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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

Friday — February 20, 2004


Don’t equate
with business

Commentary by J. ROBB BRADY

J. Robb Brady is the former publisher of the Post Register in Idaho Falls and a member of its editorial board.

Why not run government like a business? Indeed, why not hire business to run government?

Makes sense, right?

Maybe not.

Government is not a business—and never will be. Blur the distinctions too much and you’re asking for trouble.

Case in point: The Bush administration’s feverish push to hire private contractors to do national forest work now performed by civil servants.

It’s prompted a farcical poster from critics in the environmental community: "Welcome to your National Forest, managed by Extraction Inc."

The Bush administration has brushed it off as "another example of environmental extremism."

But is it? In a state like Idaho—where the federal government owns two-thirds of the land—the implications of this policy could not be larger. If you hike, camp, hunt, fish, watch wildlife—or just rely on a quality natural environment to preserve watersheds—you have a big stake in what’s going on here.

For one thing, you can’t be sure going private—which requires INEEL-style specifications (and lawsuits)—is truly more efficient than hiring professional staff who can move flexibly from job to job. When U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth met with the Post Register last month, he said the Forest Service has been successful in demonstrating the advantages of keeping much of this work in-house.

And for another thing, you can’t be sure where the private contractor’s loyalty lies.

In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—under orders from the Bush administration—reversed itself and hired a private company to determine the status of the endangered northern spotted owl in Oregon.

Turns out the contractor earns 44 percent of its money from the timber industry—which is blocked from harvesting trees in areas deemed to be habitat for the owls.

Makes you wonder which was the primary focus: Protecting owls or logging?

Here’s another example: In October, the Bush administration hired a contractor to write a management plan for the Steens Mountain National Monument in Oregon. Turns out the private consultant has ties to the mining industry.

Surprise! The company recommended opening up the monument—Oregon’s largest public landscape—to mineral exploration.

When civil servants perform this work, they are bound by ethics laws and they are held accountable to the American taxpayer. Not so for private consultants or contractors.

Federal employees are prohibited from accepting gifts or bribes from those doing business with the government.

Not so for private consultants.

Federal employees cannot feather their nest by advancing projects that profit their family or friends. Their work is subject to disclosure under public records and freedom of information laws.

Not so with private consultants.

Federal employees can’t moonlight if it creates a conflict of interest with their primary job. They can’t accept pay for representing outside business interests in matters involving federal decisions.

Not so with private contractors.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics—which has filed a lawsuit challenging the concept—says the Bush plan is targeting 75 percent of the agency’s work force. Work now performed by Forest Service staff biologists, soil scientists, archaeologists, fisheries experts, hydrologists and foresters will be studied for "outsourcing."

Every national forest in Idaho could be affected. But it doesn’t stop there. Indeed, there also are plans to hire a contractor to do work now performed by the Federal Aviation Administration in Boise--Idaho’s only weather and flight safety office. It’s possible a private contractor would move this operation out of state.

If you value a Forest Service that has only one master—the public—you better hope the "outsourcing" critics prevail in court.


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