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
BY MATT KETTMANN

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.

As the plan goes to a vote, the Monument shows its Glory!

There is a long article on the Carrizo Plain National Monument about the NM itself, including the flora and fauna and the dangers they face, its Resource Management Plan process, and a history of the monument. It is well worth reading the entire article. Click the link. The article also contains some beautiful photos of the monument.

Anyone reading this post who would like to help get the Department of Interior’s report on the death of Monument Manager Marlene Braun released, please go the Petition Site.
Saving the Silence

Facing Threats from Inside and Out, the Carrizo Plain National Monument Prepares for the Future
Thursday, April 16, 2009
By Matt Kettmann
[This part of the Santa Barbara Independent‘s article gives a little history]:

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.

Russell Orrell

Retired Cal Poly biology professor Roger Gambs is a member of Friends of the Carrizo Plain, which cares for these resources with the help of BLM staff.

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 of S.L.O. 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 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.

Bullying in the Federal Workplace

Workplace bullying is getting the attention of several state legislatures this term, from Vermont to New York and New Jersey in the east, and Illinois in the Midwest, and Utah in the West. Workplace bullying is a problem beyond the states, though. This blog exists largely because a federal employee, a monument manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, committed suicide because her field office supervisor made her life unbearable. I became interested in following the investigation of her case, but also in learning more about the land so dear to her, very near where I live.

In a recent set of articles on FedSmith.com, Steve Opperman has tackled the subjects of workplace violence and workplace bullying.

Bullying, whether via the latest technologies or by more traditional means, is a growing problem in American workplaces of all kinds, and I don’t see why Federal agencies would be exceptions.

In fact, I just received an e-mail from a woman who indicated that she has been bullied so severely in her current job, to include being screamed at in anger by managers and treated with no respect by some of her co-workers, that she felt compelled to tell her story to someone. I have received similar comments from other FedSmith.com readers in the past in response to articles I have written that may have touched on the subject, so I know that there are employees in a number of Federal agencies who feel they are being bullied.

After Opperman wrote his first article, he had so many responses, he published another, in February, 2009. In this article, he discussed what federal employees could do:

First, I strongly encouraged the writers to contact their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) immediately and arrange to speak to a counselor. EAP services are generally free to employees for up to a specific number of visits per issue, and taking this step would give the troubled employee access to a qualified professional counselor who could serve as an objective “sounding board” and could undoubtedly provide the employee with some tips on developing “coping skills.”

At least one commenter on the FedSmith.com website questioned the wisdom of contacting an EAP counselor who is paid under an agency contract, but I have never personally experienced a “pro-agency bias” on the part of an EAP counselor. The fact is that the EAP counselors are not permitted to divulge any information about the content of the counseling sessions to the employer, with only such narrow exceptions as the employee’s written permission to do so (e.g., in a “last chance” agreement) or a threat of violence.

Beyond that, there is a range of options. In cases where a bullied employee believes he/she has witnessed other employees being bullied/intimidated, and/or has been approached by others who have experienced such behavior, the old theory of “safety in numbers” may come into play. In such circumstances, employees may elect to approach management on a collective basis to talk about their perceived bullying problem.

But let’s presume for the moment that the behavior is perceived to be directed at just one person. The alleged victim could talk to his/her supervisor about it, providing concrete examples of the behavior she/he considers to be bullying and/or intimidating, as well as dates, times and circumstances. If the supervisor doesn’t correct the problem, the affected employee has the right to go up the chain of command in an effort to resolve it.

Sometimes the alleged bully is the supervisor, in which case the stakes, and the stress level of the alleged victim, are likely to be significantly higher than if a co-worker is the perceived offender. However, it is at least possible that the supervisor does not know that his/her behavior is being viewed as bullying, so starting with that person would, I think, still usually make sense. If the behavior continues, the alleged victim could go to the supervisor’s boss to discuss the situation, and then continue up the chain of command if necessary.

I fully recognize that this strategy contains risk, in that an alleged victim could antagonize her/his supervisor and/or higher-level officials, but at least she/he would have gotten the concerns on record, which is likely to be very important if the situation is not resolved.

One option that I almost always recommend would be to talk to someone in the servicing Human Resources (HR) office – in this case probably an employee relations specialist. During my Federal career, we in HR were considered management advisors who were also required to provide accurate information to employees regarding their rights, responsibilities, benefits, etc.; this is a big difference, and one that should be kept in mind. Another possibility would be talking with an agency attorney, such as an ethics officer.

If the alleged victim is part of a bargaining unit, she/he could talk to a union representative for advice about making use of the negotiated grievance procedure or other possible courses of action. If the bullying/harassing behavior appears to be based on race, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or other protected class covered under Title VII (Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its progeny), he/she could talk to an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) specialist in the servicing EEO office or to an EEO counselor. If it doesn’t appear to be based on any of those factors, and the alleged victim is not part of a bargaining unit, he/she could file a grievance under the agency’s administrative grievance procedure.

As for other potential actions, an alleged victim could file a complaint with the agency’s Inspector General (IG), which operates under the Inspector General Act of 1978.

As I interpret that act, the employee would have to connect the dots between bullying and the efficiency and effectiveness of agency operations before it would fall within the IG’s jurisdiction. The alleged victim could also opt to file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and/or the Government Accountability Office (GAO), alleging violations of Merit System Principles and/or engaging in Prohibited Personnel Practices. If the OSC decides that the alleged victim has made credible allegations, it can propose disciplinary action, up to and including removal, against the person committing and/or allowing the bullying; OSC would then “prosecute” the case, with the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) serving as the judicial body. If the GAO finds such allegations credible, it could report those findings to Congress, for which it serves as the investigative arm. The alleged victim could also contact his/her Congressional representatives.

If all else fails, and the behavior continues and is affecting the employee’s mental and/or physical health, I would strongly encourage the bullied employee to look for another job. I know that’s easy to say and hard to do these days, but protecting one’s health and well-being is critically important and from everything I’ve read, including the comments made in response to my first article on this subject, employees who feel they are being bullied generally experience a great deal of stress, as well as physical and/or psychological manifestations of that stress, as detailed in the first article.

As I noted in that article, a number of organizations consider bullying to be an aspect of violence in the workplace. I am finding that there is a lot of information available on the Internet about workplace bullying, and that it seems to be a large and still growing problem – with “cyber-bullying” perhaps being the latest trend – but that very few organizations have specific policies in place for dealing with it.

I don’t know all the details of Marlene Braun’s case, the manager of the CPNM. But I am aware that she went to HR. One week after doing that her boss handed her two memos that threatened more disciplinary action that would completely ruin her 13-year federal career. One week after that she killed herself.

I should add that the Federal Tort Claims Act prevents any pursuit of a lawsuit of a wrongful death case against the government or the supervisor. And no federal statutes prohibit workplace bullying.

So I would question the wisdom of going to HR, or the OIG, until it becomes clear that the people from the previous administration who fostered a culture of fear and bullying are removed. I recommend reading these articles in their entirety, though. Clearly state legislation will not be enough.
http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1780/
http://www.fedsmith.com/article/1872/
Please sign the petition to get the Department of Interior to release
the full OIG report regarding Marlene Braun’s suicide: http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/JusticeforMarleneBraun

A Resource Management Plan, a Petition for Justice and a Bio-Gem!

A lot is happening on the Carrizo. The draft RMP has been released. You can download the plan at http://www.blm.gov/ca/pdfs/bakersfield_pdfs/CarrizoRMP2009/Draft2009/Index-Main.pdf.

There is also a petition to release the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General’s full report, with testimony, to the people who have requested it, such as the Trust of Marlene Braun, the family and the press, and PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/JusticeforMarleneBraun

Let’s have transparency in government. Marlene committed suicide alleging that she had been driven to it by the abuse of her field office supervisor, who is now the BLM science coordinator in Washington, D.C. Please sign the petition. The public should know what is happening in government, and we should be able to assess the jobs our civil servants are doing.

In happier news:

Oil and Gas Drilling Threat Puts Carrizo Plain National Monument Among North America’s Most Endangered Landscapes
Rare animal haven is named to NRDC’s BioGem Program

WASHINGTON (February 3, 2009) — Central California’s Carrizo Plain National Monument was designated as a BioGem by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today. The BioGems project highlights the Western Hemisphere’s most extraordinary and at risk places stretching from the Arctic in Alaska to Patagonia in Chile.

“The Caliente and Temblor mountains frame one of California’s most amazing and least known natural wonders,” said NRDC Policy Analyst Helen O’Shea. “These wild lands are designated a national monument, but they are still not protected from Big Oil. Energy development could be the end of this glorious region. Sadly, the endangered animals that inhabit the area could disappear with the landscape that supports them.”

The Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to the greatest concentration of endangered species in California, including the California condor and the San Joaquin kit fox. Despite its designation as a National Monument, the Carrizo Plain is threatened by oil and gas development that could cause irreparable damage to critical wildlife and sensitive ecosystems. Vintage Production, an oil company, is planning to explore for oil reserves, using giant “thumper” trucks to send disruptive shock waves deep into the earth.

Since 2001, NRDC has campaigned to save more than 30 special natural places throughout the Americas that offer sanctuary for endangered wildlife, curb global warming and provide livelihoods for local communities. The national monument joins 12 other BioGems, including two other additions, the Peace-Athabasca River Delta and the country of Costa Rica.

In addition to naming three new BioGems, NRDC redesigned the “Save BioGems” Web site with new features in order to more effectively mobilize more than 400,000 online activists to protect these areas. The site features a blog by NRDC wildlife experts; an action alert widget that can be embedded on social networks; interactive slideshows and video; and more Spanish-language content. It also includes an “Action Log” where BioGems activists can track their actions and achievements in protecting these areas.

“The success of the BioGems Initiative demonstrates the power of the Internet as a tool for conservation,” said Jacob Scherr, co-director of NRDC’s BioGems Initiative. “Save Biogems has enabled people around the world to have a voice in protecting some of the most unique wild places in our hemisphere.”

For more information, go to http://www.SaveBioGems.org.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing. More information is available at http://www.nrdc.org.

______________________________

Josh Mogerman
Senior Media Associate
Natural Resources Defense Council
Midwest Program
312-651-7909 – o | 773-853-5384 – ml
(Please note that my phone numbers have changed.)
jmogerman@NRDC.org
Check out my blog at: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/jmogerman

Petition: Justice For Marlene Braun

Release Interior OIG Report on Marlene Braun’s Death

Target:
Secretary of the Interior, Kenneth Salazar
Sponsored by:
The Living Trust of Marlene A. Braun and Friends
In this petition, we seek to get full access to the United States Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General’s Report on the suicide of Marlene Braun on May 2, 2005. An interim report came out a year and a half after Marlene Braun killed herself, but the supporting documents and testimony were never released and are being “redacted.” Recently, President Obama opened presidential papers for review. The White House FOIA memo states that government “should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.” In addition, agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public.

Dear Mr. Secretary,

In May, 2005, the monument manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, Marlene Braun, committed suicide due allegedly to workplace bullying on the part of her field office supervisor, Ron Huntsinger, now the Bureau of Land Management’s Science Coordinator. An investigation was conducted by the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General, and the 2006 report simply stated there were personality differences and a somewhat bad workplace culture. None of the testimony was released with that report, and the DOI-FOIA administration claims it is still redacting the testimony for release.

The Dept. of Interior has said it must protect the identity of people who testified.

In January, 2009, President Obama opened presidential papers for review. The White House FOIA memo states that government %u201Cshould not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.%u201D In addition, agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public.

We the undersigned respectfully request that the full report with testimony be released to those who have requested it, including the Los Angeles Times and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, as well as The Living Trust of Marlene A, Braun.

Carrizo Plain National Monument has new Draft RMP 5 years too late

This press release is just out from BLM. In February, 2004, then manager of the CPNM had just gotten approval for a draft RMP from the state offices in California. In March, Ron Huntsinger came in to destroy that plan. He wound up destroying it and the monument manager, Marlene Braun, who killed herself on May 2, 2005.

U.S. Department of the Interior

Bureau of Land Management

News Release For Immediate Release: Jan. 21, 2009 CA-CC-09-24

Contact: David Christy (916) 985-4474

BLM Releases Draft Plan for Carrizo Plain National Monument The Bureau of Land Management has released for public review and comment a Draft Resource Management Plan/Draft Environmental Impact Statement for about 206,000 acres of public lands in the Carrizo Plain National Monument administered by the agency’s Bakersfield Field Office.

The draft RMP provides management guidance for public lands in San Luis Obispo and Kern counties. BLM will conduct three meetings in Central California to gather comments on the draft plan and EIS. “The plan contains a range of management alternatives developed in cooperation with our Managing Partners – The Nature Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game – the Monument Advisory Committee and the public,” said Johna Hurl, monument manager.

The primary issues addressed include: recreation; protection of sensitive natural and cultural resources; livestock grazing; guidance for energy and mineral development; motorized vehicle route designation.

To ensure that they will be considered, BLM must receive written comments on the Draft RMP/EIS by April 23. You may submit comments by any of the following methods:

o Email: cacarrizormp@ca.blm.gov o Fax: 661-301-6143

o Mail: CPNM RMP, Bureau of Land Management, 3801 Pegasus Drive, Bakersfield CA

o At a public meeting

Public meetings will be held: * Feb. 24 at the BLM Bakersfield Field Office, 3801 Pegasus Drive. The office is approximately one mile east of Highway 99 off the Porterville/Sequoia exit turn-off on Highway 65. The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. and finish at 7 p.m. *

Feb. 25 at the San Luis Obispo Library, 1341 Nipomo St. The library is less than one mile east of Highway 101 off the Osos exit. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. and finish at 8 p.m. * March 7 at the Carrisa Plains School on Hwy 58. The school is located approximately one mile west of Soda Lake road on Hwy 58. The meeting will begin at 10 a.m. and finish at noon.

Individuals who plan to attend and need special assistance such as sign language interpretation or other reasonable accommodations should contact Carrizo RMP Line (661) 391-6034. You may also call that number for additional information on the RMP. Copies of the document have been mailed to requesters. Additionally, printed or compact disc copies can be obtained by contacting the Carrizo RMP line.

The documents are also posted on the Internet at http://www.blm.gov/ca/bakersfield/carrizo/2009DraftRMP

For further information, call the Carrizo RMP Line (661) 391-6034

Report fails to answer questions on Carrizo Plain manager’s suicide

Report fails to answer questions on suicide
posted 05/04/07

Report fails to answer questions on Carrizo Plain manager’s suicide

David Whitney

WASHINGTON—New information in a heavily redacted investigative report by the Interior Department’s inspector general has only added to the questions surrounding the suicide of the former manager of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.It was May 2, 2005, when Marlene Braun laid down on a makeshift bed outside the Goodwin House, located in the monument, and shot herself.

Since then, investigations into her death have piled facts upon facts. The latest batch was released recently under the Freedom of Information Act.

Its release, just days before the second anniversary of her suicide, did not clear up questions about what went so horribly wrong in Braun’s relationship with her boss, Ron Huntsinger, and why no one stepped in to help. The report was coldly exonerating, but also sadly condemning.

“The Office of Inspector General determined that BLM was compliant with federal law and Department of the Interior personnel regulations,” it said. But in the next sentence, the report said nothing was done to resolve the “longstanding differences” between Braun and Huntsinger, “leading to a breakdown in trust, communication and cooperation.”

Huntsinger, now science coordinator for the agency in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment on the inspector general’s findings. The monument was created by President Clinton just hours before he left office. Its 250,000 acres, roughly equidistant from San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield, are the last remaining expanse of indigenous grasslands in the state.

The monument’s status as conservation lands represented a huge cultural shift for the BLM, for which cattle grazing had been a core purpose. Braun was the first monument manager, full of vigor initially, and ill and wasted from stress and intimidation at the end of her time in the job. At the heart of the differences between Huntsinger and Braun, the report said, was the future of grazing on the monument, with Braun wanting to see it limited.

According to the report, Braun was regarded by other BLM staff as confrontational, controlling, “one-sided and hard to deal with.” As tensions worsened, she was suspended five days for not following orders.

A vacation request was refused. When the stress turned into health problems, she tangled with her superior over medical leave.

By April 27, 2005, the report said the situation was so “out of control” that Braun was contacted about mediation. She never returned the call, which was unusual for her. And on that first Monday in May when she was supposed to drive to Bakersfield for a meeting, she sent instead a two-page e-mail.

“I cannot bear the thought of coming into this office or ever again to meet with (Huntsinger),” she said. “I cannot take any more abuse from him, his lies about my character and my abilities, and any more of the humiliation I have had to endure for the past year.”

Officials in the Bakersfield office sensed something was gravely wrong. But BLM personnel were not dispatched to her home until 35 minutes later, and it was a 75-mile drive from Bakersfield. The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department was not called until an hour and 10 minutes after Braun’s e-mail.

Law enforcement and emergency personnel did not reach Braun’s home until two hours after the e-mail was sent.

Braun was found in the front yard, wounded but alive. Her two dogs lay nearby, shot dead. She was flown by helicopter to the Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, where she was pronounced dead within an hour.

She had prepared for her suicide for several days. Belongings were packed and labeled. A note was left. Computers and materials belonging to the BLM were clearly marked. An eight-page letter was mailed.

“I am weary of working, of moving, and of dealing with conflict over environmental decisions that mean a lot to me,” she wrote in the letter. Kathy Hermes, trustee of Braun’s estate, said the inspector general’s report lifted no curtains on her friend’s death. “It pretty much states what we already knew,” she said.

But that is not the same as saying all questions have been answered, she and others said.

They wanted to know why there isn’t more detail in the report on the bullying and humiliation Braun endured in her job. They also wanted to know why emergency crews weren’t called sooner, or responded faster.

“To me, what they left out is more important than what’s in there,” said Karen Schambach, California director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. She said there are other cases of bullying by superiors that she is watching, including one “remarkably similar” to Braun’s.

“They try to paint her has this difficult employee,” she said. “They could have done a lot more to resolve this, but they didn’t. She was emotionally brutalized.”

Among the ironies is that Huntsinger had served as an alternative dispute resolution management adviser for the BLM’s California region, but according to the report, none of those skills was tapped in his escalating problems with Braun.

In the two years since Braun’s death, the BLM has renewed work on a management plan for the monument. An advisory committee is considering what it should contain, and grazing remains one of the most contentious issues, said Neil Havlik, San Luis Obispo’s natural resources manager who headed the panel when Braun was alive, and is doing so again.

Havlik is among those for whom the inspector general’s report brings no closure.

The signs were there, Havlik said, that Braun was careening toward disaster. She was losing weight to the point of gauntness, and no one intervened.

“I saw things, and in retrospect probably should have spoken up,” he said. “I feel bad I didn’t do anything.”