During a recent visit with troops in Kuwait, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a rare, unchoreographed moment, opened the floor to questions. He got a zinger. Why, asked one serviceman, are troops forced to scrounge through dumps in search of scrap metal, so they can outfit their vehicles with makeshift armor? The question, and Rumsfeld’s terse answer, created a stir in the media, despite the fact that this was not news to many servicemen and women. There’s been a shortage of human body armor, too, and some military families have been forced to buy it stateside and ship it to their loved ones.
The troops in the Middle East aren’t the only ones who are not getting the resources and backup they need. The civil servants who manage our public lands, protect our wildlife and fish, and make sure our air and drinking water are clean, are also being squeezed. The annual government-funding bill, signed by the president in early December, saw most land-management agencies’ budgets stagnate. The National Park Service got a boost, after budget shortfalls in that agency made headlines last summer, but observers say it won’t make a dent in the agency’s multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog.
The Bush administration is asking land managers and environmental regulators to be good soldiers and just follow orders, though those orders sometimes go against the legal and moral frameworks they are supposed to uphold. With increasing frequency, agency scientists are watching their work get twisted to accommodate big business.
Meanwhile, the administration has done its best to shut down the exchange of information between government and the public that is central to our democracy.
Those who dare question authority or stray from the party line face serious consequences. Teresa Chambers, the Park Service police chief who told the Washington Post about money woes in her agency, was promptly fired.
It’s a surreal time. But, as the cover story in this issue shows, many public employees are finding ways to stand up for their ethical responsibilities, uphold the laws and share information with the public, regardless of the orders coming down from Washington. And rightly so: Technically, public employees answer to a chain of command that ends with George W. Bush, but in principle they work for you and me.
If they’re going to work on our behalf, they’ll need our support. They’ll need the public to provide counterbalance to the administration’s industry-driven agenda. And the past few years have shown that alliances between the public and civil servants can be powerful enough to, at the very least, create some moderation. Witness Wyoming and Montana, where land managers have backed off on oil and gas drilling proposals in recent months to protect the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Rocky Mountain Front.
So dive in, get involved, send your local land manager or environmental regulator a letter, weigh in on the important issues. Public support can provide them with a powerful shield in a time when there are a lot of bullets in the air. It’s the closest thing they’ll get to body armor.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.