Our Man In Washington: Helping Environmental Volunteers Gain Access to Government Information

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Environmental activists really need more cooperation when seeking access to government information.

President Nixon, in his inaugural address, called for more volunteer action and less reliance on the government. Rewriting John F. Kennedy’s popular maxim of a decade ago, the President said: “Ask not just what wilt government do for me, but what I can do for myself.”

Environmental groups, of course, have actively espoused “volunteerism” for years. They have been doing exactly what the President has advocated. Yet a new government-funded study offers considerable evidence that the Nixon administration has actually worked to discourage effective citizen participation.

This is documented in a 600-page study, prepared under the auspices of the National Center for Voluntary Action, which offers the first comprehensive took at volunteer environments! groups across the nation. Nearly a year in the making, the report reflects views from more than 600 environmental organizations. Interestingly enough, despite the current administration’s neglect, the overall forecast for the ecology movement appears hopeful.

“Our questionnaire data clearly shows,” the report says, “that growth in volunteer action, which appears to have surged around the time of Earth Day (April 22, 1970), has continued since.” A clear majority of the groups report growth in both total membership and the number of environmentally active (so-called “hard core”) members. Only 13 percent of the 600 organizations responding to the questionnaire report a decline in total membership .

At the same time, however, the study uses strong language in charging that government agencies especially the Environmental Protection Agency are “defaulting on their basic responsibility to aggressively promote citizen participation”.

The report cites, for example, the frequent complaints of ecology groups that government agencies and private industries cooperate in refusing to release basic information that the volunteers need. “The information willingly provided by government and industry, sometimes in great quantities, seems self-serving.” In contrast, the Information that environmentalists really need to develop responsible positions “is usually provided grudgingly if at all”.

When useful facts are squeezed out of the government it usually is only at the last possible moment. This, says the study, is why so many, ecologists seem so crisis oriented. They are unable to act until the last stages of the decision-making process. “Government and industry waste vast amounts of time and money as a result of a system under which so many projects reach the brink of implementation before a public confrontation on their merits takes place. Environmental groups, in turn, must expend energy and money to stop projects when they would rather use their scarce resources for constructive efforts.”

The report also criticizes EPA for the way it conducts environmental hearings. These hearings often provide the only opportunity for volunteers to participate in environmental decisions. Yet the study charges that “hearings usually take place after the basic decisions are made”.

Even good relations with agency field representatives can be “a source of frustration,” because decisions by such local agents are often overruled by bureaucrats in Washington. “It is not unusual in western areas of the county to find a local Forest Service agent who is well-liked and respected,” states the NCVA report. “He lives in the community and understands its problems. But residents of the community do not transfer the liking for him to the agency. They believe the local representative is as impotent as they are.”

Despite the many achievements of environmental volunteers and their continued impact on the American scene, the authors of the report conclude: “We often found a feeling of helplessness …. (and) a deep sense of frustration and distrust that extends to the whole governmental process.”

What can government, industry, and environmentalists do to redress such complaints? The NCVA study makes dozens of recommendations and here are some of the highlights:

• Establish 10 Regional Citizens Advisory Boards and a National Citizens Advisory Board to EPA to bring about more effective public participation in agency decisions. Only environmentalists would be allowed to sit on these panels. The report notes that there are currently 30 advisory boards to EPA, only two of which are non-technical in nature. On these two committees only two individuals come from recognizable environmental backgrounds.

• Establish on a trial basis an Office of Citizen Advocate to handle complaints from the public regarding EPA actions. “The need for machinery to handle citizen complaints on environmental decision-making is sufficiently urgent to warrant an experiment with an EPA Citizen Advocate.” At the same time the report urges Congress and the White House to consider funding an Office of Environmental Ombudsman: The jurisdiction of the ombudsman would extend beyond EPA to the environmental activities of all Federal agencies.

• Expand ACTION, the Federal agency for voluntary social work; to include a Corps of Environmental Volunteers. Currently, ACTION’s domestic role is limited largely to poverty programs. The report proposes that ACTION recruit and train individuals who would be available to environmental organizations already created and managed by local volunteers. Care should be taken, notes the report, not to usurp local autonomy. Only people with specific skills–such as biologists, hydrologists, engineers, economists, and attorneys–should be recruited. In addition, those workers should be signed up only to the extent that local groups are unable to find volunteers with these skills in their own community.

• Improve the flow of information. EPA should create environmental information centers and provide a toll free number to give ecology groups ready access to EPA data. Environmentalists themselves should establish one major national clearinghouse to coordinate existing regional and statewide information services. At the very least EPA should prepare a basic pamphlet explaining in detail the statutory mandate of EPA and its programs. “Current publications describing EPA are vague and directed more toward justification of EPA actions than the provision of factual information,” says the report. “Many citizen groups have no clear idea of EPA’s statutory authority.”

• Encourage employees to participate in volunteer groups. In industry, top officials should adopt explicit “free speech” policies so workers won’t feel inhibited from speaking their mind. In government, new civil service guidelines should be drawn up to encourage citizen participation. Federal employees, for example, should be allowed to accumulate at least one hour every pay period for volunteer activities.