Forest supervisor got out of the kitchen

Somehow, despite my 30-year career with the federal government, I can't work up much sympathy for Gloria Flora, the U.S. Forest Service official who resigned earlier this month because of vocal criticism she received from some Sagebrush Rebellion-type folks in Elko County. Since she couldn't stand the heat, I applaud her decision to get out of the kitchen.

In her letter of resignation, Ms. Flora, who was supervisor of the sprawling Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, complained that officials at all levels of government in Nevada were engaging in "irresponsible fed- bashing."

"I refuse to participate in this charade of normalcy," she whined. "It's time to speak up ... but speaking up and continuing to work here are not compatible." Nevertheless, Ms. Flora, who probably makes at least $100,000 a year in the Senior Executive Service, will land on her feet; she'll merely be reassigned within the Forest Service.

The reason that I don't have much sympathy for this "abused" public servant is that I took a lot of guff too during my overseas odyssey on behalf of Uncle Sam. I brought some of it upon myself by serving as a spokesman for what our critics termed "Yankee imperialism," not to mention the rocket launcher attack in Madrid, the time "Shining Path" terrorists machine-gunned our offices in Lima and the daily bomb threats in Caracas.

I mention these incidents only to note the contrast between what some federal officials endure, and the harsh words that provoked Ms. Flora's overreaction. Her problems began when she became a national forest supervisor in mid-1998 and Elko County wanted to rebuild a short access road in a remote area near Jarbidge where environmentalists say the endangered bull trout would be harmed. Volunteers, led by state Assemblyman John Carpenter, R-Elko, threatened to rebuild the road despite Forest Service objections.

A potential standoff never materialized, however, as protestors decided to have a picnic instead, followed by a one-sided hearing co-chaired by U.S. representatives Jim Gibbons, R-Reno, and Helen Chenoweth-Hage, a lame duck Idaho Republican who recently married Wayne Hage, a former leader of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Nye Country. The Elko "inquisition" was too much for the hypersensitive Ms. Flora, who is not without her defenders.

"No human being should take the kind of verbal abuse that Flora and her fellow Forest Service employees claim they've experienced...." wrote Carol Vogel in the Reno Gazette-Journal last Wednesday, accepting Flora's unsubstantiated assertions that her employees had been "castigated in public, shunned in (their) communities, refused service in restaurants and kicked out of motels."

But Forest Service employees in northwestern Nevada told another story. "It's quite a bit different on the other side of the state as far as the hostility," said Jocelyn Biro, a 10-year employee of the Carson Ranger District. "I don't feel the same type of intimidation they feel."

Mark Struble, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management - which used to be known around here as "the tapeworm of the livestock industry" -agreed with Ms. Biro that federal workers are generally well treated in the Reno-Carson area. They apparently recognize that there will always be some latent hostility toward the Forest Service and BLM in a state where the federal government owns and manages nearly 90 percent of the land.

I think such problems are manageable, however, as long as the hostility doesn't turn violent, as it did in 1995 when a reprehensible coward, or cowards, bombed the Carson City home and office of former District Ranger Guy Pence. Whoever is responsible belongs in federal prison alongside Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

As far as the Elko County dispute is concerned, I believe that both sides should sit down around a table and work out a compromise solution similar to the one suggested by Jon Christensen in a recent Appeal column. He revealed that interested parties - local citizens, environmentalists and the Forest Service - met and came up with a compromise.

"Instead of rebuilding the road, which could damage trout spawning habitat and inevitably get washed away again," he wrote, "they recommended building a narrower trail that could be used by hikers and off-road vehicles." That should be the basis for upcoming mediation talks ordered by U.S. District Judge David Hagen.

It seems to me that like Christensen, most Nevadans favor a rational, non-confrontational solution to these recurrent federal-state disputes. What gets our dander up, however, is when Washington imposes unilateral decisions upon us without proper consultations - turning Nevada into a nuclear waste dump, for example, or dropping chaff in the central Nevada desert despite valid protests from farmers and ranchers.

Ms. Flora had an important job to do in managing extensive public lands in our state, but she obviously lacked the calm, professional temperament required of a senior official in a contentious situation. Apparently, she forgot that public lands belong neither to the Forest Service, nor to Elko County ranchers and sportsmen; they belong to all of us and must be managed accordingly, taking conflicting interests into account.

Unfortunately, as Jon Christensen wrote, "Sagebrush Rebels prefer the fight they can't win, to the resolution they can." And thin-skinned Feds need to weigh the pros and cons very carefully before they accept high-level positions in the Silver State.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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