Gloria Flora

Saving the Public Trust

Recorded: January 29, 2013

Gloria Flora was the first woman to achieve the level of Forest Supervisor in the US Forest Service. She is known for her courageous 1997 decision that denied the oil and gas industry access to drill on national forest lands on the Rocky Mountain Front. Trained as a landscape architect, Gloria understands the importance of the human relationship to our public landscapes and describes why half of her decision was made because of outspoken public interest in the forest landscape.

Courageous and compelling, Gloria Flora is an environmental hero when it comes to fighting for public lands.  For 22 years, Ms. Flora worked for the U.S. Forest Service rising to Supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest in north-central Montana. She is nationally known for her leadership in ecosystem management and for her courageous and principled stands: as supervisor of the Lewis and Clark National Forest, she made a landmark decision to prohibit natural gas leasing along the 356,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front.

Ms. Flora is the Founder and Director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, an organization dedicated to the sustainability of public lands. She recently co-authored a report on how Montana can become energy self-reliant through renewable energy, energy efficiency, and conservation and is championing something known as “biochar” as a possible carbon-negative energy source.

Gloria’s work has been featured in national magazines, books, radio, television and documentaries, including NOW with Bill Moyers and in Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change feature film, the 11th Hour.  Ms. Flora has received many awards for her leadership and courage and continues to speak about energy self-reliance, public lands, and natural resource issues.

Huey Johnson:   Gloria Flora was the first woman to achieve the high levels of management in the Forest Service that she achieved.  I take a moment to introduce her because when you look at her face, you get a sense of formidable, serious, human concern.  She worked and was very effective at doing what properly needs to be done for the Public Trust. She had the courage of such rarity that she defied the oil and gas industry in its intent, politically, as powerful as they were, to drill on the Rocky Mountain Front.  She said “no” and stuck with it.

Gloria Flora:    What I realized, and it took me almost ten years in the agency to grok this, that as a landscape architect, my profession and my training was dealing very, very much with the relationship of humans to their landscapes.  How people connected with their landscape, moved through, used, embraced, worked with their landscapes and that’s really what I was trained to do.  And as a Forest Service leader, that’s exactly the skills I needed to have.  You know I’ve often said that all natural resource decisions are social decisions. And so, being trained outside of a rigid science made it much easier for me to understand and apply that, because I wasn’t trying to say, “Well, you know, science says this is the way we have to do it.”  I very much honor and respect the science, but that was not clearly what has driven and is not what drives natural resource decisions.

When I was on the Lewis and Clark National Forest as Forest Supervisor–that’s in west central Montana–I was able to protect the Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas leasing.  And the landscape alone justified the decision, let alone the very strong public support that we had for not leasing. But on the other side were  a lot of industry folks and politicians who felt that, you know, as usual, If if industry wants to do something on a chunk of land, you at least have to give them half of that. So making a decision to not allow industry anything on a particular piece of land was a little hard for them to take.

My final decision on that was as I wrote it in the record of decision, that 50% of it was based on the outstanding ecological values of the place and 50% of it was based on people’s sense of place, their attachment and connection to this landscape which to me, far outweighed any benefits that we might get from depleting whatever fossil fuels might be under there.  So that was – and after the decision was announced, it was very well received.  I got over 400 cards and letters, this was pre-email.  I got over 400 cards and letters thanking me, people sent me flowers.

Huey Johnson:    How nice.

Gloria Flora:  And people sent me pictures of their grandchildren, and said, “This is who you’re making the decision for,”  and that still chokes me up ‘til this day.  And I have said that– if every land manager could experience that once, of just making a decision that the public gathered around and said, “Thank you, you’re a public servant, you listened to the public.”  And the funny thing was, industry, of course they had the opposite view and took me to court about it. But one of the accusations that they made in the paper, in the newspaper, was that I listened to the public too much, which I thought was pretty sweet.  That’s a criticism I was welcome to accept.

I think that a lot of times people don’t realize the – especially young people, don’t realize the extent to which your moral and ethical fibers will be tested.  You know, you’ll be presented with challenges that there’s kind of the company or normal way to go about things, it’s sort of routine, that’s what the expectations are.  But when you pause and really consider, you know, what is it that I’m doing?  What is it that I’m allowing, participating in, contributing to?  You get down to asking yourself some pretty tough questions. And the longer you’re in a position and the longer you are connected with an agency, organization, company, the more ingrained you become in that culture. And that can be very dangerous, because you can suddenly find yourself thinking in ways or doing things or making excuses for doing things that are not palatable when you compare them to your own moral compass.

  • Pamela Smyth

    For those of us who understand what Ms. Flora means when she speaks of being attuned to the land, of the land, or with the land rather than simply a user of the land or a traveler upon the land, this is an invaluable video. More parents, teachers, and civic leaders should find the courage and conviction to step outside the institutional cultures to stand up for what they know instinctively is the right thing to do when it comes to the depletion of our natural resources and neighborhood environments. Thank you Ms. Flora and the US Forest Service for continuing to educate all of us about what we need to do to protect and defend or vanishing and threatened natural resources and cultural landscapes.