Running a national forest in the West is not for the faint of heart, and when Gloria Flora served as supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana, she took her share of lumps for pushing strong resource protections, such as a ban on most oil and gas exploration.
But nothing prepared Flora for life as head of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada--a state that gave rise to the Sagebrush Rebellion, and where federal land managers are regularly vilified and their offices are occasionally bombed.
"I don't mind working in controversy," Flora, 44, said this week. "I've worked in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. But it's pervasive here, the attitude that it's okay to be mean-spirited and discriminate against federal employees." Mistreatment of federal workers, she added, is a "state-sanctioned sport" in Nevada.
Tired of seeing her employees refused service in restaurants and kicked out of motels, tired of having elected officials endorse illegal actions on Forest Service lands and tired of not getting much support from federal prosecutors, Flora is calling it quits.
A year and a half after she took over Humboldt-Toiyabe--the largest national forest in the lower 48 states--Flora told her employees on Monday that she was resigning in hopes that a high-profile protest would shine a spotlight on how difficult life can be for land managers and their families in Nevada.
"It disturbs me to think that 2 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 wrote in an open letter to the forest's employees. "Worse yet, there are elected officials who actively support these offenders."
There is a long history of conflict between rural Nevada residents and the federal agencies--primarily the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management--that control the vast majority of the state's land and are charged with managing the forests and range in accordance with national environmental laws. In recent years, Nevada has been a hotbed for a movement claiming that federal lands belong to the states.
The latest flare-up over Humboldt-Toiyabe occurred last month, when Nevada state Assemblyman John Carpenter organized a citizens' work crew to rebuild a Forest Service road that had washed out in 1995 and been kept closed by the agency to protect threatened bull trout. Last year, the Elko County Commission had ordered work crews to rebuild the road but had been halted by a state cease and desist order. Carpenter's plans were similarly stopped by a court injunction.
The controversy has prompted Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage (R-Idaho) to hold a congressional hearing Saturday in Elko, Nev. Flora calls it a "blatant conflict of interest" because the congresswoman recently married Wayne Hage, a Nevada cattleman who has a lawsuit against the Forest Service pending in federal claims court for confiscating his cattle almost a decade ago.
In Montana and Nevada, Flora has received high marks from conservation groups that traditionally are critical of the Forest Service and its long history of support for commercial interests, such as cattlemen, miners and timber companies. "She was a very strong conservationist," said Steve Moyer, vice president of Trout Unlimited. "To see one of the best, if not the best, check out is very discouraging."
Chris Wood, a senior adviser to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, said Flora had "identified a real problem that needs to be addressed" by officials at all levels of government. "A career civil servant like Gloria shouldn't be forced to face down the threat of pick- and shovel-wielding lawbreakers on her own," he said.
But some, including Carpenter, are not wasting any tears on her departure. As an agency, the Forest Service is shifting from a philosophy of multiple use of its lands to "locking it up," said Carpenter.
"Gloria Flora," he added, "subscribes to that line of thinking. . . . I just think she's not attuned to the people of Nevada, particularly in the rural areas."