A civil servant’s suicide ripples across West

This is the first of Todd Wilkinson’s articles printed in the Billings Outpost. His two articles received hundreds of comments, now lost because the Billings archives were disabled. The entries about Marlene disappeared long before the Outpost itself reconfigured its archives. I have recovered the comments from a cached document and posted them in a separate file called Responses.

A civil servant’s suicide ripples across West

By Todd Wilkinson

You have probably never heard of Marlene Braun. Nor would you otherwise, I suspect. But I hope, after reading this, you don’t forget her.
Braun worked for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at one of the newest and least conspicuous national monuments in the country.
She was 46 years old when she committed suicide in May, taking her own life following a rocky professional relationship with her BLM boss.
As chief overseer of the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument in California, Braun enraged ranching interests by questioning the primacy of cows on the open public range.
Carizzo Plain, designated by Bill Clinton in the 11th hour of his presidency, was carved out of the high desert primarily as a wildlife refuge to replenish and bolster native animal and plant populations that had fallen into decline after a century of public land livestock grazing.
Sensitive riparian areas at Carizzo, the richest part of the landscape, harbor the highest concentration of imperiled land species in California.
I had heard about Ms. Braun’s clashes with her BLM superiors while she was still alive. Over the past three months, I’ve kept tabs from afar as the shockwaves of her suicide rippled out across the West, notably within the chatter of BLM field employees.
A full account of the saga was published in the August 20th edition of the Los Angeles Times, the result of excellent reporting by staffers Julie Cart and Maria La Ganga. Check it out if you can.
Braun’s death has been explained away by some as a dedicated, if not slightly troubled, civil servant who fell on her sword in order to protect public resources rather than compromise her scruples (and obligation) as a manager.
From others, I’ve heard Braun described as an idealistic zealot who did not possess the patience, diplomatic acumen, and desire to be a “team player” willing to work through the system to achieve conservation-oriented results.
Still others have claimed Braun was the victim of an overbearing superior who is the personification of a callous and deeply politicized federal resource agency.
The BLM, they say, not only abandoned Braun in her mandate of reforming grazing, but the agency does not tolerate dissent from those within its ranks who raise doubts about the BLM’s handling of many contentious issues, including energy development.
I am not going to mention the name of Braun’s superior here, upon whom she blamed her troubles, though the BLM itself referred to her death in a prepared statement as “tragic” which implies that it was preventable. At present, the agency is conducting an investigation into the factors that precipitated her suicide. She herself has been both praised and faulted for believing that her role as a steward made her necessarily a wildlife advocate.
Perhaps a better way of pondering the circumstances of Braun’s decision is to consider this: Talk to BLM employees today and you will hear fear expressed over the way that marching orders are coming down from members of the Bush Administration in Washington.
An expectation exists that every career civil servant will be in absolute lockstep and that even discussing issues outside the chain of command with the public is tantamount to consorting with the enemy.
The irony is that members of the Bush Administration accused the Clinton White House of top-heavy governance.
So where do public servants go when they identify problems, internally, with the direction of management? Do they take them to a superior who does not want to make waves? Do they mention them to citizens and risk being punished for insubordination, which is what happened with Braun?
There are no easy answers. Besides being depressed, Braun felt in her despair there was nowhere she could turn after her BLM superior allegedly isolated, punished and humiliated her for doing what she thought was her job.
Anyone who suggests that these days employees of western land and wildlife agencies show up for work each day, clasp hands and sing kumbaya around conference tables is not acknowledging the REAL morale issues inside these agencies.
If Braun’s death causes the federal bureaucracy and public to do a little reflection, it will at least not seem like such a pitiful waste.


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