Published on Monday, June 3, 2002 in the Los Angeles Times
A Natural Split With Bush, and Many Quit
Longtime, Key Officials Who Favor Conservation Say They Are Frustrated By New Rules.
by Elizabeth Shogren
James Furnish is hardly the kind of person you'd expect to quit his government job on principle during the Bush administration. A political conservative and an evangelical Christian, he voted for President Bush and plans to do the same in 2004.
Instead, Furnish reluctantly left the government in the fall, at a substantial financial sacrifice, because he was frustrated by what he called the Bush team's strident pro-development philosophy and unwillingness to even listen to his perspective. That makes him one of a number of senior career officials across several environmental agencies who have quit since the Bush administration took over. They include senior lawyers from the Environmental Protection Agency, a state director for the Bureau of Land Management, scientists with years of experience and top bureaucrats in Washington.
Some of them left in protest, silent or loud. Others left because they believed the new administration had put them on a shelf, and they refused to stay there.
But in each case, the decision to leave a well-paid job after years or even decades of service reflected concern over the Bush administration's efforts to make environmental regulations more friendly to businesses and promote energy extraction from federal lands.
The departures also reveal that under the Bush team, divergent views in the top ranks of these agencies have been ignored and key career government officials who were seen to favor protecting natural resources over promoting their use have been removed from power.
Whether the number of departures is unusual is difficult to say. No one chronicles resignations on principle, and a Republican had not taken the White House from a Democrat for 20 years.
Eric Ruff, spokesman for the Interior Department, said staff changes were normal in a new administration. "This is not something that's unique to this administration," Ruff said.
Whether or not the departures are unusually numerous, Paul Light, vice president for governmental studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said they were very costly.
"A lot of these people came to government in the 1960s and 1970s because they believed in the mission," Light said. "It's very frustrating for someone who came into government for the mission to reach the top of their career and be told that doesn't matter, it's all about politics."
Although Furnish, for example, was one of the most senior career officials in the Forest Service, the new administration's political appointees did not invite him to any pivotal policy-making meetings.
Three times he was scheduled to testify before Congress; three times political appointees canceled his testimony at the last minute.
Furnish did not expect to make policy for the new administration, but he did expect that his senior post would give him the right to express his views and be included in policy discussions. Instead, he was shut out.
In the Clinton administration, he played a key role in shaping the policy of banning road building and logging in almost 60 million acres of national forest land. He was also central to an initiative that would have required forest planners to consider environmental preservation above all other goals when deciding how national forests would be managed.
"I've been disappointed and somewhat embittered with how the [Bush] administration has sought to undo them or not defend them," Furnish said. "But I'm a realist and pragmatist and I understand it's their day now."
Furnish took a financial hit by leaving when he did. His retirement income will be about $10,000 less a year for the rest of his life than if he had waited about a year longer.
Forest Service Chief Dale N. Bosworth said Furnish was experiencing the predictable discomforts of a shift in administration, which he may have escaped earlier in his career because he was stationed in national forests in the Rocky Mountains and coastal Oregon.
"Every time we have a change of administration, we have a job of building trust between us and the new administration," said Bosworth, who is also a career government employee. "Until we build that relationship, there is going to be some uneasiness."
Like Furnish, other top career executives in the environmental agencies complain they were cut out of the loop. Some were abruptly reassigned.
When the Bush administration took office, Martha Hahn, 47, was one of very few women who had reached the level of state director for the Bureau of Land Management. She was responsible for 12 million acres in Idaho, almost one-quarter of the state.
In seven years on the job, she said, she tried to balance preserving clean water, wilderness and wildlife with allowing multiple uses of the land, such as grazing.
Soon after the Bush administration took over, things changed. Headquarters started making decisions on her turf without her. Some of her decisions, such as those on grazing plans, were overruled in Washington.
But even before the new BLM chief officially started work, Hahn received a letter from Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles telling her that she was being transferred to a previously nonexistent job in New York City. For a land manager who loves the Rocky Mountain West, it was the equivalent of being put out to pasture.
Hahn quit instead. "It's been a shock," she said. "I'm going through mental anguish right now. I felt like I was at the prime of my career. I was really clicking along, and I was tossed out."
The career official who made the most waves when he left was Eric Schaeffer, the former head of the EPA's enforcement office. He quit in March after 12 years at the agency, accusing the new administration of endangering public health by failing to aggressively pursue pending lawsuits against coal-fired power plants.
His departure was covered widely by the news media, which he said surprised him, and he testified about his complaints before Congress.
Anger played a big role in Schaeffer's decision to leave.
He and his staff could almost taste the victory from agreements in principle with two utilities to make massive pollution reductions. He said the administration undermined those settlements by waffling on the policy behind the lawsuits. He described himself as "furious all the time."
Other officials have left more quietly, and some declined to be quoted by name for this article.
Light has heard similar complaints before.
"This isn't the first administration to say to a career person, is that the only science that's available?" he said. "The lesson this administration learned from the Reagan administration is that regulations matter, control of science matters and keeping decisions to a very small number of highly motivated loyal lieutenants matters."
Younger government employees who became government servants to help protect the environment have also quit.
After just three years as an EPA staff attorney, Michele Merkel, 34, was convinced of the essential role that lawsuits and fines play in forcing companies to abide by environmental regulations, especially when whole industries are systematically ignoring pollution laws.
She was discouraged when Christie Whitman, the EPA's new administrator, told her unit she wanted to play down enforcement and instead lure companies to stop polluting voluntarily.
She was further disappointed when Whitman proposed cutting the enforcement budget and reducing the enforcement staff through attrition.
To Merkel, the frustration grew unbearable when this policy affected her ability to vigorously pursue cases in her specialty, concentrated animal feeding lots, which pollute waterways with excess nutrients and send ammonia and other toxins into the air. She found that the agriculture industry's sway over the administration was making it increasingly difficult to crack down on corporate farms.
"Ultimately what drove me out of the agency was the anti-enforcement philosophy of the current administration," Merkel said.
Merkel and the other officials who quit said they left many disgruntled colleagues behind.
Jeff Rook, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said his agency has talked with at least 20 Interior employees weighing quitting.
"They find themselves increasingly despairing; they're being asked to undo the work they've spent the bulk of their careers doing," Rook said.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times