Fault Lines from the Daily Kos

Fault Lines

Fri May 11, 2007 at 03:34:25 AM PST

I had begun to believe the GOP was never going to explain reality to George, and then came the breathless reports of Republican moderates finally putting their courage to the sticking place and telling Georgie-Porgie the truth. But, after six years of make-believe, I doubt the air-head in chief will surrender his fantasies that easily. Besides, too many have profited too much to let him wake up now. The sell-off of our government has gone too far and spread to deep for the greedy bastards to let go just because Republican politicians are facing retribution from voters: the no bid contracts that undermined our troops in Iraq, the cronyism that made Homeland Security a farce and left the citizens of New Orleans to fend for themselves, and the U.S. Attorney scandal. Common threads of ideologically excused incompetence and profiteering connect all these disasters. And the proof is a death on the Carrizo Plain.

The San Andreas Fault runs through central California like a zipper, and along the suture sits the Carrizo Plain. The Spanish name means a type of grass, and this is the last open grassland in California, sandwiched between low mountain ranges and occupied by a handful of dusty ranches.

But over the last twenty years of the 20th Century the Nature Conservancy, the California Sierra Club, The California Fish and Wildlife Service and the private ranchers, along with the Bureau of Lands and Mines, cobbled together their properties. They agreed to joint use and planning for The Plain, managed by the BLM. Then, in January of 2000, during his last hours in office, Bill Clinton designated it as the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

The BLM is a “use” oriented agency,. As one rancher put it, “Basically, the BLM is in the livestock business.” As late as early 2000, BLM staffers were still referring to the “advantages” of allowing cattle to graze on Plain as the best way to control invasive non-native plants. But cattle, unlike the Tule Elk and the Pronghorn sheep they had displaced, are not merely eating the invaders but spreading their seeds. All of that changed when the new Manager of Monument was appointed in 2001.

Marlene Braun arrived with the zealotry of a convert. A 13 year employee at BLM, she was charged with re-ordering the priorities on The Plain, moving conservation and species protection to the top of the list. Over her first two years she carefully pulled together a consensus from the disparate groups that had a say and an interest on The Plain. The final plan required her to examine The Plain each spring to determine how many cattle that year’s gasses could support. It seemed common sense. Too little rain meant too little grass. And too much grazing might mean doom for already stressed native plants. But still, it angered some trying to find a profit from The Plain.

In March 2004 a new director took over the BLM office in Bakersfield, Ron Huntsinger, and like the replacements for the federal D.A.s, he was clearly sent to remove obstacles for friends of the administration. At an early staff meeting he announced, “I was brought in to fix this plan.” Step one in the fix was removing Marlene Braun from oversight and then “retooling” the plan. And when Huntsinger discovered that Marlene remained in contact with groups and individuals she had spent two years forging connections with, he threw a hissy fit. He literally screamed at Marlene. (This will sound familiar to anyone following the newly appointed D.A. in Minneapolis- St. Paul.)

Marlene later wrote of that first confrontation, “Ron told me I was ‘never, never’ to leak internal communications again..”. And when Marlene tried to explain her position, “He kept yelling, “Did you hear what I said?” Marlene wrote, “I felt like a bully had just beaten me up.” When he continued shouting at her at a second meeting on the next day Marlene wrote that everyone in the office could hear…” Marlene said she was so upset, she vomited.

Dan Rathbun, the man who recommended Ron Huntsinger for his job at Bakersfield described him as, “…the poster child for telling the boss what he/she wants to hear…” And he added, “You can only begin to imagine my horror as I watched him…curry favor of those political influences that he believed would help him…I regret my assistance in getting him his assignment there.”  A coworker wrote that Huntsinger “…embodies the term Personality Disorder.”  And Marlene would write that Huntsinger had made her life, “…utterly unbearable.”

Marlene was far from a saint, but she was a competent and dedicated manager and stubborn as hell. And at 46 she was not willing to change careers. She hung on and fought on through five written reprimands (previously her record was spotless), and denial of a two week medical leave she had requested. Also cancelled was the hearing Marlene had asked for to appeal her reprimand, and instead Ron Huntsinger  suspended her for five days without pay.

An aggressive, healthy, active individual, she lost 40 lbs. and was reduced in less than a year to depending on prescription tranquilizers and sleeping pills. At 9:10 AM, on May 2, 2005, Marlene sent an e-mail to the Bakersfield BLM office suggesting, among other things, that she wanted to donate her organs. She then walked into her front yard, executed her two dogs, covered them with a quilt and then shot herself in the head with a .38 blue steel revolver.

Ron Huntsinger was told of Marlene’s e-mail by 9:30, but did not call a BLM fire unit ten minutes from Marlene’s house. Instead he dispatched two staff members on the 90 minute drive from Bakersfield, along two lane roads to her home, in The Monument. At 10:28 they called ahead to notify the paramedics and the sheriff’s office in San Luis Obispo. Still, Marline was breathing when they arrived. A helicopter ambulance was dispatched to the wrong location, but after it finally lifted off, carrying Marlene, the two BLM staffers removed her laptop and desktop computers and her agency owned truck and returned them to the Bakersfield office. When Marlene finally reached the Marian Medical Center, she was DOA.

Suicide is a personal and selfish act, as evidenced by Marlene’s execution of her dogs. But a year long investigation by the Inspector General’s office into Marlene’s death found that, “BLM did not take action to resolve long-standing differences” between Huntsinger and Braun, “despite the availability of alternative dispute resolution methods.” This seems especially odd, since Huntsinger had served as an alternative dispute resolution adviser for the BLM in California.

The report also noted, “…a breakdown in trust, communication and cooperation …(which) adversely affected management of the Carrizo Plains.” And Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility wrote that, “Ron Huntsinger’s treatment of Marlene Braun could only be termed brutal. There is no doubt…that he is responsible for her death. The question…is whether this man should ever again be allowed to supervise another employee.”

Since May of 2005 there have been some resignations at the Bakersfield BLM office, and disciplinary actions have been taken against Managers, Supervisors and employees. But those are not subject to public notification. Ron Huntsinger has been transferred back to Washington, and is now the BLM’s science coordinator.

And on the Carrizo Plain, the BLM has re-started the entire process of forming a management plan, from scratch. Public hearings are being held, again, and the nine-member Carrizo Plain National Monument Advisory Committee has been re-appointed. And once this new initial plan is drawn up there will be more meetings, already scheduled for spring of 2008, to assess the environmental impact of the new proposed plan. There is no way of predicting what the political landscape will look by 2008, but whatever it is, clearly it will greatly influence decisions made about the last open grassland in California.

Johna Hurl is now the acting Monument Manager, while John Skibinski, the man Huntsinger picked to rework Marlene Braun’s plan, is the Assistant Office Field Manager. A Malibu oil company filed a notice of intent to drill wells within the Monument in 2004, but found nothing. And  despite having to compete with cattle, Marlene’s grazing plans brought the elk count up from 200 in the year 2000, to 237, and the Prong Horn from 24 to 85.

It remains only a question of time before the San Andreas Fault unzips itself again, and again splits open the Carrizo Plain.

One Response

  1. Leave it to a writer on the Daily Kos to call a suicide “selfish.” Still, it’s good they are paying attention to what is going on with the monument and oil drilling. I hope Marlene’s law gets passed.

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