Thanks largely to Bob Woodward and his trusty Deep Throat, whistleblowing is a vastly overromanticized endeavor. Government professionals who wish to publicize, and thereby alter, official behavior that they find unethical or illegal actually have few attractive options. Speaking openly about the problems of the agency that employs you is apt to be extremely unhealthy — even fatal — to the average public service career. Blowing the whistle through "proper" channels is often a good way to gain assignment to your agency’s Fargo, N.D., branch office, whistleblower-protection laws notwithstanding.
And because I’ve spent about half my working life as a reporter, and about half of that time listening to the complaints of government employees, I can tell you that government whistleblowers who decide to provide the press with information on a confidential basis often consign themselves to months or years of hellish stress. No matter how careful an unnamed whistleblower and his reporter are, if the information made public is embarrassing enough, the agency involved will go to amazing ends to find and punish the leaker. And as recent federal leak investigations show, today’s unnamed and public-spirited whistleblower can be tomorrow’s unemployed malcontent (or, in some cases, tomorrow’s criminal defendant).
So it is nice to read, in Stephen J. Lyons’ "Old but Faithful," about the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, a group that has, in its short 3-year life, served whistleblowers, reporters and the public interest, all at once. The group, which includes a remarkable array of former national park supervisors, acts as an intermediary, funneling inside information and documents about threats to the national parks from the Park Service rank-and-file to the general public.
Already, Lyons notes, the retiree group has achieved a signal success, revealing a set of proposed revisions to national park management policies authored by Paul Hoffman, a former executive director of the Cody Chamber of Commerce now serving in the Interior Department’s upper reaches. Working through major newspapers, the group made a national issue of Hoffman’s absurd revisions — which seemed to value motorized recreation in the parks over their long-term preservation, among other things — and stopped them cold.
The retiree coalition joins other groups — among them Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, a group of local, state and federal workers — that help protect government professionals who want to bring their environmental policy concerns to the press, and thereby the public. The Park Service retirees will never be as sexy as Deep Throat, and it’s unlikely a movie will ever be made about them. No, they’ll just have to settle for saving Yosemite, Yellowstone and a few dozen other natural cathedrals, for all Americans and all time.
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.