The New McCarthy?

Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) embarks on a witch hunt of his own -- for environmentalists.

| Tue Sep. 22, 1998 12:00 AM PDT

"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Sierra Club?" If Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) has his way, government workers may soon be answering such questions under the glare of Congressional interrogation.

On July 28, Young sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque that sent shivers through environmentalists and civil libertarians alike. The Congressman demanded that Regional Forester Eleanor S. Towns answer a long list of questions about a controversial lawsuit that ended in a Forest Service decision to remove cattle from overgrazed range in three National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. Young, the chairman of the House Resources Committee and a friend to ranching interests, wanted the names of all Forest Service employees involved in the case. But he wanted to know a lot more than that:

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13. Is the Forest Service aware of whether any of their employees are members of any organizations that are involved in these cases or contribute money to any of the organizations involved in these cases, including but not limited to the Forest Guardians, Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, The Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society or any local affiliated organization?...

17. Did any Forest Service, or any Department of Agriculture employees have any contact with the Forest Guardians or Southwest Center for Biological Diversity prior to the six days before the start of the Tucson hearing in April? If so, please identify the personnel and the nature of the contact.

18. Identify all Forest Service or Department of Agriculture personnel that were involved in this case.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists immediately dubbed Young's inquiry a "witch hunt" redolent of Joe McCarthy -- but to Young's chagrin, so did Western newspapers like the Santa Fe New Mexican, Lewiston (Mont.) Morning Tribune, Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, and Arizona Daily Star.

"What's next?" cried Wilderness Society president William Meadows. "Library records? Video store rentals? Church membership? ...The First Amendment guarantees all Americans the freedom of association, and Congressmen are sworn to defend these rights, not undermine them. It will be a sad day when we have to start telling our bosses which groups we belong to."

"We think this is yet another outrageous example of Congressman Young using his position as chairman of the House Resources Committee to intimidate federal civil servants," charged Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "He threatened budget cuts several months ago, now he's going after private associations. Frankly this question is none of his business."

Young insists he's making a legitimate inquiry into whether the Forest Service "has become a captive agency" to environmentalists; ranchers say they were shut out of negotiations leading to the grazing decision, and Young has said he suspects Forest Service employees leaked government documents to greens during the lawsuit (though he hasn't said why a public lands agency should be keeping any documents secret in the first place).

Since the outcry hit the papers, Young has tried to put a softer spin on his inquiry. In an August 7 letter responding to the Santa Fe New Mexican, Young claimed he hadn't really asked for any list of employees' names (although his questions #17 and #18 clearly say to "identify personnel" who worked on the case or had contact with environmental groups). Instead, he explained in a Clintonesque wriggle, he asked only whether the Forest Service was "aware" of employees affiliated with such groups: "This only requires a yes or no answer."

Hairsplitting aside, some observers say the Congressman's queries may run afoul of the Constitution. "The Supreme Court has held that the chilling effect on membership that results when government employees or private citizens are required to disclose their membership or participation in political advocacy organizations can be great," says American Civil Liberties Union constitutional lawyer Ann Brick. "One of the reasons people are in a political advocacy association is so that others will know they are not speaking alone. Free association is an important First Amendment right, closely related to free expression; it gets the highest degree of protection."

Just yesterday Young got much of what he asked for, when Regional Forester Eleanor Towns responded with a detailed list of answers, including the names and credentials of all Forest Service employees who worked on the grazing case, but not those contacted by environmental groups just before the hearing -- and not a word about their environmental or political affiliations. "In fact," Towns noted in her letter, "the Privacy Act prohibits the Agency from maintaining records of such First Amendment information." As USFS spokeswoman Carolyn Bye told the Washington Times last month, "[Young] asked us if we're aware, and our response will be that we're not aware."

Nevertheless, the names of dozens of Forest Service veterans are now on Don Young's desk, and environmentalists say the Congressman's probe has succeeded in one of its true aims: spooking government workers who care strongly about the environment.

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