All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1993


Jailing “eco-criminals” teaches the necessity for bowing and scraping to the federal bureaucracy.

Dr. Orient is a physician in private practice in Tucson, Arizona.

In a little noticed speech last year, William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), boasted of past success and set the agenda for the future: “George Bush said the polluters would pay if they broke the law and during the past three years the Bush Administration has collected more penalties and sent more violators to jail for longer sentences than in the rest of the EPA’s 18-year history combined.”

Rioters may be free in Los Angeles, but the Feds are jailing “polluters.”

Three men have already served time in federal penitentiary for inadvertent “criminal” violations of wetlands regulations (Ocie Mills, Carrie Mills, and John Pozsgai). The “pollutant” involved was common dirt–the kind found on construction sites and in backyards everywhere.

The fourth person found guilty of crimes against the Earth, Bill Ellen, reported to prison earlier this year. The Department of Justice announced that Ellen’s sentence “should send a clear message that environmental criminals will, in fact, go to jail. Those who commit criminal environmental insults will come to learn and appreciate the inside of a federal correctional facility.”

But prison cannot serve as a deterrent unless the public learns what behavior is supposed to be deterred. Those who don’t want to have to explain to their toddlers why they are going to jail (Bill Ellen has two young sons) had better pay attention to Ellen’s crime.

This is what the notorious outlaw did:

1. He accepted a job as a marine and environmental consultant to oversee the construction of a hunting and conservation preserve. He did so because of his interest in wildlife. For six years, he rehabilitated and returned to the wild nearly 2,000 ducks, geese, loons, egrets, herons, squirrels, songbirds, deer, and other creatures.

2. During the course of the construction, Ellen dared to challenge a bureaucrat’s definition of “wetland.” He did so because of his contractual obligations, to avoid penalties from the contractors. Ellen argued that the state’s head soil scientist, an employee of the Soil Conservation Service, had classified the area in question as an “upland,” not a wetland.

3. During the time that the dispute with the bureaucrat was being adjudicated, Ellen allowed his crew to dump two truckloads of dirt on the site before shutting down the work completely.

The Supreme Court declined to review the legal aspect of Ellen’s case, and he served six months in a federal penitentiary for this crime. His wife, Bonnie Ellen, had to do the best she could to shield the children and to keep some aspects of her husband’s business going in his absence.

“I have no idea how I can pay all the bills,” she said, when her husband was sentenced.

Although he pardoned a number of offenders on Christmas Eve, (including convicted bank robbers and drug dealers), President Bush did not pardon Bill Ellen.

The federal government itself doesn’t know what a “wetland” is, and the average citizen has no hope of being able to tell because often a “wetland” looks completely dry.

The most important lesson jailing “eco-criminals” teaches is the necessity for bowing and scraping to the federal bureaucracy, and for the most extreme caution in undertaking any development, even of a wildlife refuge. One mistake, and the bureaucracy has the power to tear the most civic-minded breadwinner away from his family, leaving him to the mercy of the murderers and molesters inside the prison, while his wife and children face a lonely struggle outside.

  • Jane M. Orient obtained her undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from the University of Arizona in Tucson, and her M.D. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1974. She completed an internal medicine residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital and University of Arizona Affiliated Hospitals and then became an Instructor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a staff physician at the Tucson Veterans Administration Hospital. She has been in solo private practice since 1981 and is still a clinical lecturer in medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.