Fallen forester

Did whistleblowers destroy a fine public servant?


    Mark Richards photo

"We're not managing for red meat anymore," Jim Nelson liked to say when he ran the largest national forest south of Alaska, the Humboldt-Toiyabe in Nevada, now overseen by Gloria Flora. When wise-use wackos bragged that they were going to kill Nelson's rangers, he hauled them into his office and vowed to have them arrested if they didn't shut up. After a bomb ripped apart the office of Carson District Ranger Guy Pence, Nelson's phone rang and a voice said, "You're next."

The environmental community considered Jim Nelson, who retired last February, among the best the Forest Service had. He slugged it out with county supremacists who tested federal resolve by bulldozing illegal roads through Forest Service land and flouting grazing regulations. In one case, he rounded up trespassing cattle and sold them at auction. While other forest supervisors were waiting for retirement, Jim Nelson was hustling around the countryside cutting land deals, adding 100,000 acres to the forest. I saw the results of his work along the East Fork of the Carson River, whose valley had been overgrazed for a century. After three years in Nelson's care it was healing fast. In the deeper pools, Lahontan cutthroat trout, a threatened species, hovered over smooth boulders.

The last time I saw Nelson was at the 1997 National Wildlife Federation convention in Tucson, where he was receiving that organization's Government Award. "Easy," he said as I shook his hand. He'd just had a bionic shoulder put in, and the doctors had informed him that whatever motion he had after two months would be the motion he'd always have. So at every therapy session Nelson raised his arm straight over his head. The pain was so intense that even the therapist cried, but by the fall of 1998 Nelson could hunt elk with a bow. That's how Jim Nelson ran his life and his forest. He pushed the envelope.

Odd, I thought, that this icon of resource stewardship should retire at 57, just as the Forest Service seemed to be bootstrapping itself to his level. The fact is, however, that he was hauled off the Humboldt-Toiyabe and ordered to take a desk job in Utah until the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General got around to writing up its investigation of the forest's land acquisition program. That didn't sound so bad, until he was told that even if he was cleared, he wouldn't be going back to his forest. "The hell with it," said Nelson. "I'll retire."

OIG had hopped on Nelson's case because of an anonymous whistleblower complaint. In its draft audit, it made all manner of allegations against Nelson, his staff and the American Land Conservancy, a nonprofit group that secures and holds valuable wildland until the government can buy it. The accused were not told what the allegations were, nor permitted to see the draft, but the document was promptly leaked to the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), which broke the story in a July 30 news release.

According to the draft, Nelson accepted gratuities and junkets from the conservancy and other people he did business with and OK'd land appraisals "based on speculative assumptions that overvalued non-federal land." OIG then turned over parts of the audit to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.

So here's what we are expected to believe: An uncompromising champion of fish and wildlife who had served the Forest Service with the highest distinction for 33 years suddenly went sour. Also suddenly going sour was the American Land Conservancy, which had arguably been the most effective private conservator of wildland in America. President and founder Harriet Burgess had spent the last 21 years snatching fish and wildlife habitat from the teeth of developers and securing its permanent protection by transferring it to resource agencies. For 13 of those years she worked for the Trust for Public Land. In 1990, she started the American Land Conservancy with her own $200,000, then didn't take a salary for two years. And now, according to the Agriculture Department's investigators, she has taken to ripping off taxpayers and buying off forest supervisors.

Whistles can work like axes

A whistle can be a dangerous weapon, especially when you get to hide after you blow it. FSEEE, which exists to protect genuine whistleblowers, is finding that sometimes the people who are blown at need protection, too. Director Andy Stahl reports that he tosses out about 29 of every 30 whistleblower complaints against the Forest Service.

"Whistleblowing has become a favorite tool to deal with a personality grievance with the boss," he says. "You can wrap yourself in whistleblowing armor, go on the offensive and be immune."

When I asked the president of FSEEE's board, David Iverson, what he thought about the audit and the way his organization published details of the leaked draft, he said, "My personal opinion is that maybe FSEEE got too far in advance and didn't air enough of the story to allow people to draw some reasoned judgments. I felt sick when I saw that story. I just couldn't believe that we'd done it. I called Jim Nelson and apologized to him. Jim Nelson loved the land and loved the idea of public ownership and stewardship. And if things were done wrong, it wasn't because his heart was in the wrong place."

Stahl, on the other hand, defends FSEEE's reporting: "If we can't hold our friends accountable to standards of law, what right do we have to hold our enemies accountable?"

I think the anonymous hotline whistleblower sits at the desk or works in the office of Paul Tittman, the Forest Service's chief appraiser. (I'd have asked Tittman, but he declined to be interviewed.) I think this because Tittman blew the whistle on Nelson and Burgess once before - on April 4, 1996, in an eight-page letter to the agency's land director.

Tittman was incensed about a land transaction called Deer Creek, an inholding in the Spring Mountain National Recreation Area, which Nelson was directed by law to acquire. Tittman claimed that the $10.5 million figure arrived at by a bargaining team, set up not by Nelson but by the regional director Jack Blackwell, had overvalued the tract by at least $5 million. It was a charge echoed verbatim by OIG.

Tittman's people had appraised Deer Creek as rural property. And OIG had echoed this, too, calling it "remote" despite the fact that it's a 30-minute drive from Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the nation. Even before the Deer Creek bargaining process got under way, Tittman's people were angry. According to Nelson, the Forest Service appraisers were so rude in one session he had to take them out of the room at least four times and ask them to control themselves.

The Forest Service appraisers were furious that they'd been excluded from the bargaining process on Deer Creek. But they'd been furious about land deals facilitated by Burgess for at least a decade, perhaps because her spectacular success made their work appear nonessential. A few months before Burgess left the Trust for Public Land, Forest Service line officers attending a session at the agency's training facility in Marana, Ariz., were instructed that it was time they regained control of the lands program from "that woman."

Now they've succeeded. The Forest Service is refusing to do business with Burgess, leaving thousands of acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat up for grabs by developers.

Bureaucratic rigmarole

I asked Ken Paur, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of General Counsel, how Nelson and his team had managed to screw up. "It's not entirely clear that they did," he replied. "From my perspective, the only thing concrete OIG latched onto were some procedural mistakes that are really pretty technical. The investigators didn't uncover anything that said the land, in fact, was worth less than what the Forest Service exchanged it for. A lot of this is internal, bureaucratic, procedural rigmarole."

"But what about the ethics charges referred for possible criminal prosecution?" I persisted.

"If you look at the ethics rules, they are somewhat ambiguous," said Paur. "They are not strict prohibitions. You can't accept gifts from people the agency is doing business with, but there's an exception for people with whom you have personal relationships." Paur didn't know it, but OIG had charged Nelson with just this - receiving a wedding gift (a carving knife) from Harriet Burgess, his friend of 17 years.

Throughout the 80-page audit, one encounters little flashes of light that together may illuminate what is really going on. Five examples:

* Repeated accusations that Nelson and his staff failed to be properly respectful of Tittman's appraisers by "compromising," "challenging" and "criticizing" them suggest that the real issue here is bruised egos not broken rules. One would not expect OIG to understand the basics of land acquisition, but it could have asked someone. Repeatedly it accuses Nelson of failing to make a priority list of parcels he wished to acquire. But making such a list can be an idle and dangerous exercise. Priorities are determined not by what land you want most, but by what land is most threatened, and by what land happens to be on the market. Such a list, if leaked to the public or obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, would drive up the price of the best parcels.

* As a science, land appraisal is only slightly more precise than astrology. But never do the authors of the report evince the slightest suspicion that fair-market value around Las Vegas might not be what miffed D.C.-based bean-counters say it is.

* Throughout the document, Nelson's claims are dismissed out of hand, but Tittman's are accepted without question.

* The report goes on and on about how frightful was American Land Conservancy's involvement in 83 percent of Nelson's land transactions from 1993 to 1996. (-Was he having an affair with Burgess?" investigators asked his staff.) Apparently, OIG thinks there are lots of ALCs out there to choose from and that Nelson could have done the job with his own part-time lands staff of two. "The reason we did 83 percent of our business with ALC is simple," says Nelson. "They got the damn job done. They are/were patient, persistent, tenacious, professional and effective."

* The report alleges that Nelson was preparing to improperly take possession of land around potential Lahontan cutthroat habitat called Hunter Creek, despite the fact that the property was to be donated to the Forest Service. Now the regional office is afraid to touch it. According to the report, "The district ranger (Guy Pence) thought that the Forest Service should accept the donation because he had promised (ALC) that the Forest Service would accept it." But Pence says this: "Bullshit. OIG never interviewed me. How do they know what I was thinking? And I never promised ALC anything."

The Forest Service, in particular the Intermountain Regional Office, has responded to Tittman's and OIG's attack by sacrificing Jim Nelson as if he were Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland. Nelson had thought his superiors meant it when they told him to be creative and aggressive and to push the envelope. Instead of providing him with professional advisors to help him navigate through a morass of ambiguous, contradictory, previously unenforced rules, the agency cut his budget and staff and ordered him to keep buying and swapping land. Then, the instant someone complained about the way he did business, it hung him out to swing in the wind. That, in case anyone in the agency is wondering, is precisely why the Forest Service tends to be regarded by the public as a sheep in sheep's clothing.

As ALC board member David Brower asks, "Can it be that elements of the Forest Service at and near the top, snug in the comfort of all too many decades in bed with timber-levelers, miners, and grazers (a situation we can hope will be corrected by the likes of Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck and new deputy chief Bob Joslin), can't even recognize decency? Jim Nelson embodied it ... Great things were achieved during (his) tenure in the form of immensely valuable land acquisitions for the American people; the real scandal is that he was forced out of his job for doing the right things."

Ted Williams is conservation editor of Fly Rod & Reel magazine. He adapted this piece for High Country News from his January-February 1999 column for that magazine. He writes from Grafton, Mass.

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