Standing Up For a Sense of Place
By Jamie Passaro
Printed in Forest Magazine,Summer 2002

Gloria Flora is one of those people who's often described as soft-spoken. It's not incorrect; her voice is quiet and pleasant. But soft-spoken doesn't adequately describe her personality or the intensity with which she talks about such things as the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade or President Bush's energy policy.

Flora's twenty-three-year U.S. Forest Service career paralleled social and land management changes in national forests, and she talks about these changes and the current state of the Forest Service in a straight-talking, personal way, avoiding acronyms and swearing when she's impassioned, for which she then apologizes.

Flora has been called a Green Nazi, a fascist, a Nazi fascist and a Gaea-loving, New Age earth mama-type mostly by people she has not met. It's because of them that two and a half years after she quit her job as head of the largest national forest outside of Alaska, when she receives an unmarked package in the mail, she takes it outside her Helena, Montana, house and throws it as far as she can. If nothing happens, if it doesn't explode into a thousand pieces, she figures it's safe to open.

When Forest Magazine last wrote about Flora, it was the winter of 2000 and she had just left her post as the forest supervisor on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest to call attention to harassment and intimidation of federal employees on the Nevada forest. When she quit, Flora was considered a likely candidate for higher positions in the agency.

Today Flora is the executive director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, a nonprofit consulting firm she created to promote sustainability on public lands. She spent the last year recovering from serious injuries she sustained in a head-on car collision in June 2001. Despite being sidelined with a broken leg, Flora has been busy getting SOS off the ground, giving presentations to groups ranging from high school students to natural resource lawyers and giving interviews to reporters about public land issues. The Blackfeet Nation recently asked her to be an adviser.

All natural resource decisions are actually social decisions.

This is Flora's mantra. She says it often in quotable situations, and it is epitomized by her two most talked-about decisions.

In 1997, when Flora was supervisor on Montana's Lewis and Clark National Forest, she put a moratorium on gas and oil drilling on the Rocky Mountain Front, using public opinion to justify it. Flora received hundreds of letters from Montana citizens in favor of preserving the 356,000-acre swath of land along the Front. The letters expressed not only biological and ecological concern for the area, but also concern for its beauty and its spirit. In making her decision, Flora recognized that the question "What does this place feel like to someone?" was legitimate.

Drilling proponents argued that Flora placed too much weight on public opinion and ignored analysis that they believed showed drilling would have a minimal impact on the area. But courts upheld the decision. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear another industry appeal. Still, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said she won?t rule out gas exploration on the Front.

Flora is well known and sometimes hated for preserving the 100-mile strip of land on the Lewis and Clark National Forest, but perhaps she is even more well known and more hated for a mile-and-a-half dead-end road in Jarbidge, Nevada.

Flora took the top position on the Humboldt-Toiyabe in 1998. The day after her arrival, an Elko County highway crew attempted to re-open a road that the Forest Service wanted to keep closed to protect bull trout in the nearby river. South Canyon Road had been washed out in a flood in 1995 and then closed by the Forest Service. Though the road is needed only to provide vehicle access to campsites and a wilderness trailhead, it was just the thing to exacerbate tensions between federal employees and Elko County's sagebrush rebels who had long simmered about federal restrictions on local land and water.

Flora waded in. The sagebrush rebels organized a pick-and-shovel work party to rebuild the road. They erected a thirty-foot shovel on the lawn of the county courthouse (they sent the shovel to Oregon and California's Klamath basin farmers last summer). Flora?s employees complained that they and their families were targets for harassment in their communities. Fresh in their minds were the 1995 bombings of a Carson City district ranger's office and his car. One of the blasts destroyed his family van and blew out the windows of his house. On the same day, a detonated pipe bomb was found in an outhouse at a campground near Elko.

Flora grew concerned that one of her employees might get hurt. She became frustrated with public officials, who she felt either turned their backs on her or condoned the behavior of the sagebrush rebels. Flora felt let down that the U.S. Attorney's office in Nevada wouldn't prosecute any of the alleged felonies or misdemeanors on federal land.

In a February 2000 Forest Service fact-finding report, commissioned after Flora's resignation, more than 125 former and current Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest employees described their experiences, which included being refused service by local businesses, being ostracized by community groups and ridiculed in public. Overall, the report concluded, the employees' experiences "were beyond what is typical in work environments for Forest Service employees in other places," but found "no incidents of personal threats, violence, or abuse in the past several years that would cause the Forest Service to seek criminal prosecution"

John Carpenter, the Republican state assemblyman who lives in Elko, says Elko County citizens may not agree with Forest Service policies, but they don't pose a threat to federal employees. "My reaction was 'Come to us with some proof and we'll take care of it."

"She saw the heat being turned up on her and she used that as an excuse to get out," Carpenter said about Flora.

This kind of talk amazes but does not surpise her. "Why would I want to get out?" she asks. "I had a great team of people. We were really moving the ball forward."

She says she couldn't have faced her employees had someone gotten drunk and taken frustrations out on one of them. The sacrifice of her career and losing out on her retirement by two and a half years have been worthwhile because the national spotlight has turned to that corner of the world, she says. Flora was offered other posts in the agency when she quit but decided not to take them because it would undermine the point of her resignation.

Robert Vaught, Flora's successor on the Humboldt-Toiyabe, says he feels that his employees have not been threatened in an illegal way since he took the post. "There have been a very few times," he says, "where local people have been rude or impolite, and each of these have been reported and are being dealt with." Vaught says it isn't appropriate to provide more details at this time.

He says he hopes to make a decision on South Canyon Road that considers Elko County's interests and meets federal law. An environmental impact statement will be done on the road in the coming months.

Flora recently testified before the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health at a hearing on ecoterrorism and lawlessness on national forests.

"Some say that I overreacted," she told the subcommittee. "In an atmosphere of hostility, how do you decide when your employees are truly at risk?"

Flora blames some of the problems in the rural West on a shifting and growing population. "It is not too much to ask for the world's wealthiest nation to have a sound economic transition strategy when we change the way we value and manage resources on public land," she told the subcommittee.

Flora is not unsympathetic to the values of rural communities. She says the majority of the people she met in Elko County are "decent, civil folks" who aren't represented by their leadership. If they could sit across from her over coffee, she might say that we don't show enough respect and concern for putting people out of work. "Let's admit that we're subsidizing these communities," she said in an interview. "I don't want to give them watersheds. I don't want to give them a slope of trees. Let's subsidize them with jobs restoring landscapes."

Flora is in favor of finding ways to support rural communities. She is currently working on forest restoration methodologies with an unlikely group she calls "strange bedfellows," though she can't talk about the specifics.

She appreciates the West and the western lifestyle and she chose to live it. She grew up in Pittsburgh and fell in love with the West on a family camping trip to the Colorado Rockies when she was sixteen.

Today Flora plans to move to a 160-acre spread twelve miles outside of Helena with her husband, Marc, whom she describes as a "pack goatherd, a stone mason, a permaculturist in training, a writer, an investor, a political commentator, a homebuilder." The Floras plan to build a house and to spend the rest of their lives restoring their land. Flora isn't a zero-cut advocate. She's amused when she thinks what one of her antagonists might say if he saw her wielding a chain saw.

Many of Flora's ideas about land management are influenced by her background as a landscape architect. She graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1977 with a degree in landscape architecture. She knew she wanted to work in larger landscapes, and out of college, she worked on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Flora was part of a generation of Forest Service employees hired to help the agency comply with environmental laws and bring diversity to the agency. There was a sudden influx of new people with new ideas. Men who had been there for years had younger foresters, girls, telling them what to do.

When Flora was thirty-one, she became a district ranger on the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho. At the time, she was one of thirty-five female district rangers in the agency's 617 forest districts.

Forest management decisions had long been based on complex matrices that heavily favored timber factors over wildlife or visual quality. Flora gained respect for her ideas about making the forests more visually appealing by, say, changing the boundaries of clear-cuts to make them look like meadows. She has a favorite story about becoming a district ranger. When she felt her employees were knocking down too many trees during road maintenance, she told them, "You can do that if the tree is younger than you. If it's older than you, come and see me."

Flora is critical of and wistful about the Forest Service all at once. "You invest twenty-three years of your life into something, you get nostalgic," she says. "The Forest Service has a wonderful mission that needs to be fulfilled more often."

One of her proudest moments with the agency was introducing the human dimension as one of the Forest Service's principles of ecosystem management. The agency announced six principles in 1992. Flora and a group of eleven others created and introduced the seventh principle, which said that humans are an inextricable part of the ecosystem.

Flora's career and life decisions come back to that one phrase: All natural resource decisions are actually social decisions. Maybe all Forest Service employees' decisions are. The thing about Flora is how adept she is at communicating those decisions to the public.

On a Saturday in February she attended the University of Oregon's environmental law conference as an activist and a keynote speaker. From a podium, she preached to a choir of Eugene activists about the importance of sustainability, about valuing sense of place over pure profit and about the absurdity of President Bush's energy policy. Her talk was forceful and articulate, and it whipped the hundreds of law students, activists and aging hippies in the audience into a nodding, clapping frenzy. "All natural resource decisions are actually social decisions. In the middle of a national tragedy, the president tells us to go shopping? The most patriotic thing we can do is protect our natural resources."

Flora talked about the majority of the public wanting its news in fifteen minutes, low in complexity, preferably with a top story about a murder and a news item about someone saving a puppy.

But the e-law crowd is not the distracted majority. If she's just preaching to the choir, what good can she do?

Sometimes, she says, she worries about that. But her message -- that legacy and heritage and sense of place, the qualifiable human dimensions that are often left out of natural resource decisions, are every bit as important as the quantifiable ones -- is one she hopes will inspire people into thinking differently. Even those who agree with her don't always speak from the heart for fear of being criticized about being too emotional.

This is the message behind one of SOS's 2002 initiatives, Move Passion Into Policy. Flora has teamed with other environmental groups to bring the human relationship with landscapes into land management policy.

Flora misses the people who work for the Forest Service and the honor and the responsibility that comes with managing public lands. She misses talking about forage consumption and potential natural communities, the nitty-gritty language one can use only with those entrenched in public land management. These days, she talks generally about a wide range of issues to a wide range of people.

"Would I go back?" she asks. "Maybe. Under this administration? Definitely not."