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Statewide Environmental Informant Trend Raises Hackles Here and There


Watching Citizens Can Now Efficiently Report Adirondack Violations

Environmental snitching is catching on. With the successful settlement of a lawsuit against New York's Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation, still another efficient means for citizens to report each other to government is in place.

The latest snoop system promises that if a citizen makes a complaint about a potential violation related to the three-million acre Adirondack Forest Preserve, the complaint will be followed up and the complainer will be notified of the results of the investigation. The new snitch system, which includes a potential violation report with a tracking procedure, resulted from the settlement of a lawsuit brought by an environmental group, the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks.

In earlier public discussions at the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) meetings, the lawsuit seemed to have the purpose of correcting what was supposedly excessive widening of a maintenance road for forest rangers patrolling the Adirondack Forest Preserve. However, in December, the environmental group declared in a press release touting the new informant procedure, that "a system of public reporting, record keeping and investigation" was their "goal." By setting up the snoop system through a lawsuit settlement, the environmental organization and the agencies, which are widely regarded to work hand and glove with each other, avoided public hearings that could be required to institute new rules.

The environmental group launched a publicity campaign to let people know about the new "system of public reporting." Their executive director declared, "There is no better watchdog for the Forest Preserve than the public."

The state environmental department already has a citizen snoop system, called TIPP DEC, where snitchers are invited to call a toll free, confidential telephone number to report poachers and polluters. The department promises cash rewards to callers whose information leads to an arrest.

The new Adirondack snitch system is part of a national trend to enlist informants to help enforce environmental rules. New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a hotline to report threats to its upstate reservoirs, which collect water from the Catskill Mountains and lands east of the Hudson River. The city advertises its snitch number, 888 - DEP NYC1, for the "public to report conditions that threaten water quality in any of the streams, wetlands, ponds and reservoirs of the watershed." Sounds innocent enough, but the capability for citizen informants to precipitate harm to property owners abounds, considering that the first of several broad conditions that citizens are invited to report "anywhere within the watershed" is "failing septic or other waste-water treatment systems." The potential to report on neighbors is endless.

In 1999, when the city posted highway signs inviting people to report on their fellow citizens in the Catskills, there was an uproar from the local people. The DEP's spokeswoman said that environmental activists had urged the city to put up the signs, and that every step was overseen and approved by state transportation officials, according to the New York Post.

The Post reported in 1999 that the James Eisel, supervisor of the town of Harpersfield in Delaware County, remarked, "When I saw the signs, I thought of Communist Russia." The newspaper noted that Perry Shelton, who heads the Coalition of Watershed Towns, confirmed his thinking, "I don't think they ought to be encouraging people to rat on their neighbors."

Some of the snoop systems that are in place have been so subtle that property owners have not noticed their threat to privacy. Real property tax assessment data collection has immense capacity to incriminate. Property owners unwittingly allow assessors inside their domiciles and into their private backyards for the narrow purpose of fair tax collection. The assessor is a trusted local town official. But the construction information, for which law enforcement officials would often have to obtain a search warrant, is, with rare exception, entered on computers, from which it is accessible to APA law enforcement through the State's central assessment data bank.

One intrusive program that DEC carried on during the nineties was an aerial surveillance of the Adirondack Park with "The Flying 99's," an all-female national flying group that went airborne when the leaves dropped off the trees, looking for dumps inside the Adirondack Park.

More recently, the State completed a series of low-level flight flyovers of the entire state, photographing every inch of property to one ground-foot resolution in urban and environmentally sensitive areas (such as the Adirondacks) and two-foot resolution elsewhere. The photos are digitalized for geographic information system (GIS) applications, which could include overlays with other digitally mapped data ranging from DEC jurisdictional wetlands maps to APA land use regulation zones to local tax assessment maps.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paid $50,000 to the Sierra Club during the early Nineties to report on potentially illegal activity within wetlands. In an editorial, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise called them "wetland spies," with "an agency of the U.S. government paying one group of citizens to spy on others." Said the Enterprise, "That is the sort of thing that the former East German government did until it was overthrown."

The national trend toward citizen informant systems extends beyond the area of environmental regulation to other areas of government. Around the same time as the Sierra Club wetlands snoop contract, the federal Department of the Treasury Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms set up a toll-free snitch line 1-800-ATF-GUNS, and widely advertised that a person could report another person who has "too many guns" or "illegal guns." A syndicated column by Mike Blair observed that the program backfired when "crafty" gun owners fingered leftists and liberals, causing wasted efforts and confusion at BATF.

The Medicare administration rewards "whistleblowers" lucratively for reporting on their employers about overcharges. And, of course, there is the federal government's post 9/11 enlistment of private citizens to inform on friends and neighbors to protect the nation from terrorists. CBS reported last year that the FBI came to the door of a retired phone worker Barry Reingold after his fellow health club members reported him for criticizing the war in Afghanistan.

These days, the use of environmental agencies to "settle" grudges between neighbors is a contemptible, but not uncommon, human impulse. Ironically, citizens make the mistake of telephoning the Property Rights Foundation of America, the organization represented by this writer, to find out how to report their neighbors to the APA or DEC. (Instead of getting the information they seek, they receive a plea to observe the laws of human decency.)

A letter to the editor published in the Hamilton County News in early January exposes the moral decay represented by the snitch system that the radical Residents Committee has succeeded in setting up with their friends at the APA and DEC.

"The beauty of all this to the snitch-like mind is that the complainer is anonymous and there is no way one can find out who his denouncer is," wrote Timothy T. Bissell of Long Lake, who had once spent thousands of dollars, to no avail, to try to find out who his false accusers were. "This is serious stuff. It reminds me of…dictatorships where there is a 'block watcher' who reports everything to the government."

A person may violate a supposedly "environmental" law. But today there is trend to worse corruption than failing to comply with the complicated, unjust regulations the people of the North Country endure under the APA and DEC. Today we have corrupt government agencies inciting citizens to sink to a low moral level — to becoming informants on their neighbors.

Carol W. LaGrasse
January 23, 2005

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