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Whistle-Blower Activism Grows On Public-Land Issues in West

GOVERNMENT whistle-blowers are taking an increasingly active role in the debate over management of federal lands.

Throughout the giant landlord agencies -- including the United States Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Energy -- they are speaking out against what they feel are actions harmful to the environment.

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They are winning legal cases against their superiors. In some instances, they are shifting the federal bureaucracy toward greater openness and accountability. Some examples:

*Brian Hockett, a BLM range specialist in Montana, recently settled a dispute with his agency in which he cited a ''campaign of harassment'' by managers opposed to his vigorous enforcement of grazing regulations under the Clean Water Act.

Mr. Hockett claimed to have been relegated to doing ''weed surveys.'' Under the settlement, to be enforced by the Labor Department, Hockett has returned to his former work policing grazing allotments. ''The fact that I am still in Dillon [Montana] doing my job should send a message to other federal and state employees,'' he says.

*A public-employees watchdog group last week released an internal government report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which indicates that a large independent oil and gas producer has underpaid tens of millions of dollars in royalties for operations on federal land in New Mexico.

''With the new political mantra of cutting taxes and ending government waste, the BLM should make oil and gas accountability a top priority,'' says Jeff DeBonis, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

*In September, a Labor Department judge reinstated Energy Department scientist David Nochumson to his management position at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. This ended a three-year dispute in which Mr. Nochumson claimed to have been harassed for urging lab managers to comply with Clean Air Act regulations regarding radioactive releases.

''During a single five-month period Nochumson's supervisors threatened to abolish his job, limited his ability to communicate with other laboratory employees criticized him for filing his whistle-blower complaint, and told him that his job would be moved to another section into which he could not transfer,'' the judge wrote. ''In such circumstances, most reasonable people would perceive that they were working in a hostile environment.''

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ACTIVISTS within federal land-management agencies began to organize about five years ago when Mr. DeBonis, a former US Forest Service timber-sale planner, formed the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEE) in Eugene, Ore. Last year, this group spun off Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an umbrella group based in Washington, D.C., that often works with a public-interest law firm that defends whistle-blowers.

Similar groups are springing up as well, including the Reclamation Employees Organization for Ethics and Integrity, made up of those who work on federal water projects. ''CalPEER,'' an organization of California state agency employees, is working on pollution and water-resource issues in that state.

A just-launched PEER chapter aims to expose illegal activity on public land (such as the underreporting of natural-resource extraction) that agencies are unable or unwilling to uncover.

Membership in such organizations represents a small fraction of overall agency employees -- several thousand, according to group leaders. But tens of thousands more are on mailing lists, and newsletters are widely passed around to those who frequently provide inside information and quiet support.

At the same time, the attitude among many agency professionals is moving incrementally from emphasis on resource extraction toward environmental protection. A recent survey of rank-and-file Forest Service employees conducted by University of Washington researchers found that two-thirds believe current forest policies are not sustainable over the next century.

After 12 years of Republican rule, agency activists had hoped the Clinton administration would be more open to reform of federal land policy in such areas as timber, mining, and grazing. But they are critical of some senior administration appointees.

In a ''midterm report card,'' AFSEE recently gave Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas an ''A'' for directing employees to ''tell the truth, obey the law, and practice ecosystem management'' and a ''B-plus'' for being more willing to listen to a ''wider range of publics.'' But the group gave Mr. Thomas a ''D-minus'' for allowing harassment of whistle-blowers to continue.

Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, on the other hand, has won high praise for her active support of employees who reveal agency wrongdoing. Secretary O'Leary has declared ''zero tolerance for reprisals,'' and in October the Energy Department issued proposed initiatives to protect whistle-blowers.

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