Will solar energy plants cause irreparable harm to endangered flora and fauna?

Saturday, Sep. 05, 2009
Solar mecca
Plans to build three large energy plants on the Carrizo Plain could turn SLO County into a nationwide pioneer — but the proposals aren’t without critics, who say the industrial uses would cause irreparable harm to the area’s environment and wildlife
By By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County could become the nation’s leader in solar energy if three large-scale commercial solar plants are approved to start operating near the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Two are photovoltaic plants that use solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, they would be the two largest photovoltaic systems in the world.

The third would also be the world’s largest of its kind: a solar thermal plant that uses the sun’s heat to drive electrical steam generators.
Click image to see caption

The setting sun silhouettes existing transmission lines and a landscape of hills edging the Carrizo Plain. The lines would carry energy generated at three proposed solar plants to the California grid and are a key reason for the choice of location.

The plants could be online as early as 2013. Together, they would produce 977 megawatts of power, enough electricity to serve more than 100,000 homes. Not only are the plants large, they are also on track to be some of the first to come online, said Sue Kateley, executive director of the California chapter of the Solar Energy Industry Association.

“San Luis Obispo County could be the first to see the actual shovels in the ground,” she said.

Several factors are driving this unprecedented growth of solar power.

One is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious goal of having 33 percent of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2020. State and federal tax breaks also encourage the quick development of renewable energy sources.

All three plants are still in the planning phase with state and county officials processing construction applications, but little seems to stand in the way of their eventual approval. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has signed contracts to purchase all the power they will produce.

The solar projects will pump millions of dollars into the county and help diversify an economy dominated by government and tourism jobs. Other renewable energy projects could follow.

But they will also carry a hefty environmental price.

Two of the plants will occupy nearly 10 square miles and feature millions of photovoltaic panels, concentrated in the top third of the Carrizo Plain, which covers hundreds of square miles.

The third plant will be a highly industrialized, steam-driven power plant covering one square mile and complete with nearly 200 mirror assemblies and 115-foot-tall cooling towers.

They will be built in one of the last remnants of grassland in California, an ecosystem so rare that it contains the state’s highest concentration of endangered plants and animals. They will also sit astride migration pathways used by tule elk and pronghorn antelope.

Public sentiment is divided on the issue.

Many welcome the plants, with some conservationists arguing that sparsely populated California Valley is the ideal location for the projects. Others lament the radical changes they will bring to a stark but beautiful place, saying they will take too heavy a toll on a host of species teetering on the brink of extinction.

A handful of people will be profoundly affected. More than 30 homes are in the vicinity of the plants, and several will be completely surrounded by photovoltaic panels.

Residents of California Valley will deal with increased traffic, noise and lights at night. Additional demands will be made on the area’s already scarce water resources.

But the biggest impact will be the transformation of a vast pastoral landscape populated by more cattle than people into a major commercial electrical generation center.

Carrizo Plain National Monument faces threats from inside and out

Carizzo Faces Threats from Inside and Out (San Luis Obispo New Times)
Saving the silence
Carrizo Plain National Monument faces threats from inside and out

The Carrizo Plain opened up like an earthen vault, its natural jewels spilling before my eyes, accompanied by serious silence. I had traveled a long journey inland by pickup truck to explore the riches of the remote national monument some 70 miles from SLO.

Encompassing 250,000 acres, the vast grasslands extended endlessly north, crept casually up the rolling hills to the east, and jutted violently into mountains on the west. The road soon turned to dirt before continuing all the way to the alkali-rimmed Soda Lake, a refuge for rare birds and rarer shrimp. Attempting to get a grip on the monument’s official significance, I stopped at the Goodwin Visitors’ Center, where I was encouraged to hike to Painted Rock, one of the few outcroppings on the otherwise uninterrupted plain. Painted Rock is one of the inland Chumash people’s most revered shrines, a three-story high, rocky womb adorned with detailed pictographs that still speak after years of weather and vandalism. If I wasn’t already enchanted with the Carrizo, this spiritual experience sealed the deal.

Splendor imperiled

Despite the renewing tranquility of the spectacular natural vistas of the Carrizo Plain, there’s never been a more crucial moment for determining their future. As policymakers put the finishing touches on the monument’s official management plan—which has taken much longer than expected, due to official and personal politics—threats to the status quo loom both inside and outside its borders. From the oil and gas claims that cover nearly half of the protected acreage to the massive solar power plants being proposed just north of the monument’s border to debates over habitat restoration, cultural resources, and grazing practices, to an increasing amount of visitors, all involved are debating vital issues about the future of the Carrizo Plain National Monument. The results of those discussions will reveal what we as Californians consider our priorities, and could have ramifications that will echo far beyond the silence of the Carrizo Plain.

Located in the southeastern corner of the county, owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and operated in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and the state Department of Fish and Game, the Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to more specially protected animal and plant species than almost anywhere in the country—from the kit fox, kangaroo rat, antelope squirrel, and blunt-nosed leopard lizard to the jewelflower, woolly-threads, and Hoover’s woolly-star. The 38-mile-long, 17-mile-wide Carrizo is considered to be the last vestige of what the 300-mile-long San Joaquin Valley looked like before agriculture took over; its ecosystem essentially extends another 50 or so miles to the north toward Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.

“This is the last remaining facsimile of the grasslands that once covered all of California,” explained Mike “Doc” Malkin, a former drama professor at Cal Poly, who’s a member of the Friends of the Carrizo Plain, a volunteer organization that
provides docents, builds trails, refurbishes historic buildings, removes old fences, and serves as the monument’s watchdog. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.” Throw in the antelope, elk, a few roving coyotes and cougars, eagles of the bald and golden variety, some fairy shrimp, songbirds galore, and the occasional California condor, and there’s little wonder why Carrizo has been called “California’s Serengeti.”

Carrizo’s historic homesteads, farms where people survived for generations by growing barley and winter wheat and ranches where cattle and sheep paid the bills, became more parched throughout the decades, forcing most folks to move on but allowing nature to fill in the void. By the mid-1980s, the Nature Conservancy teamed up with the BLM to create the Carrizo Plain Natural Area, which they did by buying more than 80,000 acres from land investment company Oppenheimer Industries in 1988. Congress kicked in money for another 50,000-plus acres within two years, and since then, smaller purchases have grown the monument to a quarter-million acres.

However, the protections, even as a national monument, remain somewhat tenuous, in large part due to the potential wealth of oil and gas that sit below the monument’s surface. Valid mineral resource claims exist on more than 100,000 acres of the monument; any development could have disastrous impacts on the Carrizo’s critters and calmness.

I took another trip to Carrizo Plain to meet up with Malkin, who was joined by the monument’s wildlife biologist Kathy Sharum and Roger Gambs, a retired biology professor from Cal Poly who’s active with Friends of the Carrizo Plain. Sharum and monument manager Johna Hurl both spend a great deal of time dealing with the difficult challenge of habitat restoration, which has become a hot button issue for those who’d rather use the monument for livestock grazing, hunting, off-road driving, and other potentially damaging activities. Some of those folks criticize native plant and animal restoration by saying that the genie of modern impacts and introduced species simply cannot be put back in the pre-European-contact bottle. “I don’t think any of us want to play God,” Sharum told me that day at the monument’s KCL Campground, where numerous orange flags, denoting kit fox and kangaroo rat dens, flapped in the midday wind. “We don’t have the perfect ecosystem,” she admitted. “But realistically, you work with what you have.”

Compared to other ruined landscapes across the world, the Carrizo isn’t too far off from its original form. That gives Sharum, Malkin, Gambs, and all the members of Friends of the Carrizo Plain hope for the future. Explained Gambs, while in the shade of a dilapidated barn with a telephoto lens around his neck, “We are trying to get the Carrizo up there with what could someday be an internationally recognized model of how a national
monument ought to operate.”

Planning for the Plain

The most crucial part of that model is the monument’s management plan, which is nearing completion. Today, everyone involved—from the BLM to its nine- member advisory committee to those watching from the sidelines, including Friends of the Carrizo Plain—is satisfied with the progress. But it wasn’t always that way.

Soon after the monument was created in 2001, 13-year BLM veteran Marlene Braun was named manager. Having been stationed in Alaska and Nevada, the workaholic Braun finally felt at home on the Carrizo, and took intense pride in protecting it. She scaled back grazing on sensitive grasslands and began developing the monument’s first management plan, which would phase out long-term livestock permits. Every agency signed on, even the BLM’s California office. Then, in March 2004, the Bush administration—which was critical of Clinton’s last-minute monument designations—appointed Ron Huntsinger as Braun’s supervisor in BLM’s Bakersfield field office. With marching orders to favor ranching over preservation and “fix this plan,” Huntsinger and Braun became immediate enemies. The two butted heads repeatedly, so much so that in May 2005, Braun—who had also been dealing with her own psychological demons—arranged her personal affairs and wrote a few important letters about her fears for the Carrizo. She then took a .38 caliber revolver, killed her two dogs—neatly placing their bodies under a quilt—and turned the gun on herself.

Braun’s suicide shocked the region, resulted in a federal investigation, and eventually led to Huntsinger’s transfer. The management plan was the fourth casualty. “The whole process imploded. It collapsed,” explained Neil Havlik, who was named to the monument’s advisory committee when it was created in 2002. “It was finally decided that the process should start all over again.” Relations soured between the Carrizo staff and the BLM higher-ups. “That trust took time to rebuild,” said Havlik, the City of San Luis Obispo’s natural resources manager, “but it has been rebuilt.” That’s thanks in large part to the appointment of Tim Smith as the BLM field supervisor in Bakersfield, who Havlik called a “really great guy.”

Nearly four years after Braun’s suicide, the current plan reflects her vision. “I am very happy with the plan,” said Havlik, who’s spent much of his last 13 years at the city protecting open space. “It is setting policies that are progressive, that are going to be responsive to scientific recommendations and input.” Specifically, the plan addresses grazing, mineral extraction, cultural resource protection, wilderness designation, and roads, and has proposed three alternatives that range from more hands-off management to intense involvement. The BLM staff’s preferred alternative is number two, which blends the two more extreme alternatives, encourages a “moderate” expansion of wilderness zones (where no motorized vehicles are allowed), reduces the redundant roadways, only allows
grazing for “vegetation management,” stabilizes historic sites, and makes Painted Rock accessible only by permit or tour.

Since BLM is an agency that traditionally allows extractive industries, the management plan does not affect the “valid and existing” mineral rights that cover about 100,000 acres of the monument, including four active oil wells in the Caliente Range. Any attempt to eliminate those surely would have led to a massive fight, but if a recent response to an oil-drilling proposal is any indication, the monument is in good hands.

That proposal came during the oil price spike of late 2007 from oil company Vintage Production, which announced its intent to do seismic testing on its 30,000 acres of mineral holdings on the valley floor. Testing would involve “thumper trucks” that send soundwaves into the Earth to look for oil and gas. That process, said Helen O’Shea of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is particularly damaging in an environment like the Carrizo where you have animals like the kit fox and kangaroo rat that actually live underground.” When presented with this proposal, the BLM had multiple options, but they chose the strictest and asked Vintage for a full Environmental Impact Statement. Months later, the oil company has not yet responded. “We’re very pleased to see the BLM choose appropriately and hold the applicant to the highest possible standard,” said O’Shea.

One thing that’s not controllable is the number of visitors; increased use is something that’s worried former county supervisor Jerry Diefenderfer ever since it became a monument in 2001. A fourth generation Carrizo-dweller whose family has been ranching in the area since 1865, Diefenderfer was involved in the initial BLM acquisition in the ’80s, but thought a monument designation was “premature.” Diefenderfer, a former president of Friends of the Carrizo Plain, believes there is still not enough staff to watch over the quarter-million acres, even with only about 3,000 counted visitors per year. Indeed, anyone who spends much time on the Carrizo is bound to see some bizarre human activity—there’ve been accounts of drug-running, meth-making, body-dropping, sports car-burning, and the like for years. “I know a lot of people would like to have more activity there,” said Diefenderfer. “But I think it would be unhealthy for the monument to have that, simply because we’re not geared to handle a large number of people. And I quietly hope that day is a long way away.”

His government-fearing neighbor Darrell Twisselman, whose family has been on the Carrizo since the 1880s, agrees, and loudly. “The reason the endangered species [are] still there is because there was nothing out there but a few old farmers,” he explained in his good-ole-boy twang. “Now they’re bringing all kinds of people out there and they’re gonna defeat their purpose.” When the Wilderness Society tried to establish the Carrizo as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—which would have upped its international appeal—Twisselman “fought the hell out of that. You’d get 20,000 tourists running around here. That’s no way to protect your endangered species.” That campaign, which requires regional support, was shot down by county supervisors in March 2007.

For all his anti-environmentalist ire, Twisselman did play a major role in making the Carrizo what it is today. In the late 1980s, he helped the Department of Fish and Game reintroduce the pronghorn antelope and tule elk to the Carrizo, driving them down himself from Mount Shasta. Now, he allows people to hunt them on his land for a fee, and laughs when people cite them as some sort of threatened species. The self-proclaimed “true environmentalist” who believes the environmental movement has turned into a power-grab, recommends “building a big fence around it and getting away from it. Of course,” Twisselman continued with a chuckle, “I’m not very popular with those guys.”

Though the monument can’t physically restrict visitors from driving through, Havlik assured that the management plan is not designed to attract hordes of people. “In some ways, this is the place where time has gone backward,” he said. “The opportunity for solitude and reflection is really a great thing, and that’s one of the things I think everybody appreciates about the monument. We don’t want to make it into Disneyland. We don’t want a lot of attractions out there. The natural environment is the attraction.”

Solar Dreams or Eco-Nightmares?

While the monument’s managers may not be setting up the Carrizo as the “happiest place on Earth,” no one can deny it’s one of the sunniest. Pair that with cheap land, existing electrical transmission lines, and political pressure from both the state and feds for renewable energy, and it’s easy to understand why the lands just north of the monument’s border are being targeted for the most massive solar power plants on the planet. When combined, these proposed plants—two photovoltaic, under review by the county, and one solar thermal, under review by the California Energy Commission—would provide energy to nearly 100,000 homes but only by covering more than 16 square miles of the valley floor, an area nearly the size of the City of Santa Barbara. If all are approved—and there’s plenty of motivation in the federal stimulus plan, which will pay for 30 percent of projects that begin construction by 2010—many fear that the solar plants would block migration patterns for the kit fox, antelope, and other species, threaten Soda Lake by tapping an already overburdened groundwater basin, and damage views irrevocably.

“I live right in the middle of it,” said Mike Strobridge, an auto mechanic who lives with his daughter in a house near the monument that would be surrounded by the proposed plants. “It’s peaceful. I love the wildlife. Then these solar guys come in and they’re just gonna destroy the area.”

Robin Bell, who is building a retirement home about a quarter-mile away from a proposed plant, is worried, too, and has formed the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy, or CARE. (“Carrisa Plains” is a colloquial name for the area.) She explained, “I personally feel strongly that all these rules and regulations are in place for a reason, and, in the name of being green, these power companies are exploiting that.” Bell favors distributed renewable energy, i.e., solar panels on homes and businesses throughout the state. “I totally support the development of renewable energy, but at what cost?” she asked. “This area has one of the highest concentrations of special species in the state. To me, it seems like the last place you should be doing this.”

Bell is also watching two bills moving through the state legislature that, if passed, would put all renewable energy projects under the control of a new state commission. (Currently, photovoltaic projects are reviewed by counties and industrial-type plants, such as solar thermal, are reviewed by the state.) Bell fears the bills would streamline the process too quickly and eliminate all local control.

The specific effect on the monument remains to be seen. But Mary Strobridge, a member of CARE and mother of Mike, is concerned the plants would ruin anyone’s experience who visited the monument from the northern entrance. “It would just be devastating to drive into the Carrisa Plains and see a 10-story-tall industrial solar plant right smack dab in the middle of it, with 640 acres of pipes and mirrors and around that photovoltaic cells going on for thousands and thousands of acres,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Making sense of the two photovoltaic projects is the job of John McKenzie, a county planner. Among other issues, he’s analyzing migration corridors, groundwater limitations, and the loss of ag land. “It’s really a quandary for a lot of people,” he said. “It does try to address a huge environmental problem, but it’s at the potential expense of some more localized environmental problems. It’s one of those very difficult issues.” More frightening, however, is that no one’s really had to review projects such as these ever before. McKenzie has “zero” experience in doing so. “These are the two biggest plants in the world,” he said. “This county is getting to be one of the first folks to deal with it.”

The third project—a solar thermal plant proposed by Australian company Ausra that uses sun power to heat water to turn turbines—is considered more industrial, so it falls under the purview of the California Energy Commission. But even that commission is still getting up to speed with projects of this type. Said its chairperson Karen Douglas, “We’ve got much more experience siting natural-gas plants than siting renewables, both from a staff and commission perspective. So some issues are rising up in the renewables case that are substantively different than what has been the core of the siting work before the solar applications started coming in so quickly.” There are ongoing studies of how to incorporate renewable projects while protecting ecosystems—studies Douglas hopes “will be a model for how we can get this done”—but those are strictly for the Mojave Desert, and currently have no bearing on the Carrizo.

The solar power companies, however, believe the time and location are right. Ausra’s Katherine Potter explained, “There is certainly a good place for distributed generation, but to ensure the reliability of the grid, you do need large-scale power generation.” Added Alan Bernheimer of OptiSolar, which proposed one of the photovoltaic projects (but recently sold to First Solar), “We need all the solar power we can get, both distributed and large-scale. It’s not a question of either/or. It’s both.”

As the solar projects move forward and analysts begin to assess potential impacts to the monument, Mike Strobridge is holding his ground. “At this point, we’re frustrated and doing everything we can to make sure if something does come in, it’s put in responsibly.” And that’s about all anyone else can ask for.

Breathe deep

Amid the debates over solar projects and monument management, one point was uttered by almost every one of the more than 20 people contacted for this article: The Carrizo is not for everyone. “You either get it or you don’t,” exclaimed biologist Gambs. “There is no in-between!” Echoed rancher and former politician Diefenderfer, “I’m not sure what it is, but I do know that in my 65 years of lifetime, everybody I’ve dealt with on the Carrizo Plain, they either love it or they hate it.”

Flat, bleak, dry, and desolate, the region turns off those scared of solitude, those who don’t appreciate the silent stillness, those who aren’t impressed by rare species of plants and animals. But like a good book, those who continue reading the Carrizo will find that its characters are rich, its storyline quite deep, and its value immeasurable. ∆

Matt Kettmann is the senior editor of the Santa Barbara Independent, where this article was first published. Comments can be addressed to econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

Celebrate Spring on the Carrizo

It’s a good time to visit the Carrizo Plain.

[Petition for Transparency and Justice in the Case of Marlene Braun Please sign by clicking on this link. Thanks.]

Spring is a wonderful time in Central California, when the dry inland areas come to life:

t’s difficult, if you’re interested in the natural world, not to try to imagine what local landscapes looked like before modern agriculture and urbanization spread over so much of Central California.

One site that preserves a sample of our Valley in earlier times is the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, which is a half-dozen miles east of Visalia along Highway 198. There it is possible to get a good idea of what the well-water forests of the Kaweah River Delta looked like before 1850.

But what about the drier parts of our Valley? Is there anything left that gives us a view into how those landscapes appeared and worked?

The answer, fortunately, is yes. The Carrizo Plain National Monument, west of Bakersfield, preserves a fascinating semiarid landscape that closely resembles even today what much of the Great Central Valley must have looked like several centuries ago.

Strictly speaking, the Carrizo Plain should not be considered a part of the San Joaquin Valley. The plain occupies its own mountain-rimmed valley, has no drainage to the outside world and even features a mineralized lakebed at its center. But, biologically, the Carrizo country strongly resembles what the more arid parts of our Valley looked like before they were plowed. Grasslands dominated by perennial bunch grasses and seasonal wildflowers roll across the landscape. Pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits, ground squirrels, and snakes and lizards make their homes in the spacious openness.

This winter, rains have been relatively kind to the Carrizo, and now that spring has arrived, the next few weeks should see a good wildflower show. During a recent visit, yellow expanses of goldfields and coreopsis had already begun to glow with color, and many other wildflowers were in bud and getting ready to bloom.

If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a herd of pronghorn. These amazingly fleet animals, which can move for short distances as fast as 60 mph, once lived in Central California in almost countless numbers. Today, the Carrizo provides them with their last home in this part of California. And keep an eye out also for the kit fox, a graceful miniature fox that hunts small rodents.
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Look also for the trace of the San Andreas fault, which runs through the monument and shapes much of the landscape. The last time the fault let go in this area, in 1857, the western part of the monument jumped about 30 feet north in relation to the area to the east.

Two-thirds the size of Sequoia National Park, the Carrizo Plain National Monument was established in January 2001 and placed under the control of the Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Department of the Interior. In recent years the area’s managers have been quietly adding simple visitor facilities.

A visit to the Carrizo Plain makes a wonderful spring outing. Travel time from Visalia is two-plus hours. Access comes via Highway 58 west of Bakersfield. Services are extremely limited, so pack a picnic lunch and something to drink. During your visit be sure to seek out the Goodwin Education Center, a small but highly informative facility that includes exhibits that help you understand the Carrizo’s spare landscapes. And don’t forget to watch for pronghorn and earthquakes!

# Three Rivers resident William Tweed writes about the natural world of Tulare County.

Let’s not forget that the Carrizo Plain National Monument Resource Management Plan is still receiving public comments, and the future of this beautiful area is able to be shaped by those concerned with conserving its natural wonders, flora and fauna. In the meantime, BLM is rather rudderless, here and in DC, with only an acting director.

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.