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Suicide Casts a Shadow on Conservation Battle

National monument official was distraught at shift she said favored grazing over grasslands.

August 20, 2005|Julie Cart and Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writers

CARRIZO PLAIN NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — 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.

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