A Conservationist’s Suicide

Note: The original newspaper account is still available in the LA Times archives for a fee. It was accompanied by photographs. It appeared on the front page of the Saturday edition. It was the first real coverage of Marlene’s suicide, except for a short paragraph in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, and tributes in environmental magazines. It broke open the issue of the need for a government investigation.

National monument official was distraught at shift she said favored grazing over grasslands

By Julie Cart and Maria L. La Ganga, Times staff writers
Los Angeles Times
August 20, 2005

CARRIZO PLAIN NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. First she killed her dogs, shot them in the head with a .38-caliber revolver and covered the two bodies with a quilt. Then Marlene Braun leveled the blue steel muzzle three inches above her right ear and pulled the trigger.

“I can’t face what appears to be required to continue to live in my world,” the meticulous 46-year-old wrote in May in a suicide note. “Most of all, I cannot leave Carrizo, a place where I finally found a home and a place I love dearly.”

Braun had come to the Carrizo Plain three years earlier, after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management placed her in charge of the new national monument — 250,000 acres of native grasses and Native American sacred sites, embraced by low mountains, traversed by the San Andreas Fault and home to more threatened and endangered animals than any other spot in California.

About 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Carrizo Plain National Monument is largely unknown to the outside world. But in Braun’s short tenure as monument manager, the plain had become a battleground between conservationists and the Bush administration over the fate of Western public lands.

What began as a policy dispute — to graze or not to graze livestock on the fragile Carrizo grasslands — became a morass of environmental politics and office feuding that Braun was convinced threatened both her future and the landscape she loved.

A 13-year veteran of the BLM, Braun was torn between the demands of a new boss who she felt favored the region’s ranchers, and conservation policies adopted nearly a decade ago to protecting the austere swath of prairie she shared with pronghorn antelope and peregrine falcons, the California condor and the California jewelflower.

Braun had worked in Alaska and Nevada and had long been committed to preserving the land that was placed in her care. But nothing in her background seemed to foreshadow her fate.

“Marlene was never troubled, as far as I knew,” recalled Sutton Edlich, a friend from graduate school who said he was “absolutely” shocked that Braun killed herself. “She wasn’t a happy-go-lucky person, but was a realist…. She was a complex person.”

In the months leading up to her death in May, Braun lost weight and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed antidepressants and tranquilizers. Friends worried that stress and isolation were taking a toll, but none interpreted her behavior as a sign of despair.

But Braun left behind clues. In her suicide notes, as well as a long chronology of her final year, she laid out her fears for the Carrizo and told how her life had become “utterly unbearable.”

“It’s a big step from feeling bad to wanting to die,” said Dr. Thomas A. Hicklin, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. But he said certain underlying factors can make some people more likely to take their own lives — among them depression and feeling trapped and without options.

Emotionally, Braun was “in a negative environment, with her own passions frustrated, and she’s also depressed,” said Hicklin, who did not treat her. “It’s a bad combination.”

Braun’s suicide is the latest chapter in a century of conflict between cowboys and conservationists in the drought-plagued Southwest, where livestock compete with wildlife for sparse vegetation, and hungry animals can turn grassland into desert.

“It’s important for me to control my destiny in this final act, and I am not afraid to die,” she wrote. “But I am very weary of working, moving and of dealing with conflict over environmental decisions that mean a lot to me.”

Braun wrote those words in an eight-page suicide note that she sent by express mail to her oldest friend, Kathy Hermes, a college history professor in Connecticut.

The note listed Braun’s bank account numbers, information about her life insurance policy and the name of a Realtor who could help Hermes sell property that Braun owned.

She sent a second note to the BLM office in Bakersfield, and authorities found a third near her body, placed on a bench in her rustic frontyard at the Goodwin Ranch. “I have committed suicide,” it said. “This is not a homicide.” On top of the note was Braun’s driver’s license. In her pocket, her organ donor card.

In some ways, the plain is an unlikely battleground. Low-slung and largely treeless, it is a natural resource unlike most others in California — hard to reach, harder to photograph, its beauty less accessible than that of Yosemite or Big Sur.

Far from pristine, the Carrizo’s narrow flatlands have been farmed and grazed for 150 years, the cattle moving alongside giant kangaroo rats, San Joaquin kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards.

Harsh and elegant, it is a landscape that first evokes respect, then admiration, and finally love. That, at least, is how it was for Braun.

“It’s been over 100F here at the Carrizo for the past few days, and I just filled up a big claw-foot tub in my frontyard, am going to grab a beer and a new book, and start soaking,” she wrote to childhood friend Deb Schmitt last year. “Kingbirds fight and carry on in the tree above the tub, and if I wait until dark, bats and barn owls come out and fly around above me.”

In winter, sandhill cranes swoop along Soda Lake. In spring, the Carrizo hillsides become a riot of wildflowers, their vibrant reds, oranges and purples visible from passing jets. Summers bleach the monument of color, the harsh sunlight scorching grasses to shades of celadon and taupe.

“She told me that sometimes she looked out on the landscape at Carrizo,” recalled Braun’s friend Sharmon Stambaugh, “and if the sun was coming down a certain way — the shadows — the beauty of it hurt her.”

The plain was designated a national monument in the last three days of the Clinton administration, one of several “midnight monuments” slipped in before President Bush took office.

But even before the Carrizo acquired that status, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and the BLM had been working to preserve the sweeping plain, which contained the remaining 1% of the grasslands that had once blanketed Central California. In the late 1980s, they began cobbling together a public preserve, the Carrizo Plain Natural Area.

By 1996, a partnership consisting of the conservancy, the BLM and the state Department of Fish and Game had completed a management plan to balance ranching and conservation.

The conservancy had transferred most of its holdings to the BLM and agreed to relinquish grazing rights on the condition that the needs of native species take precedence over cattle.

A Sept. 25, 1996, agreement states that “if BLM is no longer able to administer the livestock grazing for the objectives and in the manner described above, the grazing leases will revert” to either Fish and Game or the Nature Conservancy. In a written response, the BLM agreed.

In the years since, the Carrizo Plain’s managers have sought to repair damage from intensive grazing without putting the land off limits to ranchers who depend on it. And that, as Braun found out, is a perilous balancing act.

She was responsible for enforcing the cattle management policy formulated by the three partners. It was also her job to develop a comprehensive plan to guide land-use decisions for the next 20 years.

Braun did not advocate banning cattle from the plain — a patchwork of mostly public land with some areas of private property. But she did believe that more regulation was necessary. Her preference was to survey the condition of the grass each spring before deciding how many cows could forage.

Depending on rainfall the previous winter, Braun let anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand cattle a year graze in the monument, and she stopped some ranchers from grazing any livestock on the valley floor.

Some local ranchers complained that Braun’s management threatened to put them out of business. They said they couldn’t operate if they didn’t know until each spring how many cattle they’d be allowed to put out to pasture.

Carl Twisselman, who used to graze cattle in the monument and now represents ranching interests on one Carrizo advisory group, said Braun’s approach did not afford ranchers any certainty in making decisions critical to their business.

Like many ranchers, he didn’t think grazing was bad for the environment.

“I come from the standpoint that grazing’s good for the plants,” he added.

But not all ranchers shared that view. Irv McMillan, a longtime cattleman and friend of Braun, said that every time he saw her he congratulated her for the improvements she was making.

“She was able to keep the grazing off the bottom land for the last four years,” said McMillan, who did not graze cattle on the plain. “It was an amazing achievement compared to what had happened before it was a monument.”

But Ron Huntsinger, who became Braun’s boss in March 2004, took issue with her approach. After his transfer to the Bakersfield BLM office from New Mexico, he made it clear that ranchers should be allowed to graze under all but the most exceptional circumstances, according to memos, e-mails and interviews with people involved with the Carrizo Plain.

The agreement signed by the BLM obligated both Braun and Huntsinger to manage the plain in the best interests of native species — a responsibility they viewed in very different ways. When it came to the Carrizo Plain, they agreed on only one thing: a deep belief that the other one was wrong.

Braun arrived at the Carrizo at a time when the partnership among the BLM, the conservancy and Fish and Game was beginning to fray.

Despite the 1996 agreement, “there is controversy about levels of grazing use … and the perception that the BLM is reluctant and defensive about altering ‘its’ grazing program on the Carrizo,” Ron Fellows, who preceded Huntsinger in the BLM’s Bakersfield office, wrote in a lengthy memo laying out the situation to Braun when she arrived. “This whole issue is beginning to sour our relationship with [Fish and Game] and is reinforcing our defensive posture on the subject,” he continued. “The issue needs to be resolved.”

Fellows said he hired Braun for the Carrizo job in part because of her reputation as a workaholic — a necessary attribute for someone required to live in one of California’s remotest regions.

As her new boss had anticipated, Braun came into the job charging hard, tearing into a long list of tasks to complete. Early on, in particular, her zeal bowled over her own employees and others in the Bakersfield office.

Compromise was an alien term, especially if Braun thought she was right. Which was almost always.

“She was the right person for the job at the time,” Fellows said. But “she was an angel one day and a devil one day.”

“She left quite a wake,” said Carol Bustos, an administrative officer in the BLM’s Bakersfield office. “With Marlene, it was ‘my way or the highway.’ ”

Soon after her arrival, Braun began working on a resource management plan that would revise the approach to grazing first set out in 1996.

The plan advocated that ranchers’ traditional 10-year grazing permits be phased out, replaced by “free use” permits, with the BLM deciding year to year if the plain’s native plant species were healthy enough to withstand livestock. By early 2003, Braun had a version of the plan ready for review. The managing partners signed on, three advisory groups endorsed the plan and the BLM’s state office approved a draft late that year.

Around the same time, Braun received a cautionary letter from Bob Benneweis, the former superintendent of Yosemite and a longtime member of a Carrizo advisory committee. Beware, he wrote, of the political heft of the area’s longtime cattlemen.

“I do not envy any member of the BLM staff who may act to significantly reduce grazing on the Carrizo, only to feel the wrath of ranchers and their allies,” he wrote.

There was another reason for Braun to be cautious. Officials of the Bush administration had openly sympathized with critics of Clinton’s last-minute monuments. Many of those critics were ranchers, angry at policies that restricted their grazing access to more than 1 million acres in Utah, Arizona and California.

In March 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton sent letters to the governors of Utah and Arizona asking what their objections were regarding the monuments.

Under Norton, the BLM began crafting a grazing policy that lifted protections for wildlife and habitat across 161 million acres of public lands in the West, including the Carrizo.

Just as the BLM was embracing its new approach, Fellows retired. Huntsinger, who was then 57, took the job as manager of the Bakersfield field office.

Huntsinger has worked for the BLM for 27 years, moving from Alaska to Washington, D.C., Nevada and Taos, N.M. Although he could be gruff, he had a long record of working collaboratively, according to interviews with people who have known him throughout his career.

But he came to the Carrizo with marching orders that were almost guaranteed to bring him into conflict with Braun. “I was brought in,” he told members of the partnership team, “to fix this plan.”

Within three months of his arrival, Huntsinger announced at a public meeting that the grazing section of the resource management plan was being retooled, giving it what Braun would describe as a more “pro-grazing slant.”

Bob Stafford, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said neither Huntsinger nor anyone else in the agency ever gave the partners a reason for what they viewed as such a drastic change. “Other than citing regulations, we don’t know” why the new direction was taken, Stafford said. “We haven’t been given any information.”

Neither Huntsinger nor other BLM officials would discuss the policy dispute or any of the circumstances surrounding Braun’s death.

Braun and Huntsinger feuded almost from the moment he became her boss. He accused her of being insubordinate. She didn’t think he was all that bright. He believed she broadcast private BLM information to people outside the agency with no need to know; she believed he didn’t want to keep the agency’s partners properly informed.

She undercut his authority; he humiliated her in public. She bombarded him with communication. In her view, he either responded with silence or blew up at her.

“Every time I tried to speak, he seemed to view it as talking back to him and responded by yelling at me to not ever do it again,” Braun wrote in a 35-page chronology of their deteriorating relationship.

Early in his tenure, Huntsinger stripped Braun of “almost all my influence on the Plain,” she wrote, handing over authority for the crucial resource management plan to two others who were more “pro-grazing.”

Five months after Huntsinger arrived, she fretted in an e-mail to colleagues, “I … can’t keep fighting indefinitely, I don’t think.” But she added: “Maybe fighting is better than capitulating…. The Carrizo could lose a lot if I give up…. But hell, you only live, and die, once!!!!”

Late last summer, Braun sent an e-mail to the partners in which she tried to set the record straight about several public misstatements she believed Huntsinger had made about federal grazing law. The note ended any hope of a reconciliation.

“I have factual info on the traditional leases that differs considerably from Rons [sic]. He was wrong,” she wrote of Huntsinger in the e-mail, ” … and he is wrong on several technical issues…. I was right.”

She sent the e-mail to her counterparts at Fish and Game and the Nature Conservancy, but somehow Huntsinger got a copy also.

He suspended her for five days without pay.

He said that Braun’s e-mail tended to “degrade” him and that it would damage both his and the BLM’s reputations.

Braun’s conduct, Huntsinger wrote in the notice of suspension, “has diminished my confidence in your ability to properly represent the agency’s position on controversial issues, particularly the issue of grazing management.”

Braun appealed the suspension, which she felt was unduly harsh punishment for a first offense by someone with an exemplary record. She got word Feb. 14 that her appeal had been denied. In retrospect, many of her friends and co-workers point to that day as the moment suicide became a real possibility to her.

The stress took a toll on her health. She was anxious and sleeping poorly. Old friends were shocked to see that Braun, always tall and slender, had lost 40 pounds. One friend who visited her arrived to find no food in the house; the monument manager had been subsisting on pancakes.

The situation was made worse by the medications prescribed by two different doctors who her friends said were not in communication with each other. Hermes, her oldest friend, said Braun was prescribed Klonopin and Ativan, which are generally given for anxiety, and Lexapro and trazodone, both antidepressants. Not only did the drugs provide little relief, they often made Braun insensible and drowsy. Alarmed at her reaction to the medications, Braun eventually scaled back, Hermes said, although her autopsy report showed that Klonopin and trazodone were found in her bloodstream after her death. “I think the last few months of Marlene’s life, when she was going through this and she saw all of her work beginning to slip away, be eroded and be compromised, she became frantic,” said Anne McMahon, who represented the Nature Conservancy on the Carrizo.

Braun spent the first Sunday in March driving and hiking across the plain, checking out pastures that a large group — including the partners, Huntsinger and a clutch of ranchers — would be visiting later in the week to decide where cattle would be allowed to graze.

The day before the pasture tour, Braun sent a memo to the partners outlining her views.

The memo began with a plea — “please do not share this” — then gave a detailed review of the health of plant life on the plain. It ended with a warning: that Huntsinger wanted to weaken protections and “accommodate livestock grazing for its own sake.”

“Don’t let him get away with this without a fight,” she said.

By this time, the Carrizo partners had begun to worry out loud about their own relationship with the BLM — especially since Braun had been dropping hints that she was planning to leave the plain. In an angry e-mail, McMahon reminded the group how hard it was for them to work with Huntsinger and challenged them to do something about Braun’s pending departure.

“The question is, do you want to fight really hard now to keep Marlene, at the risk of really pissing off Ron and damaging the partnership with BLM (a partnership that I would argue is already in serious trouble),” she wrote. “What’s it gonna be?”

What McMahon described as her “Carrizo epiphany” set off an anguished round of communication among the partners. But ultimately they did nothing — even though McMahon urged them in a later missive to take action: “Ron will continue to beat you up every chance he gets until someone acknowledges what the real problem is.”

By April, Braun was giving things away, saying she wouldn’t need them. Documents went to people she thought could use them, books to friends who would actually finish them. At a party that Braun organized in the middle of the month, she was giddy, said Sarah Christie, the Sierra Club’s representative for the Carrizo at the time.

“I was commenting on this rototiller she had,” Christie recounted. “She said, ‘Here, take it.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘No, take it. I’ll never use it again. Take the gas can too.’ ”

Still, Braun remained in touch with the partners, discussing the plan’s progress. This was galling to Huntsinger. In a curt e-mail on Friday, April 22, he warned her again. “You are to immediately desist from sending e-mail outside the organization on issues related to management of the Carrizo … ” he wrote. “I will discuss this with you on Monday.”

That day, April 25, Huntsinger delivered two more written reprimands that excoriated Braun for communicating with the partners. She told her friends she believed these additional black marks would lead to her firing from the BLM and cause her to be banished from the Carrizo Plain.

“Those memos are the bullets in her brain,” said her friend and executor, Hermes.

The day before her death, Braun forwarded the disciplinary memos to the partners along with a brief, bitter e-mail: “I will no longer be participating in this mess…. I will not take being treated like a whipping girl…. ”

Braun e-mailed the BLM’s Bakersfield office at 9:10 a.m. the day she shot herself. She wrote that she would not be coming to the office that day or any other, because she could not bear to.

She listed the people she wanted to thank. Near the bottom of the note she said she wanted to be an organ donor. It was the only indication that she intended to take her life.

Managers in the Bakersfield office dispatched two agency staffers to make the 90-minute drive to check on Braun. But it was nearly an hour before the BLM alerted the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department to a possible suicide at the Goodwin Ranch.

Although Braun was still breathing when the BLM staff members drove up, said Sheriff’s Det. Steve Harris, she would not have lived even if help had arrived earlier, “not with that injury.”

After Braun was flown by helicopter to a Santa Maria emergency room and sheriff’s deputies had left, the BLM staffers took Braun’s agency-issued desktop and laptop computers without telling law enforcement authorities, Harris said.

“I think it was improper,” he said, adding that his office wrote a letter of complaint to the BLM.

Braun’s family also responded angrily to the BLM’s actions.

“The fact that everything wasn’t done to help Marlene is a real burr in my butt,” said her sister, Phyllis. “If somebody had told me it was my employee … I wouldn’t have wasted my time sending two employees on a two-hour drive.”

Huntsinger repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this article beyond reading a brief statement over the phone. Braun’s death, he said, “is a tragedy in all its aspects.” While its details are “of interest,” he continued, “I think it would be inappropriate for me to discuss them, out of respect for her privacy as well as that of all those affected.”

In her suicide note, Braun blamed Huntsinger for making her life “utterly unbearable.” But some of Huntsinger’s colleagues find it improbable that his actions would have pushed her to take her life.

“If somebody were to say he was responsible for somebody’s death,” said Richard Dworsky, who worked with Huntsinger in the BLM’s Anchorage office, “I would go, ‘Whoa, this is not the human being I know.’ I would have thought that, if he had any opportunity to resolve a problem like that, he would have done anything in his power.”

The BLM’s state office refused to comment for this story beyond issuing a brief statement calling Braun’s death “tragic.”

Three months after Braun’s suicide, the 20-year plan for the Carrizo is still being refined, according to officials in the BLM’s state office in Sacramento, who declined to offer any details. Representatives of the California Department of Fish and Game met with BLM officials in June to smooth out misunderstandings regarding the plan.

Meanwhile, Hermes said she was haunted by her friend’s death. After going through Braun’s belongings, she at first got angry. Then she acted.

She wrote to her Connecticut congressman, John Larson, who requested that Norton investigate the events that led up to Braun’s suicide. A whistle-blowers’ group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, did the same.

The California office of the BLM has undertaken its own management review. The Department of the Interior said it was awaiting the findings of the state’s review before deciding whether to conduct its own investigation.

Braun’s two sisters and her brother have also written to legislators, asking that BLM state officials and Huntsinger be held accountable for her death.

“I know the flaws of my friend. She wasn’t perfect,” said Hermes, eyes brimming.

She said that most of all, Braun would have wanted her friends to continue to fight for the Carrizo. That’s on Anne McMahon’s mind too.

“My biggest concern is the Carrizo needs a champion who will make it their life’s work,” said McMahon. “One person who will devote every waking hour making sure the right decisions are made…. That’s what Marlene was willing to do.”

To Die on the Plain

Please sign the petition for the Sec. of the Interior to release the full report in Marlene Braun’s death. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/JusticeforMarleneBraun
This is reprinted from the San Luis Obispo New Times, Nov., 2005:

To Die On The Plain
Marlene Braun envisioned the dawning of a new day at the Carrizo Plain, but she never lived to see it

San Luis Obispo weekly New Times
Nov. 17, 2005
On the eastern edge of San Luis Obispo County, close to California Valley, the Carrizo Plain stretches 45 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west. Surrounded by the Temblor and Caliente ranges, the San Andreas Fault rises up through the Carrizo Plain’s expansive valley floor, where it has been slowly unzipping the plain for centuries. Herds of pronghorn antelope forage the floor and prairie falcons jet overhead. Giant kangaroo rats and San Joaquin kit foxes lurk late into the evening.

The 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to the greatest concentration of endangered wildlife in all of California. But to the unknowing, the Carrizo can appear as vacant as the surface of Mars. Except in the spring, when winter rains give birth to intense bursts of brilliant wildflowers – like the California jewelflower – and the Carrizo is transformed into a psychedelic Garden of Eden.

And it was there on the plain last spring, with life raging all around her, where 46-year-old Marlene Braun ended her life with a blue steel .38-caliber revolver. While the sound of the discharge slowly dissolved in the valley, BLM officials in Bakersfield, who received an e-mail from Braun, began scrambling.

Braun was the Carrizo Plain National Monument Manager; a position that was created after President Clinton proclaimed the Carrizo a national monument days before he left office in 2001. As its first manager, Braun was hired to carry out a controversial mandate: developing a resource management plan that would put for the first time the health of native species ahead of cattle grazing interests at the Carrizo.

During her tenure the Carrizo became a symbolic theater for a heated debate over private grazing on public lands.

“I had been working on [the plan] for over 2 years,” Braun wrote in a 30-page chronicle of events, recently provided to New Times, leading to her own death. “My major job function since coming to the new Monument was to direct and complete this plan. It was mandated by the Secretary of the Interior and required intense public involvement, was high profile and the draft was almost complete.”

In fact, the draft had been shared with the managing partners – The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Fish and Game, and California BLM State Director Mike Pool, who endorsed the plan.

The plan, though, would never see the light of day. Braun’s supervisor, Ron Fellows, retired, and that’s when things took a drastic shift at the Carrizo. From March 2004, when Ron Huntsinger took over as field manger, until Braun’s death on May 2, 2005, the draft would be revised at least four times and the Carrizo Plain managing partners would start to lose faith in the BLM’s management of the Carrizo. Huntsinger blamed Braun, but Braun retained her support from the plain’s managing partners.

After nearly a year of feeling intimidated, humiliated, and abused by Huntsinger’s management, Braun spoke to her best friend, Kathy Hermes, and described her boss as “evil.” She told Hermes that working under Huntsinger was worse then being married to her abusive husband, whom she had divorced years prior.

The conservation debate that Braun found herself at the forefront of re-prioritized the management of public lands, putting the recovery of native species ahead of cattle interests at the Carrizo. While this would cut into some of the cattlemen’s profits, more importantly it seemed to symbolize the death of the cattle industry.

Irv McMillan, longtime rancher and friend of Braun’s, said the land at the Carrizo does not represent a significant portion of any cattleman’s grazing operation.

“Marlene took her job seriously. She followed the existing management plan, to her credit. I was amazed,” said McMillan. “For four years she was actually able to keep cattle off the bottom lands.”

For ranchers, watching grazing restrictions at the Carrizo increase and their grazing lands decrease was incongruent with the long-held ranching policy of “no net loss” of private lands; that no private lands should get into the government hands, because that would mean the eventual limiting of the entire industry.

“It’s getting harder to generate a decent income from a ranching operation, and they’re watching the value of [their] land go through the ceiling, so [they] have other alternatives that involve using the land differently,” said Anne McMahon, former operations manager for The Nature Conservancy during Braun’s tenure. “I think it’s a very emotional issue for them. It represents, I think, the death of their industry.”

At the Carrizo, ranchers have two kinds of leases to graze their cattle. The first are the traditional leases, which date back to the early 20th century. These leases guarantee ranchers the right to graze yearly as they please. The other lease agreement, “free-use permits,” allow managing partners to decide if grazing is sound, based on factors such as rainfall and ground cover. The original draft management plan would have shifted all of the leases to free-use permits, allowing the BLM more freedom to limit grazing for the enhancement of native species.

“The old [field manager], Ron Fellows, had demanded, after he hired me, that I change our grazing at the Monument,” Braun wrote. “Ron Fellows told me there was too much of it, it wasn’t justified scientifically, was highly criticized by the public, and it didn’t fit in with the mission of a new Monument. Ron Fellows made it my job to get past the ‘parochial views’ in the office and bring the Carrizo out of the dark ages of BLM management.”

Many of those familiar with the development of the management plan suspect that Huntsinger was hired to “fix” the resource management plan, that as it stood it was not friendly enough to grazing interests. Ron Huntsinger refused to comment for this article, citing a pending investigation.

“It wasn’t until Ron was sent in to fix the plan that things shifted,” said Karen Schambach of the California branch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This shift in planning has caused many to speculate that someone higher up in Washington was turning the screws on California’s BLM, and that Huntsinger was assigned to drive Braun from her post.

“He realized he would only fix the plan over her dead body,” said Schambach. “And as it turns out, he was right.”

Natural-born scientist

Marlene Braun came to the Carrizo with 13 years of BLM experience and an advanced degree in soil science. Before studying science, Braun served in the army, where she met her future husband. The two, stationed in Germany, traveled Europe together while on leave and eventually married and moved to Southern California. But Braun’s friend Kathy Hermes said Braun’s husband became abusive. The two divorced, but the pain Braun experienced later resurfaced at the Carrizo.

In 1992, after partially completing a Ph.D. in bio-geo chemistry and with a master’s degree in soil science, Braun headed north for Alaska where she took her first job with the BLM.

“She realized she wanted to do more real science,” said Hermes. “She realized as an academic, she might be writing a lot of grants.” Braun found her niche, though, on the Carrizo in 2002, said Hermes.

“She was very driven, maybe stubborn … some people would say stubborn. I wouldn’t disagree with that. She believed in herself and was clearly very committed to the monument,” said Neil Havlik, head of The Carrizo Plain Advisory Group. “She loved the monument.”

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story described Braun’s propensity for passionate discourse and her love for the Carrizo Plain.

“She always argued from conviction,” said Hermes. “She was an absolutely brilliant scientist, [but] I think she was kind of naive about people.”

Braun was straightforward and expected the same from others, said Hermes. She couldn’t be lumped in politically with most environmentalists who tend toward the liberal side of the political spectrum.”She went quail hunting, but also loved to go bird watching.”

The battle with Huntsinger

In May of 2004, a month after Huntsinger took over as field manager, he almost immediately started stripping Braun of her responsibilities. According to Braun’s chronology, Huntsinger appointed Larry Saslaw to be Braun’s “Resource Management Plan planning lead,” and regularly held meetings with Saslaw, refusing to include her.

“Ron essentially took over my job as Carrizo planning manger without officially notifying me of this in writing,” she wrote. “He effectively removed me from my principal job without documenting why I was not a doing a good job … the managing partners were astounded and depressed.”

Through the summer of ’04, Braun and the managing partners grew frustrated. Under Huntsinger large portions of the management plan, which had already been reviewed by the advisory committee and the managing partners, were re-written.

Braun began to suspect that political influences were reaching the Carrizo. She learned that BLM CA received a memo from BLM DC saying they favored converting all the grazing leases to traditional permits; not the free-use kind that Braun and the managing partners had urged. Instead of reducing the hoof action at the plain, grazing would have actually increased under the guise of environmental protection.

“Word from on high was to have more traditional grazing at Carrizo and definitely not to change any we already had,” she wrote. “This was pure politics and went against our existing management plan for the last 8 years … the environment in the office was changing and I think the [presidential] election was a big factor on that.”

During a conference call, Braun told the fellow managing partners what she had learned. Word of the conference call eventually made it to the state office in Sacramento, and then back to Huntsinger in Bakersfield.

On June 28 Huntsinger called Braun into his office.

“He was clearly angry, almost ready to burst at the seams … he was clearly holding back extreme anger, at least at first,” she later wrote.

Huntsinger told Braun he heard from the state BLM office about the conference call.

“Ron told me that I was ‘never, never’ to leak internal information again and that he was very angry about it. He adopted the tone of an angry father talking to a child … He interrupted me when I tried to defend myself.

“Every time I tried to speak, he seemed to view it as talking back to him and responded by yelling at me to not ever do it again. He kept saying, ‘Did you hear what I said?’

“I felt like a bully had just beaten me up.”

The next day, Braun met with Huntsinger about the plan again. Huntsinger’s anger was still palpable, and when he suggested moving chapter two of the management plan to the appendix, Braun attempted to dissuade him. “By this point Ron was livid,” Braun wrote, “and like Monday, raised his voice, and directed his anger at me. He said that I was wrong and that these were his decisions. I gave up saying anything else and said ok. Everyone eventually just walked away but his yelling could be heard across the office.”

Braun wrote that she felt demoralized and that being yelled at two days in a row was “particularly humiliating.”

Later that night, Braun wrote Huntsinger an e-mail expressing her frustrations, asking him to involve her in the management decisions. Huntsinger never responded. “In fact, this would continue a pattern of Ron rarely answering my e-mails. He would just ignore them.”

When Braun was finally able to discuss issues with Huntsinger, he insisted that she needed to follow his orders. “There was absolutely no willingness on his part to consider changing anything he did. I began to feel utterly hopeless that things could get better and literally got sick to my stomach and threw up.”

The e-mail that broke the boss’ back

“[Braun] was very hopeful that this new management plan was going to sort of be the dawning of a new day at the Carrizo in terms of how decisions would be made, and it would really codify what had always been talked about,” said Anne McMahon. “It would very clearly state that grazing would be used only as a tool for the benefit of the native species.”

Then, on Aug. 11, Braun sent an e-mail to the managing partners and accidentally cc-ed Larry Saslaw. In the e-mail she had said Huntsinger incorrectly interpreted grazing regulations. Saslaw forwarded the e-mail to Huntsinger.

Days later, during her job performance review, Huntsinger informed Braun that he would be writing a letter of reprimand for her “disparaging remarks” about him. He told Braun she was no longer allowed to communicate with the managing partners.

Braun, who had never received a bad mark on her record in the BLM or the military, was shocked.

Huntsinger waited over a month to deliver the letter to Braun, and during that time she agonized deeply. While waiting for her letter of reprimand, Braun returned to Ohio and caught up with Kathy Hermes.

“It was just really preoccupying her,” said Hermes. “She was really distant, and she said, ‘He was trying to ruin my career.’ It didn’t make sense to me what was going on, and it didn’t make sense to her.”

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t worry about this,” Braun said to Hermes, “I would just ask for a transfer, but he told me he would never help me get a transfer.”

Braun was caught in a bind. Without a letter of reference it would be hard to get a transfer. Not that she wanted to leave the Carrizo, but she was thinking about it.

Five weeks after Huntsinger informed Braun of the letter, he called her and said they had to meet. When they did, at the Carrizo, Huntsinger gave her a five-day suspension, skipping the usual step of a written complaint. Aside from totally flooring Braun emotionally, it also officially shut off the previous attempt she had made to initiate mediation with Huntsinger.

“It was such an overreaction to that e-mail that it was pretty clear they wanted to get rid of her,” said Karen Schambach.

Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director, said suspensions are normally reserved for egregious offenses like running a private business out of your public office or lying.

“At best it would have been something you would bring up in a performance review,” he said about the e-mail Braun sent.

Braun worked with PEER to prepare an appeal. She gathered letters of support from the same fellow managing partners whom Huntsinger claimed she had broken the trust of, members of the Carrizo Advisory Committee, and others. Three members of The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Game wrote letters to Mike Pool, head of the CA BLM.

On Valentine’s Day 2005, Braun learned that her suspension would stand.

“She was still hanging on to a shred of hope that this would end well, that she would win out in the end, because she felt so strongly she was right,” said McMahon, who wrote in support of Braun. “And even though it was a terrible time for her, she was still hanging on to the hope that someone at BLM would look at the situation and see it as she had and restore her authority as monument manger.

“When the disciplinary action came back not in her favor and she had exhausted the grievance process, it became very clear to her that … she would not be able to influence the direction things were going.”

Braun became withdrawn and anxious. She saw doctors who prescribed her antidepressants, but the medicine didn’t help. Hermes remembers it was then that Braun said working for Huntsinger was worse than her abusive relationship.

“To hear this was surprising,” said Hermes. “I asked her if she was suicidal. She said no. I asked her if she ever was, if she would call me. She said yes.”

The last day

On May 1, roughly a year after Huntsinger became her supervisor, Braun baked a cake for an employee’s mother who had cancer and finished writing a job description for another employee who was trying to get a promotion. She labeled all her possessions with friends’ names. She shipped a package of documents, scheduled for afternoon delivery, to Hermes.

On the morning of May 2, she sent off dozens of e-mails, one of which went to the Bakersfield BLM office.

“I firmly believe in donation of all organs and body parts so that if possible, please have Alysia [a BLM law enforcement officer] to notify EMS and Kathy to arrange for this if possible,” she wrote (the note was provided to New Times). “I want Kathy to do all other notifications for me, particularly to my Uncle Earl and relatives … I left a note [for law enforcement] that should be explicit enough.”

Braun then went outside; left her driver’s license with a suicide note that read, “I have committed suicide … this is not a homicide”; shot her two dogs and covered them in a blanket; then placed the revolver to her head and pulled the trigger. She had purchased the gun 13 years prior after receiving her first BLM assignment.

At 9:10 a.m., after receiving her e-mail, two BLM employees began the two-hour drive from Bakersfield to the Carrizo to find out what was going on. The BLM employees were the first ones on the scene. When they arrived, Braun was still breathing and medics arrived 10 minutes later. Sheriffs were dispatched at 10:28 a.m. She was airlifted to Marian Medical Center but soon died.

The BLM employees immediately removed Braun’s BLM computer from the scene. It is not known why.

Braun’s legacy

Two weeks ago, Irv McMillan sat on the tailgate of his black pickup, deep inside the plain’s wide-open valley. Braun’s death still doesn’t make sense to the man who’s been watching the Carrizo all his life.

“Something just doesn’t add up,” he said. “There’s something missing.”

Nearly seven months after her death, the heavily contested management plan rests in bureaucratic limbo. An internal BLM investigation still has not been viewed by anyone outside the organization, and the terms for members of the Carrizo Advisory Committee are set to expire at the end of December. Rain is beginning to fall on the Carrizo, and soon it will be decided when to put the cows out, if at all.

In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, requesting an investigation, PEER wrote, “We strongly believe that Marlene’s death was not an isolated tragedy but the direct result of management practices within the Department of the Interior … almost from the time of Mr. Huntsinger’s arrival, it became clear that his agenda was to modify the special grazing standards … to be more in line with normal BLM grazing standards.”

The Department of the Interior inspector general has since announced an investigation into Braun’s suicide, and recently contacted Kathy Hermes to set up an interview. But PEER’s Jeff Ruch isn’t optimistic, because the inspector general will only investigate if any law has been broken.

Outside the Carrizo, McMillan pointed out an eagle resting on a telephone pole with one raised middle wire. He says the birds were electrocuted when all three wires were strung at the same height, but Braun called PG&E and had them raise the middle wire.

“[She] was just the most tragic result of BLM’s inability to deal with the situation at the monument,” said McMillan. “She wanted her death to have some significance to how the plain is operated in the future. I think she will have an impact. She certainly had an impact on me.”

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com. [Note: this email address is no longer in use.]

A Record Breaking Bird-a-Thon

Marlene was an avid bird watcher. Reprinted from The Artic Warbler, July, 1998:

A Record-Breaking Birdathon

The 1998 Farthest North Birdathon was a tremendous success, with more than 70 people from Fairbanks, North Pole, Paxson and Nenana taking part. Routes covered many parts of the state, including Valdez, Seward, Nenana, Delta and the Dalton Highway. The “Quill Pig Conspiracy” team (so named for the unusually high number of porcupines spotted) shattered the old record of 99 by identifying 107 species in 24 hours of non-stop birding. Team members Philip Martin, Ted Swem, Laurel Devaney and Steve Porter combined skill, pre-Birdathon scouting, intuition, a GPS and a little bit of luck to take home the coveted “Golden Binoculars” award. They were the only birdathoners to see the Sora and Alaska’s first confirmed record of an Eared Grebe. Fortunately, several other teams were also able to add Red-winged Blackbird, Ruddy Turnstone and Least Flycatcher to their lists.

Although ABO’s team, “The Jaegermeisters,” bettered last year’s performance by seven species, we found one species less than “Bunky’s Birders” total of 97 species. We still managed to have a lot of fun, and our team raised over $2,400. The sad thing is that we didn’t see a jaeger until our time had expired, so we rechristened ourselves “The Jaeger-missers.” We’d like to thank Joe Faulhaber for the use of his suburban, Rich Holmstrom for the free lodging at Tangle Lakes Lodge, and the folks who let us visit their homes to view Boreal Owls and Merlins.

We are also grateful for the wonderful prizes donated to the Birdathon, especially Wally and Jerri Cole for the three-night stay at Camp Denali (congratulations to winner Marlene Braun!). Other donors include Alaska Feed Co., The Artworks, Beaver Sports, Big Ray’s, The Binkley Family, Bun on the Run, Ed Clark & Judy Dearborn, Cold Spot Feeds, Ester Hatworks, Food Factory/Jaybird’s Wingworld, Fountainhead Development, Fred Meyer, Hot Licks, Kmart, Pat Pearlman Designs, Q-Lube, Tim Shields, 65th Parallel Woodworks and the Tanana Valley State Fair. Steve Neumuth Advertising was a great sponsor, and we thank Steve for donating the production of a Birdathon commercial and all the media coverage. Finally, we want to thank everyone who participated in the Birdathon and those who made pledges.

BLM Names New Manager for Carrizo Plain National Monument



For Immediate Release: 1-22-02 CCal-02-17
Contact: Larry Mercer(661) 391-6010 or Marlene Braun(661) 391-6119

BLM Names New Manager for Carrizo Plain National Monument

Marlene Braun loves wide open spaces so she feels right at home on the Carrizo Plain. The new manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument is still getting acquainted with all that the remote valley has to offer, and is looking forward to working with the “great group of people who care very deeply about this special place”.

Selected by the Bureau of Land Management from its Elko, Nevada field office, Braun is now in charge of the 204,107 acre monument in eastern San Luis Obispo county which was created by Presidential proclamation on January 17, 2001. She is excited to be managing an area with so many outstanding biological, geological, archaeological, recreational and historical features, and she is pleased to be coming home to California.

Braun graduated from the University of California at Riverside, earning a BS in environmental science and a MS in soil science. She also completed the course work and qualifying exams toward a doctorate in marine science at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. When an opportunity came up in 1992 to work for the BLM in Fairbanks, Alaska, she jumped at the opportunity and has been with the BLM ever since.

In Alaska, Braun worked as a hydrologist, implementing stream restoration projects in the Steese National Conservation Area. In Nevada, she was planning and environmental coordinator and took the lead in the planning for the California National Historic Trails Interpretive Center.

The Carrizo Plain is one of the few undeveloped remnants of the vast San Joaquin Valley grasslands that once covered most of the interior of California. This unique area provides critical habitat for thirteen threatened and endangered species, including the giant kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox, and the California jewel flower. The Carrizo Plain is also home to Tule elk and pronghorn antelope, and the California condor has been known to use the area.

The monument is bordered by the Caliente and Temblor mountain ranges, and is known for its world-class archaeological sites including Painted Rock, and has some of the best viewing of the San Andreas Fault along its entire 800-mile long range. Soda Lake, located in the center of the Plain, provides an important winter stopover for migratory birds, including sandhill cranes. The Guy L. Goodwin Education Center serves visitors and provides tours to Painted Rock, wildflower tours, and other natural and cultural history tours as the season permits. The Goodwin Center is open Thursday through Sunday during the winter and spring, and can be contacted at 805-475-2131.

Braun, who is settling into a home in Arroyo Grande, will be spending a lot of her time on the Carrizo so she can immerse herself in her new duties. She will be working out of the BLM field offices in Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo. “It’s a privilege to be working here,” Braun says, “and I look forward to cooperatively managing the monument with our partners, the California Department of Fish and Game and The Nature Conservancy. Being on the Carrizo is like taking a step back in California history to a quieter, simpler time that lets you imagine life here a hundred, or even thousands of years ago.”

– BLM –

Bakersfield Field Office, 3801 Pegasus Drive, Bakersfield, CA 93308

Sad Guardian of the Carrizo Plain

What follows is a tribute to Marlene Braun printed in August, 2005. Since that time a new monument manager has been appointed, Johna Hurl. (See comments below). http://www.achangeinthewind.com/2005/08/the_sad_guardia.htm (Reprinted)

One of the many lies spread about environmentalists is that they want to save wild lands, endangered species, and natural beauty because they want it exclusively for themselves. In truth, environmentalists care about these irreplaceable gifts because they care about the world around them, perhaps more than themselves. A powerful example of this can be seen in the recent suicide of Marlene Braun, the Bureau of Land Management official in charge of the Carizzo Plain, as eloquently reported by Julie Cart and Maria La Ganga in today’s L.A. Times.

“I can’t face what appears to be required to continue to live in my world,” the meticulous 46-year-old wrote in May in a suicide note. “Most of all, I cannot leave Carrizo, a place where I finally found a home and a place I love dearly.”

The Carrizo Plain is one of the very few native grasslands of any size remaining in the state of California, described best by John Muir in his astonishingly beautiful “Bee Pastures.” (Here’s just one sentence from that classic essay: “The Great Central Plain of California, during the months of March, April, and May, was one smooth continuous bed of honey bloom, so marvelously rich that, in walking from one end of it to another, a distance of more than four hundred miles, your foot would press about a hundred flowers at every step.”)

In 1996, the BLM legally promised to preserve the native grasses, Native American rock art, and other easily-lost treasures of the Carrizo. But the relentlessly mercenary Bush administration wants more grazing, regardless of the havoc it causes, and regardless of anything agreed-upon by a previous administration. Even though some cattlemen supported Braun’s efforts to protect delicate lands in the Carrizo, such as the river bottom, others insisted that her annual rulings allowing or disallowing grazing–based on surveys of the land at the beginning of the year–made it impossible to profitably raise cattle in the area. Her new boss in Bakersfield supported the ranchers, making it impossible to do the job she was obligated to do. So she killed herself.

If you’ve ever suffered from depression, and ever studied the condition, you know it is not a rational act, but an outburst, an act of anger, which can be seen in the fact that she killed her dogs before she killed herself. A crueler person might have targeted her boss instead of herself. But as Vaclav Havel once said, regarding people he knew who killed themselves rather than live under the stultifying grip of Communist USSR, it’s also an expression of the value of life. In “Disturbing the Peace,” he wrote:

I have never been able to condemn suicides; instead, I tend to respect them, not only for the undoubted courage needed to commit suicide, but also because suicides place the value of life very high: they think that life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, without hope. Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.

Let’s give Marlene Braun’s life meaning by acting to save the Carrizo Plain. Tell the Bureau of Land Management what you think: (202) 452-5125.

Please don’t forget what Marlene Braun did for the Carrizo Plain National Monument. It is more beautiful now than ever because she and her staff worked hard to make it that way. Yet we may see it become nothing but pastureland again if you don’t call BLM and register your complaints. The interim monument manager has been working at the monument a long time, but after what happened she’s unlikely to make any changes in Ron Huntsinger’s plan to undo the RMP.

Not only is it spring on the Carrizo, when the land is at its most spectacular, but it is also the month that Marlene began to realize she’d be fired from her job, not for doing it badly, but for doing it too well in a way her supervisor could not stand. It will be cattle grazing time soon. Will the acting monument manager let those cattle out there according to what ranchers want and not according to best practices? My guess is yes. My prayer is no. I am sorry Marlene could not fight anymore. We’ll fight for her.

Remember our friend
On May 2, 2006 “In Memoriam” tributes will appear in several papers in California, Ohio, and other places Marlene lived to pay her tribute and express love and sympathy to her family. But I hope these memorial testiments to what a great person Marlene was leave another message too: BLM, what are you doing to right this wrong?

I just read about Marlene on Journal Space in MissKT8’s journal. I used to come across the journal on google sometimes, when I would look at Carrizo sites, but then it disappeared so I went looking for it. MissKT8 had tracked who was looking at her journal and I guess it turned out BLM was one of her regulars. Now I no longer see it on google. There still is no monument manager (permanent) at Carrizo which I think but could be wrong is against the rules, because I look at USA Jobs. I think they have to advertise that. I am sort of glad they don’t, though, because Marlene will be a hard act to follow. She put her heart and soul and then her life into that place.