Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2002 / 15 Shevat, 5762
A flurry of reports followed. Some papers, like the Seattle Times, focused on the mailing of the lynx hair to the laboratories and let the government employees elaborate their excusethat they were just making a blind test of the laboratories' ability to identify lynx hair. There were reports that one or more of the employees notified their supervisors of what they were doing or kept personal notes saying that the lynx hair was obtained from captive animals. But everyone agrees that sending in the samples, with tags indicating where they were allegedly found in the wild and no indication they were obtained from captive animals, is not allowed under the survey procedures. Six of the employees were barred from surveying the area, and one retired. The names of the federal employees have not been revealed to protect their privacy.
Precisely what happened is not entirely clear. Even so, the story tells us a lot about how government environmental protection agencies work and how environmental issues are covered in most of the mainstream media.
It tells us, first of all, that there are people in environmental agencies who are willing to lie and cheat in order to produce evidence that can be used to restrict human use of the environment. And it tells us something about the agency culture. For this was not just individual lying and cheating. There was more than one individual in each of these agencies who did the same thing, and it seems very unlikely that they all came up with this idea on their own. And that means that people willing to lie and cheat thought that there was a significant likelihood that others in their agency would be willing to lie and cheat, and that it was very unlikely that others in the agency would blow the whistle on them. The cause of restricting human use of the natural environment is so important, so worthy, so good, that it justifies such behavior. Lying and cheating, evidently, is part of the culture of these agencies.
The heads of the agencies would certainly like us to think lying and cheating is uncharacteristic. But they admit that the credibility of their agencies is placed in doubt by these incidents. "I spent many years training to become a biologist and consider this a slap in the face to myself and other biologists," Jeffrey Koenings, director of the Washington State department, told the Duluth News-Tribune. "Our integrity and professionalism is now being questioned because of the arrogant actions of a few." Barbara Weber, a U.S. Forest Service official in Washington State, told the Seattle Times, "It affects the reputation of us as an agency overall because we say we are a science-based organization. If people are tainting data and planting data, that speaks to the integrity and credibility of the agency as a whole and any policy we make with that data."
The story about the lynx hair fakery was broken in the conservative-leaning Washington Times, and stories on the subject appeared in the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., the Columbian in Vancouver, Wash., and the Christian Science Monitor. A Nexis search turned up nothing on the subject in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Perhaps that's not surprising, but the storiescasting grave doubt on the credibility of government environmental restriction agenciesdon't fit the template of recent Times and Post stories on the environment. Look at a January 13 Times news story, on the Bush administration's environmental record. As Andrew Sullivan notes in his invaluable andrewsullivan.com, this story "assumes several things: (a) that the conventional left-liberal approach to environmental policy is correct; (b) that there is no reason for the Bush administration to pursue a marginally different environmental agenda than Clinton, except to cater to business interests; and (c) that, if the administration does do some pro-environmental things, it cannot possibly do them except out of naked political calculus, rather than the merits of the case." Absent from the article is any substantive argument made in behalf of any Bush policy. Present in good number are characterizations by so-called environmental groupsa more accurate, value-free description is environmental restriction advocates.
Or consider a January 14 Washington Post story on Interior Secretary Gale Norton's refusal to relay the Fish and Wildlife Service's criticism of an Army Corps of Engineers proposal. The lead paragraphs of the story quote copiously from Fish and Wildlife's statement. It quotes later environmental restriction advocates. Only far down in the text is the Army Corps allowed to provide, briefly, the rationale for its position, and Secretary Norton's spokesman to explain her approach. To the writer's credit, Fish and Wildlife is characterized as "an agency dominated by biologists who tend to tilt green on environmental issues."
The writer might have added, if he had kept up with the Washington Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the regional papers covering the faked lynx hair story, that it is an agency at least some of whose employees lied and cheated by forwarding evidence that could be used to impose environmental restrictions. An agency with, we have some reason to believe, an institutional culture that tolerates lying and cheating if it helps impose environmental restriction. An agency that, until it sharply disciplines the employees who lied and faked data, does not seem greatly to mind such behavior. Liberal national media are quite ready to make it clear when there is reason to doubt the credibility of agencies (like the Army Corps) opposing environmental restrictions. But they seem to regard environmental restrictionists, whether in government agencies or in organizations financed by direct-mail appeals, as people acting totally out of altruistic motives whose positions are the only ones people concerned with the environment could take.
As for the rest of us, we are free to remain skeptical when the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, or the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife tells us something is