Barry Flamm's Frontier 

The organic pioneer may never run out of things to do

Almost 20 years ago, Barry Flamm moved to Montana. He bought a cherry orchard on Flathead Lake's Finley Point. Then he converted it to organic, making it the first certified organic cherry orchard in Montana.

Nearby cherry growers had come to rely on pesticides to battle the western cherry fruit fly. They assumed Flamm would surrender to pesticides as quickly as the fruit flies.

"'Organic' at that point in time was almost a cuss word," Flamm says. "You couldn't get people to think about organic or reducing pesticides as long as the fruit fly was a menace."

Yet for the 12 years Flamm ran the orchard, he kept it pesticide-free. He never made much of a profit, but he did something more important: He helped demonstrate the viability of organic agriculture.

The federal Organic Foods Production Act had just passed, in 1990, and the organic movement was building momentum. The Alternative Energy Resources Organization, based in Helena, gave Flamm a grant to explore alternatives to pesticides. He co-founded and served as vice chair of the Montana Organic Association. And he saw the gradual acceptance of organic practices, reflected in the fact that he ultimately joined, and later became president of, the Flathead Lake Cherry Growers.

click to enlarge Barry Flamm’s Finley Point cherry orchard was the first in the state to be certified organic. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRY FLAMM

Flamm's impulse to come to the shores of Flathead Lake and experiment with organic agriculture was born years before and thousands of miles away, in Vietnam. He was chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development's forestry program in Vietnam, where he studied the effects of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D, defoliants—"that's a polite word for them"—that combined to make Agent Orange.

"I discovered the damage that was being caused to the forest, and that concerned me," he says.

When he returned to the states after his three-year stint in Vietnam, he published a paper on the ecological effects of Agent Orange that gave government officials heartburn, he says. Flamm, a forester, would go on to be the Forest Service's first environmental coordinator, charged with implementing the National Environmental Policy Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon on Jan. 1, 1970. Flamm dedicated himself to stamping out the then-widespread use of Agent Orange within the Forest Service. He says that in the 1950s, agency staffers used to head into the woods to kill weeds with the herbicide sloshing around in containers on their backs. When they came home, their wives would complain about houseplants dying. "We were totally ignorant of any health hazards, even though we knew it was killing plants. I guess you ought to think of that, but we didn't think that far ahead."

Flamm's mission in Vietnam and his foray into organic agriculture in Montana are just two chapters of a remarkable life as a public servant and environmental pioneer. Flamm, who now lives in Polson, was also a member of the President's Council on Environmental Quality under presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, developed biodiversity management plans in Mongolia and China, and served as the Wilderness Society's chief forester.

Today, at 78, he's finally resigned from the many positions he's held and the boards he's sat on—except one. He still serves on the National Organic Standards Board, a 15-member federal advisory committee that has sole authority over the substances allowed in organic agriculture.

Tall and thin with a full head of silver hair, Flamm almost looks his age. He talks in a slow, low and nasally voice, and sometimes can't find the word he's looking for.

He doesn't act his age. At his lake-view home within a golf community, which he admits doesn't quite suit him, Flamm, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, khaki cargo pants and a Montana Organic Association cap, shows off a few pairs of skis and a kayak in his garage. He regularly skis Blacktail Mountain, in Lakeside, and launches his kayak from his neighborhood's private beach in Mission Bay. He tells of his upcoming three-week trip to Peru; he leaves in two days. He's going alone. He'll visit Machu Picchu and float the headwaters of the Amazon River.

Flamm, 78, now serves on the National Organic Standards Board. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

He walks around his house, telling the stories behind the photos, awards and maps that hang from the walls. "To place me here now you almost have to understand where I came from," he says, "because the reasons were even a mystery to myself."

Golden apples

Flamm was born in Ohio in 1933.

"I had a concern for conservation from my earliest moments [that] I can think of," he says. "Where that came from, I'm not quite sure. Some of my relatives would joke that I was an Indian left on the doorstep."

He was raised in Cincinnati. He always loved the outdoors, he says, "but I didn't live in a very friendly outdoor environment. I was always concerned with conservation and wildlife, but my concerns were fairly simple...I could see air pollution, I could see water pollution and that sort of thing. I could see when fish were dead. But I didn't understand the complexities of it."

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.

click to enlarge As a forester in Vietnam, Flamm saw firsthand the effects of herbicidal warfare. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRY FLAMM

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.

click to enlarge “I discovered the damage that was being caused to the forest,” Flamm, second from left, says of Agent Orange application in Vietnam, “and that concerned me.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRY FLAMM
  • Photo courtesy of Barry Flamm
  • “I discovered the damage that was being caused to the forest,” Flamm, second from left, says of Agent Orange application in Vietnam, “and that concerned me.”

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.

He says his environmental policy positions had caused conservative lawmakers and agency staffers to ostracize him. "I didn't have any allies come running."

He says he'll never forget this: On the day of the announcement, he was walking down Independence Avenue. The director of the Soil Conservation Service was coming toward him, but when he saw Flamm, he crossed the street to avoid him and then crossed back over.

"The people I worked with, they didn't want Flamm to rub off on them," Flamm says. "It was kind of a lesson. It didn't really bother me that much. I knew what I stood for."

Flamm penned an editorial in the spring of 1982 that was published in High Country News and other publications around the country.

click to enlarge President Richard Nixon presents Flamm with the Arthur S. Flemming Award. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BARRY FLAMM

"The Reagan administration is systematically tearing apart the contributions of nearly a century of environmental work in the country," he wrote. "This destruction is occurring in virtually every agency across the federal government. The administration is successfully attacking the institutions, the policies, the people, and, ultimately, the quality environment upon which we all must depend. The attacks on environmental policies by the Reagan administration have been so large, so inclusive, and so out of character with a century of conservation direction in this country as to be nearly incomprehensible. Never before have we experienced such total reversals in the progress we have made."

Yellowed newspaper clippings of the editorial are taped inside a frame that hangs in Flamm's basement. Near it is another frame containing the full text of the National Environmental Policy Act, which Flamm says he still reads occasionally.

'Almost nothing is exotic'

It was only after Flamm hastily halted his 27-year career in federal government that he learned he was eligible for an early retirement package. "It wasn't much," he says, "but it gave me the freedom to go off into the jungles of the Amazon and Costa Rica." He returned to D.C., earning a Ph.D. from George Mason University and serving a stint as the Wilderness Society's chief forester in the late 1980s, but he wouldn't remain homebound for long.

A large world map is displayed along the steps leading to Flamm's basement office. Dozens of pins are pressed into it, representing all of the countries Flamm's traveled to—close to 100. The pins are color-coded; the red ones indicate the top 10 places he still plans to visit. "Some people call it their bucket list," he says.

One of the red pins is in Myanmar. Three others are in African countries with gorilla populations. Dubrovnik, Croatia's on the list, as is Churchill, Canada, where polar bears come in the fall before migrating north. Another pin is in Cambodia; he's been there, but not to Angkor Wat, a city of temples dating back to the early 12th century. And then there's Peru. When he returns from his trip, that pin will be pushed into New Guinea. "I had it on New Guinea for a while," he says. "Sometimes I change my list."

click to enlarge Flamm’s visited dozens of countries, but he’s not finished exploring. The red pins represent his “bucket list.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Flamm’s visited dozens of countries, but he’s not finished exploring. The red pins represent his “bucket list.”

"The saying is how the world has gotten smaller and smaller," he continues, "but in my view, as I travel, it gets bigger and bigger, because the diversity, the cultures and the people—the more I learn and the more I see, the more I want to see...I always like to see what's on the other side of the hill."

Flamm's experience in Vietnam set the course for a series of projects in Asia. In the early '90s, he helped produce China's "Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan," funded by the United Nations Development Program. He led a sustainable forest project in India, and he served as chief of party for USAID's Nepal Forest Policy Project.

"At one point in time," he says, "I had visited Beijing more than any other city in the world—including Missoula, Montana—because everywhere I was going in Asia, I couldn't get there without going through Beijing."

In the late '90s, he led the development of a biodiversity conservation plan in Mongolia. That's where, in 1998, he met his second wife, who was the project translator. They married there a year later. Flamm's environmental consulting work also took him to Central America, South America and Africa.

"Barry likes to explore, and he believes there is no limit," says his wife, who asked that her name not be published. "At any age, people can open their eyes and explore the world."

"I've seen enough," Flamm says, "that almost nothing is exotic...I don't have the sense I did that first trip when everything was so exotic, so unique, and I was so sensitive to the smells and sights and sounds...The only place I think I haven't been that might seem exotic is New Guinea...especially if I got around headhunters."

"A beautiful place on Finley Point"

Flamm had been to every state in the country, but when he returned to the U.S. from Nepal, in June 1992, he chose to buy property in Montana. "I always thought about it when I was in Washington—'Oh, I'd like to set up a experimental farm and be sustainable and not use chemicals'...So I just jumped in and bought a beautiful place on Finley Point. It had space, it was beautiful; it had cherry trees and apples and pears."

Flamm taught environmental policy at the University of Montana in 2003. He says he had students who argued passionately, to his surprise, that if one can't have food that's both local and organic, it's better to eat local food. Flamm's experience taught him otherwise.

"I lean toward organic," he says. "I know a lot of the local food is heavily sprayed. The cherries—I wouldn't eat a cherry that didn't come from an organic orchard...If I don't know it's organic, I won't touch it. Because I know what's in it. I wouldn't touch a non-organic apple for the life of me. I might as well take a bottle of poison and get it over with quickly rather than die slowly. It's what you learn in the business."

There are now a few orchards around Flathead Lake that grow cherries organically, including the one Flamm started in 1992.

As a member of the volunteer National Organic Standards Board, Flamm has influence over the list of substances that may or may not be used in organic crop and livestock production. The list has been debated since 1997, when the USDA issued a draft of the proposed rules for implementing organic standards. The public comment period drew more than 275,000 comments, thought to be the most ever received in federal rulemaking. In 1998, the agency reversed its position on three key things it initially wanted to allow in organic food production: irradiation, genetically modified organisms and sewage sludge, millions of tons of which are applied to conventional farm fields in the U.S. every year.

A movement, not an industry

The final National Organic Program rule was published in the federal register in 2000. The industry was worth about $2.5 billion then. It's worth around $30 billion now. The tolerance of GMOs in organic food production continues to be contentious. Agricultural biotech giant Monsanto's genetically engineered traits are planted on more than 80 percent of U.S. corn acreage, and in more than 90 percent of soybean, cotton and sugar beet acreage. Genetically engineered material tends to find its way into organic farmers' fields, threatening the integrity of the organic label. Fences don't stop crosspollination.

click to enlarge Flamm’s entering his last year on the National Organic Standards Board. When he’s through, wilderness awaits. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Flamm’s entering his last year on the National Organic Standards Board. When he’s through, wilderness awaits.

"Some things you can put back into the bottle and you can clean up and start over again," Flamm says. "This isn't one of them. I hope there's still a chance to rectify what's happening, but it's terrifying to me."

Flamm says the NOSB is debating whether to come out against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's decision earlier in the year to allow unrestricted planting of Monsanto's new genetically modified alfalfa. Alfalfa, the most widely grown perennial forage crop, is especially prone to GMO contamination. Organic meat and dairy producers fear it's only a matter of time before they find GMO material in their alfalfa fields.

Flamm wants to denounce Vilsack's decision, which reflects his position as perhaps the board's most independent and progressive member. Other members represent large companies, such as Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Whole Foods Market and Earthbound Farm. "I think I am the most independent just by my nature," he says. "But also, I don't owe allegiance to anybody right now. Just the organic movement—that's my allegiance."

He calls it a movement, or a community—not an industry. "I grew up in Ohio and industry meant smokestacks belching smoke," he says.

In his view, the board should represent farmers, consumers of organic food and everyone who benefits from fewer chemicals applied to the land.

"The whole organic system is based on consumer trust," says Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman, who serves alongside Flamm on the NOSB. "We have to meticulously ensure that consumers have increasing trust in the decisions that are made by the board, especially as the industry grows and as more and bigger players become engaged in organic. It can't be seen as just a sales tactic that is used to capture a market. It has to really be seen increasingly as an incredibly rigorous process that is subject to full transparency and oversight and involvement by the public. That requires more people like Barry who appreciate that, understand that and believe that organic will eventually become the mainstream in food production—because people believe in it, and understand its value, not only for their own health but for the health of the environment and those who work the farms."

Flamm's five-year term on the National Organic Standards Board ends in January 2013, perhaps marking the end of his work in agriculture. But other frontiers await him.

"I love wildlands and wilderness," he says. "Nothing gives me more pleasure than just being in the wild, without hearing another voice, without seeing any structures...I think when I leave the board I'll probably try to get active again in wilderness issues in the state, because the state is an incredible place for a wilderness lover."

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