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To die on the plain 

Marlene Braun envisioned the dawning of a new day at the Carrizo Plain, but she never lived to see it

On the eastern edge of San Luis Obispo County, close to California Valley, the Carrizo Plain stretches 45 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west. Surrounded by the Temblor and Caliente ranges, the San Andreas Fault rises up through the Carrizo Plain's expansive valley floor, where it has been slowly unzipping the plain for centuries. Herds of pronghorn antelope forage the floor and prairie falcons jet overhead. Giant kangaroo rats and San Joaquin kit foxes lurk late into the evening.

The 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument is home to the greatest concentration of endangered wildlife in all of California. But to the unknowing, the Carrizo can appear as vacant as the surface of Mars. Except in the spring, when winter rains give birth to intense bursts of brilliant wildflowers - like the California jewelflower - and the Carrizo is transformed into a psychedelic Garden of Eden.

And it was there on the plain last spring, with life raging all around her, where 46-year-old Marlene Braun ended her life with a blue steel .38-caliber revolver. While the sound of the discharge slowly dissolved in the valley, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials in Bakersfield, who received an e-mail from Braun, began scrambling.

Braun was the Carrizo Plain National Monument Manager; a position that was created after President Clinton proclaimed the Carrizo a national monument days before he left office in 2001. As its first manager, Braun was hired to carry out a controversial mandate: developing a resource management plan that would put for the first time the health of native species ahead of cattle grazing interests at the Carrizo.

During her tenure the Carrizo became a symbolic theater for a heated debate over private grazing on public lands.

"I had been working on [the plan] for over 2 years," Braun wrote in a 30-page chronicle of events, recently provided to New Times, leading to her own death. "My major job function since coming to the new Monument was to direct and complete this plan. It was mandated by the Secretary of the Interior and required intense public involvement, was high profile and the draft was almost complete."

click to enlarge RON HUNTSINGER:  FIELD MANAGER Ron Huntsinger took over as Marlene Brauns supervisor a year before her death.
  • RON HUNTSINGER: FIELD MANAGER Ron Huntsinger took over as Marlene Brauns supervisor a year before her death.

#In fact, the draft had been shared with the managing partners - The Nature Conservancy, the Department of Fish and Game, and California BLM State Director Mike Pool, who endorsed the plan.

The plan, though, would never see the light of day. Braun's supervisor, Ron Fellows, retired, and that's when things took a drastic shift at the Carrizo. From March 2004, when Ron Huntsinger took over as field manger, until Braun's death on May 2, 2005, the draft would be revised at least four times and the Carrizo Plain managing partners would start to lose faith in the BLM's management of the Carrizo. Huntsinger blamed Braun, but Braun retained her support from the plain's managing partners.

After nearly a year of feeling intimidated, humiliated, and abused by Huntsinger's management, Braun spoke to her best friend, Kathy Hermes, and described her boss as "evil." She told Hermes that working under Huntsinger was worse then being married to her abusive husband, whom she had divorced years prior.

The conservation debate that Braun found herself at the forefront of re-prioritized the management of public lands, putting the recovery of native species ahead of cattle interests at the Carrizo. While this would cut into some of the cattlemen's profits, more importantly it seemed to symbolize the death of the cattle industry.

Irv McMillan, longtime rancher and friend of Braun's, said the land at the Carrizo does not represent a significant portion of any cattleman's grazing operation.

"Marlene took her job seriously. She followed the existing management plan, to her credit. I was amazed," said McMillan. "For four years she was actually able to keep cattle off the bottom lands."

For ranchers, watching grazing restrictions at the Carrizo increase and their grazing lands decrease was incongruent with the long-held ranching policy of "no net loss" of private lands; that no private lands should get into the government hands, because that would mean the eventual limiting of the entire industry.

"It's getting harder to generate a decent income from a ranching

click to enlarge MARLENE BRAUN:
  • MARLENE BRAUN:
#operation, and they're watching the value of [their] land go through the ceiling, so [they] have other alternatives that involve using the land differently," said Anne McMahon, former operations manager for The Nature Conservancy during Braun's tenure. "I think it's a very emotional issue for them. It represents, I think, the death of their industry."

At the Carrizo, ranchers have two kinds of leases to graze their cattle. The first are the traditional leases, which date back to the early 20th century. These leases guarantee ranchers the right to graze yearly as they please. The other lease agreement, "free-use permits," allow managing partners to decide if grazing is sound, based on factors such as rainfall and ground cover. The original draft management plan would have shifted all of the leases to free-use permits, allowing the BLM more freedom to limit grazing for the enhancement of native species.

"The old [field manager], Ron Fellows, had demanded, after he hired me, that I change our grazing at the Monument," Braun wrote. "Ron Fellows told me there was too much of it, it wasn't justified scientifically, was highly criticized by the public, and it didn't fit in with the mission of a new Monument. Ron Fellows made it my job to get past the 'parochial views' in the office and bring the Carrizo out of the dark ages of BLM management."

Many of those familiar with the development of the management plan suspect that Huntsinger was hired to "fix" the resource management plan, that as it stood it was not friendly enough to grazing interests. Ron Huntsinger refused to comment for this article, citing a pending investigation.

"It wasn't until Ron was sent in to fix the plan that things shifted," said Karen Schambach of the California branch of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This shift in planning has caused many to speculate that someone higher up in Washington was turning the screws on California's BLM, and that Huntsinger was assigned to drive Braun from her post.

"He realized he would only fix the plan over her dead body," said Schambach. "And as it turns out, he was right."

 

Natural-born scientist

Marlene Braun came to the Carrizo with 13 years of BLM experience and an advanced degree in soil science. Before studying science, Braun served in the army, where she met her future husband. The two, stationed in Germany, traveled Europe together while on leave and eventually married and moved to Southern California. But Braun's friend Kathy Hermes said Braun's husband became abusive. The two divorced, but the pain Braun experienced later resurfaced at the Carrizo.

In 1992, after partially completing a Ph.D. in bio-geo chemistry and with a master's degree in soil science, Braun headed north for Alaska where she took her first job with the BLM.

"She realized she wanted to do more real science," said Hermes. "She realized as an academic, she might be writing a lot of grants." Braun found her niche, though, on the Carrizo in 2002, said Hermes.

"She was very driven, maybe stubborn ... some people would say stubborn. I wouldn't disagree with that. She believed in herself and was clearly very committed to the monument," said Neil Havlik, head of The Carrizo Plain Advisory Group. "She loved the monument."

Nearly everyone interviewed for this story described Braun's propensity for passionate discourse and her love for the Carrizo Plain.

"She always argued from conviction," said Hermes. "She was an absolutely brilliant scientist, [but] I think she was kind of naive about people."

Braun was straightforward and expected the same from others, said Hermes. She couldn't be lumped in politically with most environmentalists who tend toward the liberal side of the political spectrum."She went quail hunting, but also loved to go bird watching."

 

The battle with Huntsinger

In May of 2004, a month after Huntsinger took over as field manager, he almost immediately started stripping Braun of her responsibilities. According to Braun's chronology, Huntsinger appointed Larry Saslaw to be Braun's "Resource Management Plan planning lead," and regularly held meetings with Saslaw, refusing to include her.

"Ron essentially took over my job as Carrizo planning manger without officially notifying me of this in writing," she wrote. "He effectively removed me from my principal job without documenting why I was not a doing a good job ... the managing partners were astounded and depressed."

Through the summer of '04, Braun and the managing partners grew frustrated. Under Huntsinger large portions of the management plan, which had already been reviewed by the advisory committee and the managing partners, were re-written.

Braun began to suspect that political influences were reaching the Carrizo. She learned that BLM CA received a memo from BLM DC saying they favored converting all the grazing leases to traditional permits; not the free-use kind that Braun and the managing partners had urged. Instead of reducing the hoof action at the plain, grazing would have actually increased under the guise of environmental protection.

"Word from on high was to have more traditional grazing at Carrizo and definitely not to change any we already had," she wrote. "This was pure politics and went against our existing management plan for the last 8 years ... the environment in the office was changing and I think the [presidential] election was a big factor on that."

During a conference call, Braun told the fellow managing partners what she had learned. Word of the conference call eventually made it to the state office in Sacramento, and then back to Huntsinger in Bakersfield.

On June 28 Huntsinger called Braun into his office.

"He was clearly angry, almost ready to burst at the seams ... he was clearly holding back extreme anger, at least at first," she later wrote.

Huntsinger told Braun he heard from the state BLM office about the conference call.

"Ron told me that I was 'never, never' to leak internal information again and that he was very angry about it. He adopted the tone of an angry father talking to a child ... He interrupted me when I tried to defend myself.

"Every time I tried to speak, he seemed to view it as talking back to him and responded by yelling at me to not ever do it again. He kept saying, 'Did you hear what I said?'

"I felt like a bully had just beaten me up."

The next day, Braun met with Huntsinger about the plan again. Huntsinger's anger was still palpable, and when he suggested moving chapter two of the management plan to the appendix, Braun attempted to dissuade him. "By this point Ron was livid," Braun wrote, "and like Monday, raised his voice, and directed his anger at me. He said that I was wrong and that these were his decisions. I gave up saying anything else and said ok. Everyone eventually just walked away but his yelling could be heard across the office."

Braun wrote that she felt demoralized and that being yelled at two days in a row was "particularly humiliating."

Later that night, Braun wrote Huntsinger an e-mail expressing her frustrations, asking him to involve her in the management decisions. Huntsinger never responded. "In fact, this would continue a pattern of Ron rarely answering my e-mails. He would just ignore them."

When Braun was finally able to discuss issues with Huntsinger, he insisted that she needed to follow his orders. "There was absolutely no willingness on his part to consider changing anything he did. I began to feel utterly hopeless that things could get better and literally got sick to my stomach and threw up."

 

The e-mail that broke the boss' back

"[Braun] was very hopeful that this new management plan was going to sort of be the dawning of a new day at the Carrizo in terms of how decisions would be made, and it would really codify what had always been talked about," said Anne McMahon. "It would very clearly state that grazing would be used only as a tool for the benefit of the native species."

Then, on Aug. 11, Braun sent an e-mail to the managing partners and accidentally cc-ed Larry Saslaw. In the e-mail she had said Huntsinger incorrectly interpreted grazing regulations. Saslaw forwarded the e-mail to Huntsinger.

Days later, during her job performance review, Huntsinger informed Braun that he would be writing a letter of reprimand for her "disparaging remarks" about him. He told Braun she was no longer allowed to communicate with the managing partners.

Braun, who had never received a bad mark on her record in the BLM or the military, was shocked.

Huntsinger waited over a month to deliver the letter to Braun, and during that time she agonized deeply. While waiting for her letter of reprimand, Braun returned to Ohio and caught up with Kathy Hermes.

"It was just really preoccupying her," said Hermes. "She was really distant, and she said, 'He was trying to ruin my career.' It didn't make sense to me what was going on, and it didn't make sense to her."

"Ordinarily I wouldn't worry about this," Braun said to Hermes, "I would just ask for a transfer, but he told me he would never help me get a transfer."

Braun was caught in a bind. Without a letter of reference it would be hard to get a transfer. Not that she wanted to leave the Carrizo, but she was thinking about it.

Five weeks after Huntsinger informed Braun of the letter, he called her and said they had to meet. When they did, at the Carrizo, Huntsinger gave her a five-day suspension, skipping the usual step of a written complaint. Aside from totally flooring Braun emotionally, it also officially shut off the previous attempt she had made to initiate mediation with Huntsinger.

"It was such an overreaction to that e-mail that it was pretty clear they wanted to get rid of her," said Karen Schambach.

Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director, said suspensions are normally reserved for egregious offenses like running a private business out of your public office or lying.

"At best it would have been something you would bring up in a performance review," he said about the e-mail Braun sent.

Braun worked with PEER to prepare an appeal. She gathered letters of support from the same fellow managing partners whom Huntsinger claimed she had broken the trust of, members of the Carrizo Advisory Committee, and others. Three members of The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Fish and Game wrote letters to Mike Pool, head of the CA BLM.

On Valentine's Day 2005, Braun learned that her suspension would stand.

"She was still hanging on to a shred of hope that this would end well, that she would win out in the end, because she felt so strongly she was right," said McMahon, who wrote in support of Braun. "And even though it was a terrible time for her, she was still hanging on to the hope that someone at BLM would look at the situation and see it as she had and restore her authority as monument manger.

"When the disciplinary action came back not in her favor and she had exhausted the grievance process, it became very clear to her that ... she would not be able to influence the direction things were going."

Braun became withdrawn and anxious. She saw doctors who prescribed her antidepressants, but the medicine didn't help. Hermes remembers it was then that Braun said working for Huntsinger was worse than her abusive relationship.

"To hear this was surprising," said Hermes. "I asked her if she was suicidal. She said no. I asked her if she ever was, if she would call me. She said yes."

 

The last day

On May 1, roughly a year after Huntsinger became her supervisor, Braun baked a cake for an employee's mother who had cancer and finished writing a job description for another employee who was trying to get a promotion. She labeled all her possessions with friends' names. She shipped a package of documents, scheduled for afternoon delivery, to Hermes.

On the morning of May 2, she sent off dozens of e-mails, one of which went to the Bakersfield BLM office.

"I firmly believe in donation of all organs and body parts so that if possible, please have Alysia [a BLM law enforcement officer] to notify EMS and Kathy to arrange for this if possible," she wrote (the note was provided to New Times). "I want Kathy to do all other notifications for me, particularly to my Uncle Earl and relatives ... I left a note [for law enforcement] that should be explicit enough."

Braun then went outside; left her driver's license with a suicide note that read, "I have committed suicide ... this is not a homicide"; shot her two dogs and covered them in a blanket; then placed the revolver to her head and pulled the trigger. She had purchased the gun 13 years prior after receiving her first BLM assignment.

At 9:10 a.m., after receiving her e-mail, two BLM employees began the two-hour drive from Bakersfield to the Carrizo to find out what was going on. The BLM employees were the first ones on the scene. When they arrived, Braun was still breathing and medics arrived 10 minutes later. Sheriffs were dispatched at 10:28 a.m. She was airlifted to Marian Medical Center but soon died.

The BLM employees immediately removed Braun's BLM computer from the scene. It is not known why.

 

Braun's legacy

Two weeks ago, Irv McMillan sat on the tailgate of his black pickup, deep inside the plain's wide-open valley. Braun's death still doesn't make sense to the man who's been watching the Carrizo all his life.

"Something just doesn't add up," he said. "There's something missing."

Nearly seven months after her death, the heavily contested management plan rests in bureaucratic limbo. An internal BLM investigation still has not been viewed by anyone outside the organization, and the terms for members of the Carrizo Advisory Committee are set to expire at the end of December. Rain is beginning to fall on the Carrizo, and soon it will be decided when to put the cows out, if at all.

In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, requesting an investigation, PEER wrote, "We strongly believe that Marlene's death was not an isolated tragedy but the direct result of management practices within the Department of the Interior ... almost from the time of Mr. Huntsinger's arrival, it became clear that his agenda was to modify the special grazing standards ... to be more in line with normal BLM grazing standards."

The Department of the Interior inspector general has since announced an investigation into Braun's suicide, and recently contacted Kathy Hermes to set up an interview. But PEER's Jeff Ruch isn't optimistic, because the inspector general will only investigate if any law has been broken.

Outside the Carrizo, McMillan pointed out an eagle resting on a telephone pole with one raised middle wire. He says the birds were electrocuted when all three wires were strung at the same height, but Braun called PG&E and had them raise the middle wire.

"[She] was just the most tragic result of BLM's inability to deal with the situation at the monument," said McMillan. "She wanted her death to have some significance to how the plain is operated in the future. I think she will have an impact. She certainly had an impact on me."

 

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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