Gutsy scientists stand up to bureaucratic juggernaut

  • Book cover of "Science Under Siege"

 

Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth
By Todd Wilkinson, Johnson Books, Boulder, Colo., 1998. Paperback, $18. 364 pages.

The struggle to protect the American landscape is often portrayed as a boxing match between powerful corporations and gritty environmentalists.

That simplistic picture leaves out a less-heralded yet equally critical player: the federal or state agencies that hold the keys to our public lands and wildlife.

These bureaucracies - the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the state divisions of wildlife and many others - have long been seen as single-minded organizations where everyone marches to the same drumbeat.

But ever since Congress began passing strict planning laws to prevent pollution, save species and moderate public-land use, that vision has eroded. Today, as Todd Wilkinson's book, Science Under Siege, aptly illustrates, titanic battles are taking place between field scientists and their more politically minded bosses. Call it the environmental war within the environmental war.

Wilkinson, a journalist from Bozeman, Mont., chronicles this struggle through the tales of a dozen or so agency biologists who have fought to be heard within their own agencies, often at great professional peril. They aren't household names: U.S. Forest Service fisheries biologist Al Espinosa, who sounded the alarm about timber practices in northern Idaho and how they were silting in habitat for native fish; Bureau of Land Management hydrologist Ben Lomeli, who fought to keep water in Arizona's last free-flowing river, the San Pedro, and unwittingly earned the enmity of the developers who wanted to keep pumping water from the aquifer; Jeff Van Ee, a pollution specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency in Nevada, who has been threatened with both criminal prosecution from the U.S. Justice Department and the loss of his job for being a Sierra Club activist in his spare time; Jane Roybal, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who refused to rewrite documents critical of timber sales and other developments on Idaho's Targhee National Forest against the will of her supervisors.

Make no mistake, Wilkinson has chosen heroes and villains in these tales, not all recent; and his heart lies with the "combat biologists," who in his introduction he describes as the natural heirs of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold and Olaus Murie. But though you won't find a lot of face-to-face conversations with upper-level bureaucrats and politicians in his book, Wilkinson has pulled together a remarkable set of interviews and documentation to back his position.

The most powerful story in the book is the chapter on Jeff DeBonis, the former Forest Service timber marker who played an instrumental role in creating room for dissent within federal agencies. Wilkinson's almost biblical rendition of how DeBonis, once an ardent proponent of his agency's log-at-all-costs mentality, saw the environmental light in the late 1980s and began a revolution through the creation of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE), should inspire even the most middle-of-the road conservationists.

Adding strength to the DeBonis story are interviews with people who knew DeBonis before his change of heart. Gloria Flora, the forest supervisor who recently stopped oil and gas drilling on Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, recalls that the DeBonis she knew in his days in northwestern Montana was "a timber beast; by that I mean he was quite focused on getting the cut out at almost any cost. I have to admit he was very good at his job," she adds.

Such candid admissions are what keep you turning the pages of Science Under Siege, which is by no means a book for those looking for a fast and easy read. But the effort is worth it. In the end, Wilkinson leaves you feeling admiration for the unsung heroes who slog it out in our public agencies, and anger at an entrenched political system that has made it so hard for them to do their jobs.

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