Six years into this grand experiment called the Bush-Cheney administration, it's easy to be blasé about how drastically morale has fallen within the offices of federal agencies. It's with respect, then, and not flippancy, that I write these words: The political system that destroys the careers and lives of environmentally minded civil servants is about to lay claim to another victim. This time, it's an economist with the Environmental Protection Agency who has just been diagnosed with cancer and who likely has but a few more months to live.
His name is Brad Crowder, and I met him in 2004, when I was interviewing Weston Wilson, a 30-year veteran of the EPA in Denver. Wilson was blowing the whistle on the agency's refusal to regulate hydraulic fracturing, the process by which gas drillers inject a mixture of water, sand and gas into underground coal beds to release natural gas.As Wilson and I left a downtown restaurant, I assumed we'd go our separate ways. Instead, he invited me back to EPA's Region 8 headquarters to meet with a few other staffers.
It was the afternoon before Thanksgiving; the office was empty except for those waiting for me. As the staffers told me about the challenges of their increasingly politicized jobs, I remember being struck not so much by their frustration as their dedication to the agency and their individual projects. Brad Crowder stood out from the group as he told me that his work reviewing projects that fell under NEPA- the National Environmental Policy Act- felt "futile." His only consolation, he said, was to "make a terrible proposal a little less terrible."
Crowder's situation at the agency worsened over the next year or two, as he spoke out about the environmentally destructive projects he saw passing through the office. After being reprimanded, filing a grievance, and being denied an arbitration process, Crowder chose reassignment out of the NEPA division. He found little to do in his new position but managed to stay busy: It's thanks to him that activists, journalists and Congress found out about the agency's plans to bypass Congress and rewrite the Endangered Species Act.
Brad Crowder and I corresponded over the years about specific EPA projects and policies. We also came to recognize one another as friends with similar tastes in music (Bob Dylan), books (Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden) and terrain (mountains and deserts). A month ago, I heard from him again: Diagnosed in June with advanced pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver, he told me and other friends that he had only a few more months to live.
The sad news made me think about the work our civil servants do for all of us, and the values that led them to those jobs. In almost every case, when the work involves the environment, I think it's because these people are passionate about protecting wildlife and the public lands we all own. The work they do every day, which benefits us all in the form of safe drinking water and still-wild places, is important, but it's taken a friendship to remind me that their personal lives almost certainly suffer because of their work.
That's easy to forget or perhaps ignore. I've heard plenty over the years about how demoralized many employees feel within agencies including the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and even the Army Corps of Engineers. It's easy to dismiss the stories as just one more jab by anti-Bush folks at the establishment. But now I wonder what that demoralization means for the people who experience it, day in and day out; how it must grind them down. They carry home the burden of knowing they could be doing far better work if the political climate were different. It's also disheartening to think about what that political constraint means for the country.
The other day I got a card from Brad. It told of his chemotherapy and how an outpouring of love from friends and family has made all the difference in what will likely prove to be his final months.He ends the note: "I cry constantly from joy. In raging against the machine, I wish I'd found so much love before. Maybe I would not have let the bastards kill me. Take the lesson, please."
I want him to know that I hear him, and that I take to heart the lesson he taught. By fighting back and speaking out, he really did make a difference.
Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.