Nevadans drive out forest supervisor

 

RENO, Nev. - After enduring a year and a half of what she calls Nevada's "fed bashing," Gloria Flora couldn't take it anymore. The supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, the largest national forest in the lower 48 states, submitted her resignation Nov. 8.

But Flora didn't go quietly. Instead, she used her resignation to shine a spotlight on the difficult conditions that many federal employees face in Nevada.

"The attitude towards federal employees and federal laws in Nevada is pitiful," Flora wrote in an open letter to employees of the national forest, a letter which was faxed to the media. "People in rural communities who do respect the law and accept responsibility for it are often rebuked or ridiculed. They are compared to collaborators with the Vichy government in Nazi-controlled France.

"Officials at all levels of government in Nevada participate in this irresponsible fed-bashing," she continued. "The public is largely silent, watching as if this were a spectator sport. This level of anti-federal fervor is simply not acceptable."

Flora's resignation came five days before a special congressional hearing in Elko, Nev., organized by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health, and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev. The hearing concerned a controversial mile-and-a-half stretch of dirt road in the national forest outside of Jarbidge, Nev., (HCN, 10/25/99).

The dead-end road leads to a wilderness area and was washed out in a flood on the Jarbidge River four years ago. Since then it has been the focus of a tug-of-war between the Elko County government and some local sagebrush rebels who want the road rebuilt, and the Forest Service and Trout Unlimited, who say rebuilding the road will jeopardize a threatened bull trout population.

Flora said the hearing was designed to be a public inquisition of federal employees, and she refused to participate. But in an interview at her home in the sagebrush desert north of Reno, Flora said she had made up her mind to leave Nevada long before the Jarbidge conflict escalated into a public confrontation in October, when Elko activists tried to rebuild the road.

Flora said she quickly realized that she could not do her job to protect the resources and provide a safe working environment for her employees in a state in which people were able to threaten federal employees and break federal laws with impunity.

"I'm not a hero," she said. "If I were a hero, maybe I'd stick around. I'm not choosing to stay around. I'm choosing to stand up and get a debate going."

Flora, 44, has spent half her life working for the Forest Service in the West, in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. She is no stranger to controversy. Before coming to Nevada in 1998, she made her mark as a forest supervisor who was willing to make tough calls when she decided to allow no drilling for oil and gas along the Rocky Mountain Front in the Lewis and Clark National Forest (HCN, 10/31/97).

Flora seemed like the perfect candidate for the difficult assignment in Nevada. And it was a step up the career ladder to a bigger, more complicated forest for an ambitious woman whom others say was on a steady track for the job of regional forester, or perhaps even chief some day. Although Flora put all that at risk by resigning, Forest Service officials said they hoped she would decide to take another job in the agency.

"She is precisely the kind of person we want to elevate to senior leadership positions," said Chris Wood, assistant to the chief of the Forest Service. "What Gloria's done is had the courage to speak up. And she's identified a festering problem that's been out there a decade or more. And something good will come of it. She will thrive and it's our intention that she'll thrive in the Forest Service."

Flora said she didn't know what she would do next. But she will leave Nevada by the end of the year. "I am not happy here," she said. "I've got internal support, but that doesn't cut it. I was feeling pretty much alone in the state.

"I expected, perhaps naively, to see some balance here," Flora said during the interview at the kitchen table in her home, where a bouquet of roses and a stack of letters of support may have seemed too little too late. "I knew it was a tough forest. What surprised me was the level of animosity."

In her letter, Flora said Forest Service employees have been castigated in public, shunned in their communities, refused service in restaurants, kicked out of motels, harassed, called before kangaroo courts, and had their lives threatened (see Risks multiply, page 20).

Flora was surprised, she said, by the pervasiveness of anti-federal sentiment at all levels in the state, the small size and limited strength of the environmental movement, the lack of support from elected officials such as the governor and congressional delegation, and the apathy of the general public.

In something of a confirmation of her criticism, Flora's resignation was greeted with mild expressions of regret from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the state's senior member of Congress.

Flora said she tried to maintain good relations with the senator and other top elected officials in Nevada. But she conceded that her relationship with Sen. Reid was strained by her public disagreement with the lax prosecution of environmental cases by Kathryn Landreth, U.S. attorney for the District of Nevada, whom the senator worked hard to have appointed.

Flora said she was also unhappy when the Justice Department recommended that Forest Service law enforcement officials stay away from Jarbidge during the planned road building, even though the Justice Department agreed it was illegal.

Finding a replacement for Flora may not be easy. She said that 60 of the 200 employees of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest left for other forests during her tenure. She said she supported employees who wanted to get out of Nevada, even though filling those positions has not been easy. When the agency advertised a job in portions of the national forest in California's Sierra Nevada, it typically got more than 100 applications. Jobs in rural Nevada, she said, were lucky to attract a handful of applicants.

Jon Christensen writes about the Great Basin from Carson City, Nevada.

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