Readers Vent Back Over BLM Suicide

This blog post copies the original Todd Wilkinson’s second article no longer available on its original site: The Billings Outpost. The Outpost had accumulated hundreds of comments on Marlene’s death as a result of two articles by Wilkinson, but the links to the archives were disabled.

Readers vent back over BLM suicide

By © Todd Wilkinson

I hope the federal Bureau of Land Management, the agency which oversees hundreds of millions of acres of public land—the vast majority of it in the West and Alaska—is listening.

I hope that members of Congress are paying attention, and the western governors with BLM holdings inside their states, and the assortment of varying stakeholders, and citizens who own those lands as part of their birthright.
A few weeks ago, I penned a column about the suicide of Marlene Braun, the late manager of Carrizo Plain National Monument, a quarter-million-acre protected area administered by the BLM in California.

Last May, Ms. Braun took her own life with a firearm in the wake of an ongoing dispute with her BLM boss. The incident has ignited a growing debate inside civil service ranks about the present state of morale among public servants working for U.S. land management agencies. Could the BLM have prevented Baun’s death? Is the agency guilty of quashing dissent within its ranks? Was Braun punished for her overt support of a plan to reduce livestock grazing in order to protect native wildlife?

Rarely have I witnessed a greater and more emotional response. The column that appeared here was reprinted in The Billings Outpost newspaper and it attracted 18 postings from active and current BLM employees, friends and family members of Ms. Braun, and others. Here is the original column.

Phyllis Braun, Marlene Braun’s surviving sister, wrote: “Sometimes I am numb and it is heartening to hear people I don’t know relating what I felt to be work abuse of my sister. She was not politically savvy, that is for sure. Writings I have read from my sister clearly showed me she had no idea what a political freight train was bearing down upon her those last 16 months she was at the Carrizo.”

Another wrote: “All federal agencies are totally political. But, the BLM was just as hard on its honest employees under the Clinton Administration as it is under the Bush Administration. In fact, politics has always been THE MAJOR FORCE behind the BLM, the Park Service, the Forest Service. It is the politicians and those in management who kowtow which creates the hazards of being a land management public servant.”

A friend and coworker of Braun’s added: “She was an extraordinarily intelligent, passionate and generous woman. She was also uncompromising in her role was a steward of the land, a very difficult position to maintain in an agency as politically driven as BLM with its multiple-use mandate. This has never been more true than under this current administration, where sound, longstanding, bipartisan environmental protections are under assault.”

Another writer, a 38-year veteran of the BLM in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and Washington D.C., was actually the man who recommended Braun’s superior for his job. He says that now, looking back at the way Braun was retreated, he has regrets. “Achieving balanced use of the public resources and sustaining their productivity is one of the most important jobs in public service,” he wrote. “Decisions that run contrary to good science and inappropriately favor one perspective over another will ultimately diminish the productivity of the land and destroy the natural values that make life not only pleasant, but make it possible.”

I could go on, and I encourage you to read for yourselves how others have responded to Braun’s suicide. It casts light not only on the BLM but on other sister agencies.

At present, the BLM is conducting its own internal investigation. But will it truly provide an opportunity for honest reflection or will it be used to justify what some believe is an anti-conservation agenda that tries to downplay any environmental impacts caused by resource extraction?

Was Braun a martyr as one letter writer suggests? “I think she died over the same thing Socrates did: the right to question,” adds another reader. “Freedom to question, to advocate, to speak about issues of controversy, especially when one works for the government of the United States (which) seems like it ought to be a simple matter in the land of the free, assuming we still are.”


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