The rise, fall, and resurrection of a Forest Service whistleblower
by Todd Wilkinson
A dream catcher dangles from the rearview mirror of Gloria Flora’s Subaru Forester, as she pulls up to a coffee shop on the outskirts of Helena, Montana. The block letters across her license plate spell out the word “SUSTAIN.” The message is the mantra of Flora’s new environmental consulting firm, Sustainable Obtainable Solutions (or SOS), but a double meaning quickly becomes apparent as she climbs from her vehicle, wincing, and then strolls forth with a limp in her gait.
The past few years have been harrowing ones for Flora, one of the best-known environmental whistleblowers to have ever worked for the federal government. Following her controversial, very public resignation from the United States Forest Service on the last day of the old millennium, Flora turned in her agency badge and was on the verge of a pivotal career change. But she got sidetracked, narrowly surviving a head-on highway wreck and spending months in critical condition, just as SOS was getting off the ground.
Now on the mend, Flora is emerging from an extended convalescence more outspoken and more determined than ever to look the pillagers of nature in the eye. Since George W. Bush entered the White House, she’s been in great demand as a sort of motivational speaker on all things green, delivering homilies with the passion of the late David Brower but from an insider’s perspective. “What I find rather amazing is the brazenness of what we’re seeing in government. Former industry lobbyists in charge of not only regulating industry, but providing incentives at our expense for their friends to destroy the few wild places that remain,” she says, drinking from a double-shot latte, which serves as her rocket fuel of choice. “There’s nothing subtle about it.”
Flora’s career-ending showdown with antigovernment zealots in the West made national headlines, as she refused to retreat from resource management decisions made to protect public lands and endangered wildlife. Ask her old Forest Service colleagues to recount what happened and some will unabashedly tell you that Flora brought about her own demise. If only she had kept quiet, they say; if only she had showed “proper deference” to powerful politicians.
Flora doesn’t disagree with the assertions, though it is this political subservience, she points out, that is precisely the problem with American democracy. Some believe her saga provides insight into the trials of others, including perhaps Environmental Protection Agency Director Christie Todd Whitman, who recently resigned from the Bush administration over sharp differences of opinion in what role government should play in protecting public health.
“Is Gloria Flora a green martyr?” asks Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). “No, she’s not a martyr. She’s a patriot. Her willingness to take career risks in order to vindicate her professional judgment while in uniform is what made her extraordinary as a public servant.”
Since the Bush administration came into power, the whistleblowing business has been booming. On issues ranging from assessing the health of polar bears and caribou herds in the Alaskan Arctic to controversies surrounding national forests, endangered species, energy policy, clean air, and global warming in the Lower 48, accusations of government employees being muzzled are now rampant in Washington D.C. PEER’s phones, to quote Ruch, have been ringing off the hook.
Although Flora’s troubles crescendoed during the waning months of the Clinton administration, the conditions she encountered have only worsened under Bush. Gene Sentz, a Montana school teacher turned conservationist and a friend who has tracked the rise, fall, and resurrection of Gloria Flora, says: “Today, other agency managers—some of them, the ablest and most conscientious we’ve had in years—are leaving government service because the Bush administration is so blatant in trying to unravel sound environmental policies and weaken well-thought controls which have been put in place over the last three decades. The kind of abuse Gloria confronted represents the tip of an iceberg.”
Gloria Flora is one of those people whose radiance flows forth from physical beauty, verbal eloquence, and a magnetic personality. And, like many women who work successfully for male-dominated federal natural resource agencies, she has fearless, rugged qualities as well. As we sit and talk over coffee, other patrons overtly eavesdrop on our conversation, pulled into the beam of Flora’s charisma. Sip by sip, she recounts a saga that few Americans, even here in one of the so-called red states of Bush country, have ever heard.
From its inception a century ago, the Forest Service has always adhered to a military-like system in which rank and file employees (i.e., those often closest to the ground, where consequences of agency decisions are most visible) are dissuaded from questioning the decisions of those calling the shots at the top of the bureaucracy. But when Flora and other eco-aware colleagues arrived on the scene, managers suddenly had to pay attention to a suite of new environmental regulations, among them the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and others. The intent of these vanguard legislative acts—all laws that the Bush administration is now attempting to undermine—was to give the public a greater say in how landscapes it owned were managed, and to see forests for a value that transcended the trees. Flora took the charge to heart.
She spent more than a decade in the intermountain West on assignments at national forests in six states, from California to Wyoming. Yet it was during a stint on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California that she encountered commercial logging on a scale that dwarfed everything she had encountered previously. She saw redwoods, giant spruce, cedar, and fir nearly two dozen feet around and centuries old being rapidly liquidated. Entire drainages were sometimes denuded. Rivers were choked with silt. Wildlife disappeared. Landscapes had the appearance of war zones. Privately, she was appalled by what she saw, and slowly the sentiment turned to shame. “I think there is a great unproven faith in the resilience of the land—that it will recover no matter how we abuse it,” she says. “People thought that we could drag trees down the center of a drainage and cut down to the stream bank. They called it forestry. It was a very narrow perspective, if you ask me.”
Still, Flora did not exhibit overt obstinacy; rather, she would venture into the field with her colleagues and try to point out the complicated nature of forests before they were felled.
Flora began to be courted for midlevel management positions that had largely been off limits to her gender. “Gloria was a rising star in this agency,” says former senior Forest Service policy adviser Chris Wood. “There was no telling how far she might have advanced.”
But by this time, Flora’s thinking about nature and the frontier-era attitudes toward resource extraction had evolved. She cites Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce as an influence, empowering her to look at natural resource values in a broader context. Trees weren’t just two-by-fours on the stump; they were oxygen factories; soil anchors; water pumps and filters; homes to a wide array of wildlife; and abiding shelter for urban folks needing an escape to the wilds. This is natural capital, values that never entered into Forest Service ledgers, let alone its lexicon.
Soon after arriving in Montana, Flora confronted a turning point for her and her agency. The oil and gas industry had a strong interest in sinking down exploratory wells and hundreds of miles of road along the Rocky Mountain Front near the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a place often described as an American Serengeti for its abundant populations of elk, deer, grizzly bears, and healthy, wild, fish-filled streams; for its Native American spiritual sites and unblemished scenery. Of thousands of letters, phone calls, and public hearing testimonies that her office collected during two years of investigation—including comments from forty-nine of the fifty states—eighty percent expressed strong opposition to leasing any more of the Rocky Mountain Front to energy developers.
Flora used her authority to place 350,000 acres of the eastern face of the Rockies in Montana off limits to drilling. Her decision and rationale found support from Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, who is considered to have been the most conservation-minded head of the agency in its history. She also attracted immediate scorn from lobbyists with the petroleum industry, who vowed revenge. At the time, Flora noted to journalists that the value of the area as a retreat for future generations of people, and as a natural factory for wildlife and clean water, far outweighed the short-term profits that could be gleaned from carving up the landscape.
Impressed by her leadership, Dombeck asked Flora to undertake a special mission in Nevada: to become supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Trouble had been brewing at the largest national forest in the Lower 48, and in 1998 Flora was instructed to go in and restore the calm. For decades, ranchers within the Humboldt-Toiyabe’s Carson District had been asserting that federal environmental laws didn’t apply to them. They claimed they had a right to use public land as they saw fit and they initiated numerous efforts in Congress to divest federal land to local interests.
Early in the 1990s, tension had erupted. Guy Pence was a local Forest Service ranger dealing with a group of cantankerous ranchers and anti-federal zealots. Part of his job involved enforcing federal environmental laws on grazing allotments, and his jurisdiction extended to Nye County, widely known as the birthplace of the second Sagebrush Rebellion and bastion of the “Wise Use Movement.” In one flash point for confrontation, Pence issued a citation to rancher Dick Carver, who was also a Nye County commissioner. As a publicity stunt, Carver defied Forest Service enforcement officials by climbing in a bulldozer and plowing open a road that had been closed by the agency. One Forest Service official had to leap out of his way to avoid being run over. Carver was taken to court but went unpunished.
Across Nevada and other corners of the West, several other employees with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management had also been receiving threats. The same spring that Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb in front of the federal building in Oklahoma City, an explosive device was planted outside Pence’s office. A few months later, a second bomb blew up under Pence’s vehicle in the driveway of his home, where his wife and daughter were at the time. Luckily, they escaped harm. Although no one was ever arrested, the terrorists’ message was clear. They wanted Pence to leave.
The Forest Service transferred Pence to Boise out of concern for his safety. Given the possibility of further violence, the Forest Service and BLM issued an advisory to its field employees, especially women, telling them not to travel alone in rural Nevada.
When Flora arrived, she immediately initiated meetings with local and state government leaders as well as officials with the twenty counties encompassed by the Humboldt-Toiyabe. Things were going relatively well, until her staff of experts recommended that the Forest Service permanently close a road that had washed out during spring floods along the Jarbidge River near Elko. Bulldozing a new road, the agency found, would cause harm to the stream’s imperiled bull trout, classified as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
But locals demanded that the Forest Service reconstruct the Jarbidge Road. It became an instant rallying cry for the Wise Use Movement across the West, with Flora a main target. Despite Forest Service barricades, state assemblyman John Carpenter led fifty vigilante constituents into the area with shovels and a bulldozer. Ultimately, a court judge ordered Carpenter to back down. Comparing his crusade to the Boston Tea Party, Carpenter continued to encourage the formation of the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade to rebuild the road. Thousands of shovels were delivered in a convoy of trucks to Nevada, with Carpenter leading the insurrection. “If the feds do not change their ways and begin to listen to the local people,” he said, “there is going to be a lot more tea thrown overboard.”
In the days and weeks that followed, grassland specialists who tried to enforce environmental laws pertaining to livestock grazing were told flat out to go away by gun-toting ranchers. When Forest Service workers under Flora’s command stopped to have dinner in Elko restaurants, they were denied service. At local supermarkets, the spouses of Humboldt-Toiyabe employees were verbally accosted with expletives; in schools, children of Forest Service workers were taunted by students. Even an elementary school teacher vitriolically castigated the Forest Service in front of her class.
At her headquarters in faraway Reno, Flora was concerned. “My employees were legitimately rattled and could you blame them?” she asks. Still, Flora held firm in refusing to open the Jarbidge Road, knowing that doing so might violate the Endangered Species Act.
Back on Capitol Hill, Helen Chenoweth, then an Idaho congresswoman and chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, and U.S. Representative Jim Gibbons (R., NV) held a public hearing and chastised Flora as a biased “obstructionist.” Interestingly, at the same time, Chenoweth was engaged to marry a Nye County rancher named Wayne Hage, who, it should be noted, had a $26 million lawsuit pending against the Humboldt-Toiyabe. Hage seethed with enmity toward the Forest Service.
During their public courtship, Hage and Chenoweth seemed openly giddy about having a stage on which to torment Flora and decided to hold a “field hearing,” in which Flora would be called before local folk. On the same day that Chenoweth scheduled the hearing, she attended a political fundraiser with Hage. The couple even met with the Elko County Commission and advised local officials on “how to deal with the Forest Service.”
Ordered to appear at a public hearing that was packed with people who viewed it as an anti-federal rally, Flora refused. Seeking support from her superiors in Washington, Flora asked if Chenoweth’s actions represented an ethical conflict of interest. “I was told to shut up, that members of Congress don’t have conflicts of interest, and that they can do anything they want,” she recalls.
Dombeck offered Flora a transfer, but she did not want it to appear that she was running away. Instead, Flora tendered a fiery letter of protest and quit. “It disturbs me that two million people in this state watch silently, or worse, in amusement, as a small percent of their number break laws and trounce the rights of others with impunity,” Flora told the press. “But when a member of the United States Congress joins forces with them, using the power of the office to stage a public inquisition of federal employees followed by a political fundraiser, I must protest. Fed-bashing is a sport here and I refuse to sit by quietly and let it happen.”
In the wake of her resignation, thirty-five Forest Service employees at Humboldt-Toiyabe sent a letter to Dombeck saying that “the depth of the problem is beyond even what Ms. Flora has expressed.” Dombeck then launched a fact-finding investigation. A memo written to Humboldt-Toiyabe employees by Jack Blackwell, who oversaw the Forest Service’s intermountain region, confirmed Flora’s allegations, stating that his team of investigators did find numerous situations where Forest Service employees and their families were subjected to various forms of intimidation, harassment, and verbal abuse. However, the kinds of intimidation marshaled against Forest Service workers were not, it turns out, “prosecutable offenses.”
Her frustration level grew exponentially as she learned, almost daily, about attempts by the Bush administration to weaken environmental laws or subvert the public’s right to scrutinize industry-driven policy decisions. Then, in the wake of September 11, Flora watched in horror as western politicians began trying to draw a parallel between the World Trade Center terrorists and mainstream environmentalists. With conservationists from across the country pleading with her to make a statement, she could no longer remain lying down. Unable to walk and in severe pain, she went to testify before Congress in a wheelchair. She warned America’s elected leaders about the dangers of tolerating and, in some cases, encouraging antigovernment hatred, which has been used as a tool by natural resource industries to undermine federal environmental laws and respect for citizens working for federal land management agencies.
In the winter of 2002, Flora flew back to Washington, this time to be present at a hearing on the subject of domestic terrorism. U.S. Representative Scott McInnis (R., CO), had called for the meeting to decry “eco-terrorists” and tried to equate mainstream environmental organizations and American conservationists in general with the extreme radicals from Earth Liberation Front who carried out the 1998 arson at a ski chalet in Vail, Colorado.
In response, Democrats and moderate Republicans from the East wanted to hear from federal employees who had been menaced by anti-environmentalists. The expert witness was new private citizen Flora, who said that if Mr. McInnis wanted to find evidence of dangerous, anti-American radicalism, he needed to look no further than Nevada.
Every year, PEER examines reports amassed by land management agencies pertaining to threats made against federal workers. Last year, the group reported that during the first year of the Bush administration, acts of violence against natural resource employees, including bombings, beatings, and arsons, rose dramatically over the year 2000. Not only did the total number of such incidents increase, but the percentage of incidents involving direct violence against employees also rose, according to PEER. The Forest Service alone documented seventy-eight incidents, up from thirty-three in 2000.
“Fed-bashing is a tough phrase,” she told me. “I define it as destructive actions or words meant to hurt and belittle federal employees, personally and collectively. It is not much different than racism. You pick a class of people, you decide they are the source of your problems and you proceed to systematically make them unwelcome in your community. I do not begrudge anyone for being upset with certain federal laws or policies, but how we handle that dislike is a measure of our own personal integrity and ultimately, the yardstick of a community.”
This belief was her impetus for founding Sustainable Obtainable Solutions. Today, she is on a personal crusade to help give the public a better sense of what sustainability means—relative to lands that we all own—and to demonstrate that prosperity is not merely a byproduct of commercial growth.
So far the Forest Service has rebuked her attempts to bring people together to talk about ways of creatively resolving conflict. Part of that may be due to agency entrenchment. Another reason may be the fact that Flora condemns several of the Bush administration’s actions: overturning the Clinton-era policy to protect sixty million acres of roadless lands and the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone; attempts to open tens of millions of acres of land to oil and gas drilling, including the land that she protected along the Rocky Mountain Front; efforts to take away the public’s ability to scrutinize land management decisions; the rewriting of endangered species protection and laws pertaining to clean air and clean water; and the refusal to take serious action to reverse global warming.
“At one point, near the end of the Clinton administration, when Gloria had made her visionary moratorium on oil and gas drilling, after Mike Dombeck won citizen support for his plan to safeguard roadless lands, I thought the Forest Service had entered a new age,” says former policy advisor Chris Wood. “I believed the Forest Service could never regress into the environmentally challenged agency it was in the past, but I was wrong.”
The message from the Bush administration is that it’s patriotic to put on a military uniform, invade another country, and seek to liberate its people from a repressive regime linked to “terrorists,” whether real or not. But at home it’s fashionable to berate those who swear allegiance to upholding federal environmental laws and protecting the ecological soil that the soldiers were sent abroad to defend.
Inside agencies like the Forest Service today, a fierce ideological war is being waged. On one side are those public servants who believe they are beholden to a new political agenda that sees federal agencies as tools for aiding and abetting the timber, mining, and oil and gas industries. On the other side is a group of people who felt kinship with Gloria Flora. Their loyalty lies with the American people, who have entrusted them to be stewards of our natural heritage, and to manage public resources in sustainable ways. It’s not yet clear who ultimately will prevail.