September 9, 2007

Former forest spokeswoman cries foul over firing

George Watson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

A former U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman says she was fired from her job because she refused to downplay the severity of the wildfire danger in the San Bernardino National Forest.

Ruth Wenstrom, who spent nine years as the San Bernardino National Forest's public-affairs officer, was terminated July 2.

Matt Mathes, the Forest Service's regional press officer based in Vallejo, near San Francisco, said he recalled that Wenstrom was "overstating the situation" in the forest.

In a recent interview, Wenstrom said that in April 2006, national forest officials were told not to request budgetary augmentation funds, known as "severity dollars," that they had asked for and received in the past. That meant cutting the number of engines being staffed in the forest, she said.
Wenstrom said officials told her to draft a list of talking points to address the public's concerns about having fewer firefighters and engines in a forest filled with millions of dead trees and drought-weakened bushes. She said she wrote a draft and sent it to Mathes.

Wenstrom's draft described the reduction as "a problem," to which she claimed Mathes immediately responded by saying it should state that "everything is fine out there in the forest, and there is no need for additional funds."

Wenstrom was aghast.

"I said that would be a bold-faced lie," said Wenstrom, 52, in an interview Friday at her Redlands home. "The forest is not healthy. I said, `I'm not going to say that. The public's not stupid."'

Two days later, she said, she was stripped of her duties and sent to work at the Riverside Fire Lab. She filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint because of the added costs of driving to Riverside.

Soon after her reassignment, Wenstrom was transferred to the Angeles National Forest, a 50-mile drive, and then fired when supervisors listed 34 charges of misusing her government-issued computer and for a series of other actions deemed improper.

Mathes confirmed he had a discussion with Wenstrom in spring 2006, but that Wenstrom's recollections were "not an entirely accurate account of the exchange."

He declined to elaborate in a second interview later Friday, saying the matter is a personnel issue.

But he said the San Bernardino National Forest has received far more firefighting money than any of the country's other 155 national forests over the past few years.

In 2006, the National Forest received $22.8 million for fuel reduction and preparedness costs. The Angeles National Forest received $14.8 million - the second most in the nation.

"This agency is never going to restrict funding to the point that we threaten people's lives or people's homes," Mathes said. "That will simply never happen."

Funding figures for the "severity dollars" that have been received by the National Forest over the years were not in a form that was readily available Friday, Mathes said.

During the weeks following Wenstrom's reassignment in 2006, federal officials expressed optimism about the health of the San Bernardino National Forest, which is considered the most urbanized in the nation.

In a May 16, 2006, story in The Sun, Mathes sounded upbeat about the Forest Service's strategy regarding the forest.

"Oh, they're in great shape," Mathes said then. "I think they're in a situation where there's one or two less fire engines in a certain location, but they'll be moving resources around. We'll be able to bring in more engines when there's a need."

Those conflicted with comments by Gene Zimmerman, the former supervisor of the National Forest who had just retired.

"They can say what they want about moving resources, but they won't be here in initial attack," Zimmerman said in the May 2006 story. "We need the resources here before the fires start. Computer modeling showed 25 engines on standby seven days a week is the most efficient level of preparedness. Now we're going back to 15. This says we didn't learn very much in the fall of '03."

He added: "Local Forest Service folks are really under the gun to talk the party line. The Bush administration signed off on it. The bottom line is, there isn't as much to go around this year as last year. But this is still the most imperiled forest community in the country."

Zimmerman is one of several current and former federal employees who supplied letters of support for Wenstrom as she has fought to get her job back.

During her career as a spokeswoman, she had received at least 15 performance awards for her work. She has received additional awards in her other jobs with the Forest Service.

"Ruth always gave 100 percent or more to her job," Zimmerman wrote in a May 5 letter. "She frequently worked extra hours when the workload required. Never, in my experience did the government receive less than it was paying for."

James Peterson, a regional director for Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter stating that Wenstrom was "a great asset to the Forest Service." He was "disappointed" that she had been reassigned, and found it difficult to get information out of the National Forest after her departure.

"In the months that followed, it was unclear who had taken on Ruth's responsibilities or who I should contact," wrote Peterson, who was unavailable for comment Friday.

The most serious charges against Wenstrom appear to be for using her work computer for volunteer work for the city of Moreno Valley, which was dealing with an overabundance of burros. Wenstrom worked on a burro- management program for Big Bear Lake years before, and she said she received permission from her supervisor, Francis Fujioka.

Fujioka declined comment Friday, referring questions to Mathes.

Wenstrom acknowledged it might have been a mistake to use her work computer for the project. But given that she had permission, she figured she was within her rights.

And she believes that the investigation into her work history uses selective enforcement, as she pointed out that one National Forest supervisor has a personal secretary who sells Mary Kay products at her desk.

In the end, Wenstrom hopes to be reinstated so she can reach her retirement age in 2 1/2 years.

More importantly, though, it comes down to making the forest healthier, and safer.

"The public deserves better," Wenstrom said. "We could still have a major disaster. There are too many trees and they are too close together. It's not a natural, healthy situation."