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U.S. Forest Service Accused of Preventing Employee Communication with Press

Rating: Foothill

The Charge

In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service was accused of preventing its employees from communicating with the press about issues of national interest—a practice that was widespread under the Bush administration.1

A January 26, 2010 email from Kate Goodrich-Arling, the Public and Legislative Affairs Officer for the Monongahela National Forest, reminded employees that they “remain under strict instructions for talking with the media.”2  The e-mail specifies that when reporters contact Forest Service staff about a national issue, the staff may not respond but must instead instruct the reporter “to contact [the Forest Service’s] Washington office, ask for [the reporter’s] contact information, and let [Goodrich-Arling] know about the inquiry.”2

The message alludes to several possible reasons for sending the email to staff, including sensitivity around topics that have "been in the national media lately, like gas or wind development on public lands."2   This may be a reference to a January 2008 protest by Forest Service scientists that proposed natural gas drilling in the Monongahela National Forest would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act.3

Goodrich-Arling’s email to staff appears to be consistent with official Forest Service communications policies. The service’s Forest Service Manual encourages stations to release scientific and technical information "at the lowest possible organizational level," but only in the event that releases of such information don’t conflict with the requirement that issues of "national interest" or "possible controversy" be cleared or released by the Washington Office of Communications.4

Is it political interference in science?

Yes and No. While it is appropriate for agencies to tightly manage communication with the public about official policy, greater openness should be given to the communication of scientific findings and results.  Neither Goodrich-Arling’s email nor Forest Service policies draw strong distinctions between the communication of policy and science, leaving open the possibility that requirements such as these could be abused, keeping scientists from communicating their scientific analyses to the public.

David Sandretti, the Forest Service’s Acting Director of Communication, told UCS that while the Forest Service "doesn’t prohibit [scientists] from speaking out on their own time...when talking about national issues or research that is publicly financed, they need to check with the Washington office."5   Sandretti’s statements imply that scientists have a right to speak to the public and the media as private citizens, although that information was not contained in Goodrich-Arling’s email to staff.

What is the best way to ensure scientific integrity?

Several federal agencies, such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have adopted communications policies that protect the rights of federal scientists to speak freely about their research, so long as they make it clear that they are not seeking to represent agency policy.  The Forest Service should revise its outdated communications policies to provide clear and open guidelines to agency scientists about communication with the public.

 Sources:

1. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, OBAMA GAG ORDER ON FEDERAL WORKERS LIKE THOSE UNDER BUSH, News Release, January 28, 2010.
2. Kate Goodrich-Arling, “
What to do if you get a call from the media,” January 26, 2010.
3. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,
GAS DRILLING DIVIDES ANOTHER NATIONAL FOREST, News Release, March 11, 2009.
4. U.S. Forest Service, “
Forest Service Manual (FSM) - Service-wide Issuances,” 1997.
5. UCS telephone conversation with David Sandretti, 6/3/2010, 12pm

 

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