Suicide Casts a Shadow on Conservation Battle
First she killed her dogs, shot them in the head with a .38-caliber revolver and covered the two bodies with a quilt. Then Marlene Braun leveled the blue steel muzzle three inches above her right ear and pulled the trigger.
“I can’t face what appears to be required to continue to live in my world,” the meticulous 46-year-old wrote in May in a suicide note. “Most of all, I cannot leave Carrizo, a place where I finally found a home and a place I love dearly.”
Braun had come to the Carrizo Plain three years earlier, after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management placed her in charge of the new national monument -- 250,000 acres of native grasses and Native American sacred sites, embraced by low mountains, traversed by the San Andreas Fault and home to more threatened and endangered animals than any other spot in California.
About 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, Carrizo Plain National Monument is largely unknown to the outside world. But in Braun’s short tenure as monument manager, the plain had become a battleground between conservationists and the Bush administration over the fate of Western public lands.
What began as a policy dispute -- to graze or not to graze livestock on the fragile Carrizo grasslands -- became a morass of environmental politics and office feuding that Braun was convinced threatened both her future and the landscape she loved.
A 13-year veteran of the BLM, Braun was torn between the demands of a new boss who she felt favored the region’s ranchers, and conservation policies adopted nearly a decade ago to protecting the austere swath of prairie she shared with pronghorn antelope and peregrine falcons, the California condor and the California jewelflower.
Braun had worked in Alaska and Nevada and had long been committed to preserving the land that was placed in her care. But nothing in her background seemed to foreshadow her fate.
“Marlene was never troubled, as far as I knew,” recalled Sutton Edlich, a friend from graduate school who said he was “absolutely” shocked that Braun killed herself. “She wasn’t a happy-go-lucky person, but was a realist.... She was a complex person.”
In the months leading up to her death in May, Braun lost weight and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed antidepressants and tranquilizers. Friends worried that stress and isolation were taking a toll, but none interpreted her behavior as a sign of despair.
But Braun left behind clues. In her suicide notes, as well as a long chronology of her final year, she laid out her fears for the Carrizo and told how her life had become “utterly unbearable.”
“It’s a big step from feeling bad to wanting to die,” said Dr. Thomas A. Hicklin, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. But he said certain underlying factors can make some people more likely to take their own lives -- among them depression and feeling trapped and without options.
Emotionally, Braun was “in a negative environment, with her own passions frustrated, and she’s also depressed,” said Hicklin, who did not treat her. “It’s a bad combination.”
Braun’s suicide is the latest chapter in a century of conflict between cowboys and conservationists in the drought-plagued Southwest, where livestock compete with wildlife for sparse vegetation, and hungry animals can turn grassland into desert.
“It’s important for me to control my destiny in this final act, and I am not afraid to die,” she wrote. “But I am very weary of working, moving and of dealing with conflict over environmental decisions that mean a lot to me.”
Braun wrote those words in an eight-page suicide note that she sent by express mail to her oldest friend, Kathy Hermes, a college history professor in Connecticut.
The note listed Braun’s bank account numbers, information about her life insurance policy and the name of a Realtor who could help Hermes sell property that Braun owned.
She sent a second note to the BLM office in Bakersfield, and authorities found a third near her body, placed on a bench in her rustic frontyard at the Goodwin Ranch. “I have committed suicide,” it said. “This is not a homicide.” On top of the note was Braun’s driver’s license. In her pocket, her organ donor card.
In some ways, the plain is an unlikely battleground. Low-slung and largely treeless, it is a natural resource unlike most others in California -- hard to reach, harder to photograph, its beauty less accessible than that of Yosemite or Big Sur.
Far from pristine, the Carrizo’s narrow flatlands have been farmed and grazed for 150 years, the cattle moving alongside giant kangaroo rats, San Joaquin kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards.
Harsh and elegant, it is a landscape that first evokes respect, then admiration, and finally love. That, at least, is how it was for Braun.
“It’s been over 100F here at the Carrizo for the past few days, and I just filled up a big claw-foot tub in my frontyard, am going to grab a beer and a new book, and start soaking,” she wrote to childhood friend Deb Schmitt last year. “Kingbirds fight and carry on in the tree above the tub, and if I wait until dark, bats and barn owls come out and fly around above me.”
In winter, sandhill cranes swoop along Soda Lake. In spring, the Carrizo hillsides become a riot of wildflowers, their vibrant reds, oranges and purples visible from passing jets. Summers bleach the monument of color, the harsh sunlight scorching grasses to shades of celadon and taupe.
“She told me that sometimes she looked out on the landscape at Carrizo,” recalled Braun’s friend Sharmon Stambaugh, “and if the sun was coming down a certain way -- the shadows -- the beauty of it hurt her.”
The plain was designated a national monument in the last three days of the Clinton administration, one of several “midnight monuments” slipped in before President Bush took office.
But even before the Carrizo acquired that status, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and the BLM had been working to preserve the sweeping plain, which contained the remaining 1% of the grasslands that had once blanketed Central California. In the late 1980s, they began cobbling together a public preserve, the Carrizo Plain Natural Area.
By 1996, a partnership consisting of the conservancy, the BLM and the state Department of Fish and Game had completed a management plan to balance ranching and conservation.
The conservancy had transferred most of its holdings to the BLM and agreed to relinquish grazing rights on the condition that the needs of native species take precedence over cattle.
A Sept. 25, 1996, agreement states that “if BLM is no longer able to administer the livestock grazing for the objectives and in the manner described above, the grazing leases will revert” to either Fish and Game or the Nature Conservancy. In a written response, the BLM agreed.
In the years since, the Carrizo Plain’s managers have sought to repair damage from intensive grazing without putting the land off limits to ranchers who depend on it. And that, as Braun found out, is a perilous balancing act.
She was responsible for enforcing the cattle management policy formulated by the three partners. It was also her job to develop a comprehensive plan to guide land-use decisions for the next 20 years.
Braun did not advocate banning cattle from the plain -- a patchwork of mostly public land with some areas of private property. But she did believe that more regulation was necessary. Her preference was to survey the condition of the grass each spring before deciding how many cows could forage.
Depending on rainfall the previous winter, Braun let anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand cattle a year graze in the monument, and she stopped some ranchers from grazing any livestock on the valley floor.
Some local ranchers complained that Braun’s management threatened to put them out of business. They said they couldn’t operate if they didn’t know until each spring how many cattle they’d be allowed to put out to pasture.
Carl Twisselman, who used to graze cattle in the monument and now represents ranching interests on one Carrizo advisory group, said Braun’s approach did not afford ranchers any certainty in making decisions critical to their business.
Like many ranchers, he didn’t think grazing was bad for the environment.
“I come from the standpoint that grazing’s good for the plants,” he added.
But not all ranchers shared that view. Irv McMillan, a longtime cattleman and friend of Braun, said that every time he saw her he congratulated her for the improvements she was making.
“She was able to keep the grazing off the bottom land for the last four years,” said McMillan, who did not graze cattle on the plain. “It was an amazing achievement compared to what had happened before it was a monument.”
But Ron Huntsinger, who became Braun’s boss in March 2004, took issue with her approach. After his transfer to the Bakersfield BLM office from New Mexico, he made it clear that ranchers should be allowed to graze under all but the most exceptional circumstances, according to memos, e-mails and interviews with people involved with the Carrizo Plain.
The agreement signed by the BLM obligated both Braun and Huntsinger to manage the plain in the best interests of native species -- a responsibility they viewed in very different ways. When it came to the Carrizo Plain, they agreed on only one thing: a deep belief that the other one was wrong.
Braun arrived at the Carrizo at a time when the partnership among the BLM, the conservancy and Fish and Game was beginning to fray.
Despite the 1996 agreement, “there is controversy about levels of grazing use ... and the perception that the BLM is reluctant and defensive about altering ‘its’ grazing program on the Carrizo,” Ron Fellows, who preceded Huntsinger in the BLM’s Bakersfield office, wrote in a lengthy memo laying out the situation to Braun when she arrived. “This whole issue is beginning to sour our relationship with [Fish and Game] and is reinforcing our defensive posture on the subject,” he continued. “The issue needs to be resolved.”
Fellows said he hired Braun for the Carrizo job in part because of her reputation as a workaholic -- a necessary attribute for someone required to live in one of California’s remotest regions.
As her new boss had anticipated, Braun came into the job charging hard, tearing into a long list of tasks to complete. Early on, in particular, her zeal bowled over her own employees and others in the Bakersfield office.
Compromise was an alien term, especially if Braun thought she was right. Which was almost always.
“She was the right person for the job at the time,” Fellows said. But “she was an angel one day and a devil one day.”
“She left quite a wake,” said Carol Bustos, an administrative officer in the BLM’s Bakersfield office. “With Marlene, it was ‘my way or the highway.’ ”
Soon after her arrival, Braun began working on a resource management plan that would revise the approach to grazing first set out in 1996.
The plan advocated that ranchers’ traditional 10-year grazing permits be phased out, replaced by “free use” permits, with the BLM deciding year to year if the plain’s native plant species were healthy enough to withstand livestock. By early 2003, Braun had a version of the plan ready for review. The managing partners signed on, three advisory groups endorsed the plan and the BLM’s state office approved a draft late that year.
Around the same time, Braun received a cautionary letter from Bob Benneweis, the former superintendent of Yosemite and a longtime member of a Carrizo advisory committee. Beware, he wrote, of the political heft of the area’s longtime cattlemen.
“I do not envy any member of the BLM staff who may act to significantly reduce grazing on the Carrizo, only to feel the wrath of ranchers and their allies,” he wrote.
There was another reason for Braun to be cautious. Officials of the Bush administration had openly sympathized with critics of Clinton’s last-minute monuments. Many of those critics were ranchers, angry at policies that restricted their grazing access to more than 1 million acres in Utah, Arizona and California.
In March 2001, Interior Secretary Gale Norton sent letters to the governors of Utah and Arizona asking what their objections were regarding the monuments.
Under Norton, the BLM began crafting a grazing policy that lifted protections for wildlife and habitat across 161 million acres of public lands in the West, including the Carrizo.
Just as the BLM was embracing its new approach, Fellows retired. Huntsinger, who was then 57, took the job as manager of the Bakersfield field office.
Huntsinger has worked for the BLM for 27 years, moving from Alaska to Washington, D.C., Nevada and Taos, N.M. Although he could be gruff, he had a long record of working collaboratively, according to interviews with people who have known him throughout his career.
But he came to the Carrizo with marching orders that were almost guaranteed to bring him into conflict with Braun. “I was brought in,” he told members of the partnership team, “to fix this plan.”
Within three months of his arrival, Huntsinger announced at a public meeting that the grazing section of the resource management plan was being retooled, giving it what Braun would describe as a more “pro-grazing slant.”
Bob Stafford, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said neither Huntsinger nor anyone else in the agency ever gave the partners a reason for what they viewed as such a drastic change. “Other than citing regulations, we don’t know” why the new direction was taken, Stafford said. “We haven’t been given any information.”
Neither Huntsinger nor other BLM officials would discuss the policy dispute or any of the circumstances surrounding Braun’s death.
Braun and Huntsinger feuded almost from the moment he became her boss. He accused her of being insubordinate. She didn’t think he was all that bright. He believed she broadcast private BLM information to people outside the agency with no need to know; she believed he didn’t want to keep the agency’s partners properly informed.
She undercut his authority; he humiliated her in public. She bombarded him with communication. In her view, he either responded with silence or blew up at her.
“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,” Braun wrote in a 35-page chronology of their deteriorating relationship.
Early in his tenure, Huntsinger stripped Braun of “almost all my influence on the Plain,” she wrote, handing over authority for the crucial resource management plan to two others who were more “pro-grazing.”
Five months after Huntsinger arrived, she fretted in an e-mail to colleagues, “I ... can’t keep fighting indefinitely, I don’t think.” But she added: “Maybe fighting is better than capitulating.... The Carrizo could lose a lot if I give up.... But hell, you only live, and die, once!!!!”
Late last summer, Braun sent an e-mail to the partners in which she tried to set the record straight about several public misstatements she believed Huntsinger had made about federal grazing law. The note ended any hope of a reconciliation.
“I have factual info on the traditional leases that differs considerably from Rons [sic]. He was wrong,” she wrote of Huntsinger in the e-mail, " ... and he is wrong on several technical issues.... I was right.”
She sent the e-mail to her counterparts at Fish and Game and the Nature Conservancy, but somehow Huntsinger got a copy also.
He suspended her for five days without pay.
He said that Braun’s e-mail tended to “degrade” him and that it would damage both his and the BLM’s reputations.
Braun’s conduct, Huntsinger wrote in the notice of suspension, “has diminished my confidence in your ability to properly represent the agency’s position on controversial issues, particularly the issue of grazing management.”
Braun appealed the suspension, which she felt was unduly harsh punishment for a first offense by someone with an exemplary record. She got word Feb. 14 that her appeal had been denied. In retrospect, many of her friends and co-workers point to that day as the moment suicide became a real possibility to her.
The stress took a toll on her health. She was anxious and sleeping poorly. Old friends were shocked to see that Braun, always tall and slender, had lost 40 pounds. One friend who visited her arrived to find no food in the house; the monument manager had been subsisting on pancakes.
The situation was made worse by the medications prescribed by two different doctors who her friends said were not in communication with each other. Hermes, her oldest friend, said Braun was prescribed Klonopin and Ativan, which are generally given for anxiety, and Lexapro and trazodone, both antidepressants. Not only did the drugs provide little relief, they often made Braun insensible and drowsy. Alarmed at her reaction to the medications, Braun eventually scaled back, Hermes said, although her autopsy report showed that Klonopin and trazodone were found in her bloodstream after her death. “I think the last few months of Marlene’s life, when she was going through this and she saw all of her work beginning to slip away, be eroded and be compromised, she became frantic,” said Anne McMahon, who represented the Nature Conservancy on the Carrizo.
Braun spent the first Sunday in March driving and hiking across the plain, checking out pastures that a large group -- including the partners, Huntsinger and a clutch of ranchers -- would be visiting later in the week to decide where cattle would be allowed to graze.
The day before the pasture tour, Braun sent a memo to the partners outlining her views.
The memo began with a plea -- “please do not share this” -- then gave a detailed review of the health of plant life on the plain. It ended with a warning: that Huntsinger wanted to weaken protections and “accommodate livestock grazing for its own sake.”
“Don’t let him get away with this without a fight,” she said.
By this time, the Carrizo partners had begun to worry out loud about their own relationship with the BLM -- especially since Braun had been dropping hints that she was planning to leave the plain. In an angry e-mail, McMahon reminded the group how hard it was for them to work with Huntsinger and challenged them to do something about Braun’s pending departure.
“The question is, do you want to fight really hard now to keep Marlene, at the risk of really pissing off Ron and damaging the partnership with BLM (a partnership that I would argue is already in serious trouble),” she wrote. “What’s it gonna be?”
What McMahon described as her “Carrizo epiphany” set off an anguished round of communication among the partners. But ultimately they did nothing -- even though McMahon urged them in a later missive to take action: “Ron will continue to beat you up every chance he gets until someone acknowledges what the real problem is.”
By April, Braun was giving things away, saying she wouldn’t need them. Documents went to people she thought could use them, books to friends who would actually finish them. At a party that Braun organized in the middle of the month, she was giddy, said Sarah Christie, the Sierra Club’s representative for the Carrizo at the time.
“I was commenting on this rototiller she had,” Christie recounted. “She said, ‘Here, take it.’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘No, take it. I’ll never use it again. Take the gas can too.’ ”
Still, Braun remained in touch with the partners, discussing the plan’s progress. This was galling to Huntsinger. In a curt e-mail on Friday, April 22, he warned her again. “You are to immediately desist from sending e-mail outside the organization on issues related to management of the Carrizo ... " he wrote. “I will discuss this with you on Monday.”
That day, April 25, Huntsinger delivered two more written reprimands that excoriated Braun for communicating with the partners. She told her friends she believed these additional black marks would lead to her firing from the BLM and cause her to be banished from the Carrizo Plain.
“Those memos are the bullets in her brain,” said her friend and executor, Hermes.
The day before her death, Braun forwarded the disciplinary memos to the partners along with a brief, bitter e-mail: “I will no longer be participating in this mess.... I will not take being treated like a whipping girl.... “
Braun e-mailed the BLM’s Bakersfield office at 9:10 a.m. the day she shot herself. She wrote that she would not be coming to the office that day or any other, because she could not bear to.
She listed the people she wanted to thank. Near the bottom of the note she said she wanted to be an organ donor. It was the only indication that she intended to take her life.
Managers in the Bakersfield office dispatched two agency staffers to make the 90-minute drive to check on Braun. But it was nearly an hour before the BLM alerted the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department to a possible suicide at the Goodwin Ranch.
Although Braun was still breathing when the BLM staff members drove up, said Sheriff’s Det. Steve Harris, she would not have lived even if help had arrived earlier, “not with that injury.”
After Braun was flown by helicopter to a Santa Maria emergency room and sheriff’s deputies had left, the BLM staffers took Braun’s agency-issued desktop and laptop computers without telling law enforcement authorities, Harris said.
“I think it was improper,” he said, adding that his office wrote a letter of complaint to the BLM.
Braun’s family also responded angrily to the BLM’s actions.
“The fact that everything wasn’t done to help Marlene is a real burr in my butt,” said her sister, Phyllis. “If somebody had told me it was my employee ... I wouldn’t have wasted my time sending two employees on a two-hour drive.”
Huntsinger repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this article beyond reading a brief statement over the phone. Braun’s death, he said, “is a tragedy in all its aspects.” While its details are “of interest,” he continued, “I think it would be inappropriate for me to discuss them, out of respect for her privacy as well as that of all those affected.”
In her suicide note, Braun blamed Huntsinger for making her life “utterly unbearable.” But some of Huntsinger’s colleagues find it improbable that his actions would have pushed her to take her life.
“If somebody were to say he was responsible for somebody’s death,” said Richard Dworsky, who worked with Huntsinger in the BLM’s Anchorage office, “I would go, ‘Whoa, this is not the human being I know.’ I would have thought that, if he had any opportunity to resolve a problem like that, he would have done anything in his power.”
The BLM’s state office refused to comment for this story beyond issuing a brief statement calling Braun’s death “tragic.”
Three months after Braun’s suicide, the 20-year plan for the Carrizo is still being refined, according to officials in the BLM’s state office in Sacramento, who declined to offer any details. Representatives of the California Department of Fish and Game met with BLM officials in June to smooth out misunderstandings regarding the plan.
Meanwhile, Hermes said she was haunted by her friend’s death. After going through Braun’s belongings, she at first got angry. Then she acted.
She wrote to her Connecticut congressman, John Larson, who requested that Norton investigate the events that led up to Braun’s suicide. A whistle-blowers’ group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, did the same.
The California office of the BLM has undertaken its own management review. The Department of the Interior said it was awaiting the findings of the state’s review before deciding whether to conduct its own investigation.
Braun’s two sisters and her brother have also written to legislators, asking that BLM state officials and Huntsinger be held accountable for her death.
“I know the flaws of my friend. She wasn’t perfect,” said Hermes, eyes brimming.
She said that most of all, Braun would have wanted her friends to continue to fight for the Carrizo. That’s on Anne McMahon’s mind too.
“My biggest concern is the Carrizo needs a champion who will make it their life’s work,” said McMahon. “One person who will devote every waking hour making sure the right decisions are made.... That’s what Marlene was willing to do.”