The other bottom line

  • Matt Jenkins

 

One of the Bush administration’s trademarks is its absolute determination to run government like a business. Economic efficiency is job number one, and government is being ruthlessly pared down — and shopped out — in the pursuit of that goal.

It’s increasingly obvious that the strategy has gotten us into deep trouble in Iraq, where the administration’s attempt to fight a war on the cheap now has no end in sight. And as HCN Editor Greg Hanscom details in this issue’s feature story, the strategy is taking its toll on the land-management agencies as well.

The story focuses on the U.S. Forest Service’s so-called Content Analysis Team, whose painfully unsexy mission was to analyze the waves of public comment on proposed federal rules and present its findings to agency decision makers. The team was the best in the business, but last year it was disbanded and its work put out to bid.

Big deal, right? It is. It’s a critically important story about how we’re trading in our public servants for government contractors — and cutting out the heart of a public-trust ethic that often goes unappreciated.

According to biographer Char Miller, the Forest Service’s first chief, Gifford Pinchot, was constantly worried "about how to instill a sense of professional integrity" in his newly created agency, particularly in the face of a boom in large-scale, "corporate" forestry.

The Forest Service has changed a lot since Pinchot’s time; he probably could not have dreamed that his agency would ever include anything even remotely like the comment-crunching CAT team. But the sense of integrity in the Forest Service, and in agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, has remained strong. It has actually gotten stronger, as the emergence of groups like Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility testifies. And at the end of the day, after all the cost-benefit analyses of government privatization have been bandied about, that integrity — and the health of the land — should be the bottom line.

In a February 2002 interview, Mark Rey, the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who oversees the Forest Service, told me that the agency was beset with "analysis paralysis"; the Forest Service was besieged with so much public comment, appeals and lawsuits that it was simply melting down. It was exactly the kind of world that the CAT team was created to make sense of.

At the time, Rey decried the rise of "a breed of critics that have become skilled in simply the demolition of institutions." It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that there’s no faster way to demolish an institution than by parting it out to the lowest bidder.

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 [email protected].

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