WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A letter came the other day from Tom Locker. He is a 41-year-old captain in the firefighting corps of the U.S. Forest Service in California. He is also, self-evidently, a male. This is important.
Mr. Locker is effectively denied promotion within the Forest Service, not because he lacks experience or qualifications. He has 17 years of experience and is fully qualified. He is stuck in grade because, when it comes to promotions within Region Five of the Forest Service, no males need apply.
This is exactly the evil that President Bush was going to assail before he lost his nerve a week ago. Such discrimination is pervasive within the federal government, where ''affirmative action'' has some highly negative human consequences.
The Forest Service story goes back to December 1972, when Gene Bernardi, a female sociologist with the service, complained of discrimination. Eventually she filed suit; the suit became a class action; in July 1981, a U.S. district judge entered a consent decree. Under the decree, the Forest Service did not admit discrimination, but it agreed to a plan of ''goals and guidelines'' to enlarge the employment of women throughout the affected region. The decree was to remain in effect for five years, when results would be examined.
Since then the goals and guidelines have become, for all practical purposes, out-and-out quotas. Two months ago, word spread within Region Five that some fire-management officers were telling young men, off the record, not even to apply: ''You are of the wrong gender.''
Richard A. Henry, director of aviation and fire management, issued an ''alert alert alert'' denying the allegation. He said: ''This program is an Equal Opportunity Program which is available to males and females alike -- not one gender or another.''
Then Mr. Henry added: ''There is a consent-decree requirement that we meet 65 percent female if it is attainable given the applicant pool, but that still leaves 35 percent for other selections.''
Tom Locker writes: ''The quota system is tearing the agency apart, creating animosity and mistrust between men and women, management and workers, and lowering the agency's ability to do its job. . . . We spend much more time, energy and money managing our own work force than carrying out the mission Congress has assigned us. I'm writing this letter in the hopes of getting some public attention on the issue. If taxpayers see the tremendous waste this affirmative-action program is creating, and when ordinary citizens see the pain and unfairness of these systems, they may have second thoughts about supporting others in the future.''
It is not uncommon, Mr. Locker says, for job vacancies to be announced three or four times. He provided a recent specific example. The Forest Service invited applications to be received by September 16 for enrollment in the apprenticeship academy next February. The period was extended to October 16 for want of ''an adequately diverse applicant pool.'' No males need apply.
On October 4, Mr. Locker sent a notice of complaint to the service's equal-employment counselor in San Francisco. He listed 18 positions for which he had applied since March. Two men were promoted to fire-management officer, one in Six Rivers, the other in Tahoe. But in Sierra, Angeles, Klamath, Cleveland, San Berdo, Sequoia, Stanislaus, Eldorado, Mendocino and Plumas the results were the same: ''Female selected . . . Female selected . . . Female selected.''
Mr. Locker is not a lonesome malcontent. Jan R. Seils retired two years ago after 28 years with the Forest Service. He wrote a sad letter: ''We have a work force of many underexperienced women and disgruntled men.'' Fifty men in the Forest Service filed suit last January seeking relief from the quotas. Earlier an administrative-law judge found their documentation ''very strong.''
I asked Mr. Locker if I could quote him by name. ''Feel free,'' he said. ''The agency has taken away my merit promotion rights. They have yet to take my freedom of speech.'' This is what ''affirmative action'' is all about. Would George Bush care to comment?
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.