That Time I was the Subject of a Federal Whistleblower Complaint


A page in my life story that I’d rather not have repeated, but a page that is interesting, was written back in the 1990s when I was a federal employee. I was working in public affairs for the USDA Forest Service in the Superior National Forest. This particular forest is also home to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), renowned for its canoe routes and primitive character.

As part of my job, I often helped with public meetings, and I wrote and edited documents. At the time, the agency was working on its first-ever management plan for the BWCAW. I wrote some of the background information for the plan and I edited the final version of the document. The plan required public comment, which we gathered by hosting meetings in towns across northern Minnesota. I sent out news releases about the meetings to the media and in general, just tried to ensure that people knew about the opportunity to comment.

Around that same time, I was a board member for our local chapter of the Audubon Society (you know, the environmentalist bird-lovers). I edited their newsletter and helped plan monthly programs. I can’t recall the exact timing of things, but I eventually quit the board because I was just too busy. The problem is, the new editor forgot to take my name off the board member list that was published on the back page of the newsletter.

After a few months, I noticed my name was still listed, and I asked the editor to delete it just for accuracy’s sake. A few more months later, it was still on there. I reminded the editor again, and he took it off.

As it turns out, it was too late. Somewhere during this time, the Audubon newsletter published a story in favor of the new BWCAW plan. Someone in Minnesota who was connected to the Blue Ribbon Coalition (an organization originating out West that advocates for the use of motorized vehicles on public lands) saw the newsletter story and noticed my name on the list of board members.

This person (who shall remain nameless) and the organization he was affiliated with did not like the new wilderness plan because it limited the use of motors in several areas where they had been allowed previously. He, with all the logic of the clueless, came to the conclusion that it was ALL MY FAULT that motors were being restricted in the plan because I was a board member of the Audubon group. He filed a complaint to this effect through the federal Whistleblower Program. He also complained about the manager of the BWCAW in a separate filing.

This was during a time when the Forest Service was getting political heat for not investigating claims. Heh heh, lucky us. Taxpayers got to foot the bill for an investigator to travel from Washington D. C. to Minnesota for several days to investigate us.

In the complaint about me (which I don’t think I ever got to read, but I got told about it by the investigator), the man claimed that my job within the agency put me in a position of power to influence the new rules that were being proposed in the plan, and that because I was a member of Audubon, I had a conflict of interest.

I explained to the investigator that I wasn’t even on the Audubon board when they developed their position in support of the BWCAW plan. I described the oversight that left my name on the back of the newsletter. I also explained my role in writing the plan, which did not include any omnipotent power to make up new rules against the use of motors in the wilderness. (I only WISH I had that type of power.)

Even though I was sure no wrong-doing would be found, being investigated by the feds was not comfortable, which was another outcome I’m sure the Complainer Guy wanted.

In the end, both the wilderness manager and I were found “not guilty,” and we were able to continue about our business. You can bet that we thought harder about how we did our business, but we continued it, nonetheless – savvier about the tactics used by some organizations.


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