is a project of the Rockefeller Family Fund.

Of the 1,361 employees who responded to the e-mail survey, 84% said they had a "great deal of concern" about the effect of current policies on protecting park resources, and 59% said they believed that the situation had worsened in the last couple of years. Most of the respondents described themselves as satisfied with their jobs; however, 79% said morale had declined over the last couple of years.

Not Sold on the Survey

Barna stressed that the survey did not represent the feelings of most Park Service employees.

"Ninety percent of our employees did not respond to that survey," he said. "We don't really think you're getting a valid sample when you're only talking about 8%."

The two Park Service employees behind the curtain contended that many of their co-workers did share their concern about the effect of Bush administration decisions on national parks. As examples, they said that easing Clean Air Act regulations could mar spectacular vistas; allowing more logging on public lands near national parks in an effort to prevent forest fires could damage ecosystems; and permitting greater access in parks for recreational vehicles could harm flora and fauna.

"This administration has consistently worked counter to our mission and has violated the trust of the American people," said one of the men, who described himself only as a park ranger.

"A dark cloud looms over the purple mountains' majesty," he added. "The heart and soul of America is being sold out."

The Park Service workers declined to identify themselves, fearing retribution. Organizers of the news conference said they came up with the idea of having anonymous employees help them release their opinion survey after they tried to persuade employees to speak out.

Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and head of a coalition of retired Park Service employees, said he knew both employees and could vouch for them.

Level of Concern

It is hardly new for employees of environmental agencies to disagree with their bosses. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based alliance of government natural-resources professionals, was created in 1992 to help state and federal employees who feel that their bosses are acting contrary to the good of the environment.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group, said Thursday that since the administration took office, the number of government officials calling the group has almost doubled, and the callers are higher-ranking officials.

"The level of concern is much higher," Ruch said. "We attribute that to the fact that the Bush administration is changing policy across the board."

Many of the calls his group receives are from officials who say they are forced to implement policies that they believe run contrary to environmental laws that require protection of natural resources, he said.

Ruch says his group encourages workers not to speak out against their bosses, because whistle blowers' careers usually suffer. Instead, it urges them to keep doing their jobs and, in their spare time, join environmental groups or work through his group to raise public awareness and change policies.

The one thing that Ruch's group sells is boxer shorts with "undercover activist" on the backside. Sales, he said, are on the rise.

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