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After high school, at 19, Flamm drove to Colorado to enroll at Colorado A&M University (now known as Colorado State) to study forestry. His college years began with a short stint working at a pickle factory. He took his second year off to hitchhike around the country. When he returned to Fort Collins, he began to distinguish himself academically, serving on student council and as the forestry club president. "Everything just kept falling into place for me," he says.
He married his first wife, with whom he had four children, when he was a student in Colorado. The next decade found him working his way up the rungs of the Forest Service. By the time he was 31, he became supervisor of Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest, making him the youngest supervisor in the country.
Flamm is "an easterner by birth who became sort of the quintessential westerner," says Steve Jellinek, who worked with Flamm on the President's Council on Environmental Quality in the 1970s. Jellinek says he used to joke that Flamm was the embodiment of Mark Trail, the outdoor-adventuring comic strip character who confronted environmental injustice.
In Flamm's bedroom and living room there's a photo of Supervisor Flamm astride his horse, Blackjack, a Missouri Fox Trotter, beside Grave Lake in the Shoshone National Forest's Wind River Mountains. Another remnant from that period hangs in his stairwell, a plaque called "The Order of the Golden Apple," given to him "For service above and beyond the call of duty on the Shoshone Horse Forest," the nickname for the forest at the time. Affixed to the plaque are two "golden apples"—dried horse turds spray-painted gold. "I hung this in every office I had in Washington, D.C.," he says.
'Except for that guy Flamm.'
Flamm left Cody, Wyoming, for Vietnam in 1967. "I jumped at the chance to go to Vietnam for a host of reasons," he says. "I was concerned about the military aspect and what was going on and I wanted to experience it. But I also wanted the adventure of going there. I found Asia so fascinating."
In Vietnam, Flamm became trusted by military higher-ups who gave him security clearances and access to helicopters to survey forest damage. He flew on herbicidal warfare missions in South Vietnam, collectively called Operation Ranch Hand, to see firsthand how Agent Orange was being used. Flamm was given so much latitude that some soldiers thought he was a CIA agent, he says. "One reason I did these things...was because I was willing to go out and help people when others were afraid to leave the security of Saigon."
Shortly after Flamm returned home from Vietnam, in 1969, President Nixon gave him the Arthur S. Flemming Award, which is presented to outstanding young men and women in the federal government. Flamm then became the Forest Service's environmental coordinator, a position that let him crack down on Agent Orange through the newly passed National Environmental Policy Act.
He saw the use of pesticides and other chemicals as a "programmatic" problem. "I didn't want to review an environmental statement on a five-acre spray job and say, 'Well, that has no impact,' and then again on another five acres here, 10 acres there," he explains. "I wanted to see it all bundled together...and [gauge] the collective impact...Later, when I headed the environmental program for the Department of Agriculture [under the Carter administration], that's when I really made the impact, because there I had the backing of the secretary to review and clear certain environmental statements. I made the decision. I didn't say, 'You can't use 2,4,5-T.' I said, 'You have to provide a sufficient analysis'—and they were incapable of doing it."
He remembers approving only one application of Agent Orange, on about 20 acres. He also remembers the chair of the House Agriculture Committee writing a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Robert Bergland and commending him on the agency's work—"except for that guy Flamm."
Jellinek says Flamm developed a reputation for being fiercely independent and resolute, which more than made up for some of his shortcomings. "He's not a slick communicator...either orally or in writing," Jellinek says, "but he's got the ideas and he's committed to them, and he is tenacious, tenacious. I mean, when he decides on a course of action, he sticks to it—in a very low-key way. He rarely if ever lost his temper, but he was like a bulldog. He would marshal the facts and marshal the arguments and usually get his way—usually because he was on the right side of the issue."
'I knew what I stood for'
It was under President Carter that Flamm transitioned from senior staff member on the Council on Environmental Quality to director of the USDA's Office of Environmental Quality. Working under Carter was "an exciting time for me," Flamm says. He and his colleagues were able to revive ideas that had been shelved under President Ford and make progress on a variety of fronts. He points to a map of Alaska on his basement wall, signed by Carter, that shows the Misty Fiords and Admiralty Island national monuments. He worked with Carter to proclaim those monuments, which are now part of larger wilderness areas.
When he came into office, in 1981, President Reagan abolished the Office of Environmental Quality. On the day of the announcement, Flamm had come to work early, at about 5:30 a.m., he says, and found the press release on his desk. He walked to his car to grab his running shoes; he'd been training for marathons.
His assistant director followed him there and said, "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go for a run," Flamm says he replied. "I'll see the secretary when I get back from my run."
"Why don't you go right now?"
"I might kill him if I go right now."
So Flamm went for a run. Then he was told that he still had a job as environmental coordinator if he wanted it.
"What am I going to coordinate now?" he asked, and resigned.