Crimes in the name of the environment

Part 4 of a four-part series
by The Oregonian - September, 1999

The Oregonian, Monday, September 29, 1999



Experts say it tears at society; some extremists say it's how to get change

Sabotage intended to save the environment and its creatures raises fundamental questions about how terrorism fits, or does not fit, in a free society. And it raises yet more questions about America's willingness and capability to limit the assaults and protect the public.

The Oregonian chronicled 100 incidents since 1980 that inflicted nearly $43 million in damage. Lawmakers, historians, prosecutors, agency managers, philosophers -- all have distinct interpretations of the mounting phenomenon. But all return to the fact that eco-terrorism is a crime that tears at society's fabric while defying easy classification and prosecution.

"It is a very serious problem," said U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. "We are either a nation of laws or a nation of the politically-correct-of-the-moment. There are avenues for redress and reform. To resort to taking the law violently into one's hands is something a democracy can never tolerate."

But can't it?

The Pacific Northwest withstood rocky times in the 1980s as old-growth logging spurred lawsuits, protests and eco-terroristic assaults on logging equipment and, through the placing of spikes in trees, sawmills. President Clinton in 1994 signed a Northwest Forest Plan that ultimately reduced the cut on public lands by about 80 percent. Public sentiment against clear-cutting and old-growth logging is increasingly widespread.

Protests in the 1960s -- some of them destructive -- against American involvement in Vietnam were persistent enough to make the war politically insupportable across a broad spectrum of America.

As Oregon's Senate President, John Kitzhaber drove a car with the bumper sticker "Hayduke Lives!" -- after the character in Edward Abbey's novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang," in which ecosaboteurs destroy structures they feel despoil the West. Kitzhaber, who has said he disapproves of Abbey's politics but embraces Hayduke's spirit, has pushed hard for fish habitat protections and argued this month to his fellow Northwest governors that removal of federal Snake River dams to save salmon is worth full examination.

If there is a subliminal wink of support by some citizens to changes wrought by outlaw deeds, it does nothing to simplify the problem posed by increasingly destructive and sometimes violent actions.

Bron Taylor, the Wisconsin-based author of "Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism," says conflict comes with rapid change.

"We're talking less than two decades in which concern for biological diversity and fear that we might be threatening the very life-support systems upon which we depend has been catapulted into public consciousness," he said. "Ideas that are being floated, such as dam dismantling, would have been unheard of a few decades ago. All of this is in the wake of increasing public recognition that it's not just extremist voices who are speaking about a global human-caused extinction crisis."

John Pock, a Reed College sociologist, takes an even longer view. He says eco-terrorism falls within a religious tradition of protesting against the establishment from a stance of moral superiority.

Believing they were right, Martin Luther and John Calvin "consistently violated not only the secular law but ecclesiastical law, which was much worse," Pock said. Modern society, he said, would have never evolved without the Protestant revolution.

But eco-terrorism as a morally driven, righteous assault is precisely what scares David Schwendiman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City who this year successfully prosecuted two extremists for firebombing a Utah mink-food plant. He says eco-terrorists promise no breakthroughs to society, only grave threat.

"Hayduke ... that's where it all comes from," he said. "In literature and fiction, it's entertaining. In real life, it's damaging. It's an act against the public order. ... These are organized, programmatic, ideological acts of consummate violence that are very dangerous. If you let one group use force to impose its will upon everybody else, that just throws democracy out the window."

Smith says the perpetrators should be put away.

"I fear we're not aggressively pursuing eco-terrorists in the same way we pursue abortion bombers," he said. "They're both criminals, and both deserve vigorous prosecution and punishment."

The trouble is in finding them. The Oregonian's examination of eco-terrorism shows a defining pattern of anonymity among perpetrators that law enforcement agencies often find impossible to penetrate.

David Tubbs, special agent in charge of the Salt Lake City region of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is the agency's former national chief of counterterrorism, with experience in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 1996 Montana Freemen standoff. He cites the Animal Liberation Front, on whose behalf Rodney Coronado launched a number of arsons, as a model of "invisibility."

ALF, Tubbs said, is "not a formed group like you know who the head is, who the officers are, who the constituents are." Attempting to open a case against ALF, he said, is "like trying to grab Jell-O."

Other federal agencies have had similar experiences.

The U.S. Forest Service, whose vast landholdings in the West are often the stage for ecoterroristic crimes, infuriated U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth on May 18 at a congressional hearing she conducted on eco-terrorism. The agency and others, it seemed, were unwilling to call ecoterrorism a sufficiently documented and serious public issue.

In response to Chenoweth's request for a report on the agency's efforts to combat eco-terrorism, William Wasley, the Forest Service's law enforcement chief, issued a one-page reply playing down the problem -- something the Idaho Republican declared "an insult" to her subcommittee.

Chenoweth, who has proposed making eco-terrorism a federal crime, said in a later interview: "Environmental extremists have time and time again damaged the property of farmers, ranchers, miners, loggers, manufacturers and homeowners. I consider that a serious problem.

"You cannot solve the problem solely through legislation. We need to get much more serious in investigating these crimes and prosecuting individuals who commit them."

Classifying the crimes is the first of many challenges facing law enforcement.

When someone breaks into a medical research laboratory and steals or destroys records, the crime is classified as a burglary, not an animal protest. A toppled power line becomes a property crime, not a statement against development in pristine wilderness.

"An arson goes into the arson file," said Lt. Dave Eddy, who investigates extremist crimes for the Michigan State Police. "If you ask me about eco-crime, I can't show you a database."

Nearly all U.S. law agencies record crimes the same way, without regard to motive, to fit FBI definitions in the bureau's annual Uniform Crime Reports. As a result, no law agency has a definitive record of how much eco-terrorism is really going on.

"We have animal-rights groups that violate the law, and we know they're out there," said John Russell, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. "But building a credible case is difficult. You have to have intention and probable cause. Evidence and witnesses are hard to come by."

Asked why crimes in the name of the environment or animals had been so difficult to track and prosecute, Schwendiman, the assistant U.S. attorney, was blunt:

"There's an ideology that makes it very difficult ... to get (suspects) to provide information. They operate in very small units. They operate only with people that they believe they can trust implicitly. They operate with people who are accomplices in the same crime -- who would be punished at the same level as anybody else involved in the crime.

"They're very practiced at deception. They wear shoes that are bigger than their feet. They wear gloves. They wear clothing that no one would be able to describe if they had to, it's so common. They dispose of the clothing. They wear ski masks. They switch license plates, borrow cars that can't be identified. They simply strive to leave no trace."

But Schwendiman also says he believes that the government's difficulty in addressing ecoterrorism is compounded by weak federal laws and an unwillingness by the FBI to get more involved.

The toughest federal code on the books addresses terrorism, and it requires prosecutors to prove a plot by a group to influence others or overthrow the government. That's hard to do. No eco-terrorist network or group has yet been targeted and charged in such a way; prosecutors instead go after individuals on narrower charges that describe the crime.

"I personally would find no need to rely on the terrorism statute when other statutes would suffice," said Stephen Peifer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland. "You try to pick statutes with elements that are easier to prove without getting bogged down in a legal wrangle." He cites, for example, arson statutes as "very straightforward."

One federal law employed against eco-terrorists is the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, passed in 1992. It makes it an offense, punishable by up to a year in prison, to physically disrupt an animal enterprise and cause the owners to lose $10,000 or more. And it provides penalties of up to life imprisonment for killing someone.

But this law is criticized as inadequate.

Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are pushing to toughen the statute's prison time from one to five years for the lesser offenses.

And it's yet another reason Schwendiman feels the FBI lags behind.

"The FBI's not going to put a lot of effort into a misdemeanor violation, because they're not a misdemeanor outfit -- they're a felony outfit," he said.

The FBI's Tubbs strongly disputes Schwendiman's assessment of his agency's commitment to solving eco-terrorist crimes. He says the FBI, owing to the loose structure of eco-terroristic groups, is forced to investigate individuals -- but that the individuals can be quite elusive.

"In Vail, Colorado, we were very involved with ATF (the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) on that case," he said. "But you have to have something more than ghosts to go after."

No arrests have been made in the $12 million Vail arson, which occurred on Forest Service property and was claimed by the Earth Liberation Front.

But the incident had impact within the FBI.

The agency's director, Louis Freeh, had told the European media in 1998 that eco-terrorism wasn't on his "radar screen." But in February of this year, four months after Vail, amid passionate concern by Hatch and other senators, Freeh testified to a Senate subcommittee that "the most recognizable singleissue terrorists at the present time are those involved in the violent animalrights, anti-abortion and environmental-protection movements."

Curiously, a year before Freeh publicly dismissed eco-terrorism and well before the Vail arson, the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit generated an internal report on terrorism waged to protect animals. Titled "The Animal Liberation Front: Tactics, Trends and Patterns of NationalRegional Networking," the 1997 report concluded that ALF was posing a serious and escalating problem, Schwendiman said.

The FBI's terrorism unit declined The Oregonian's request for an interview.

Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio may represent Oregon's most environmentally charged and sensitive constituency. His district encompasses portions of national forests outside Eugene where logging was a mainstay, as well as the University of Oregon community in Eugene, a hotbed of environmental activism.

Yet DeFazio finds no gray area when it comes to eco-terrorism -- he gives no wink of quiet support or tolerance.

"It's indefensible," he said. "To commit destructive terrorist acts, even for the best cause, is not acceptable to society. We have other ways of bringing about change, through legislation, litigation, protest -- peaceful protest -- effective organizing."

The Australian ethicist Peter Singer, whose 1975 book, "Animal Liberation," launched the animal-rights movement, reaches a like conclusion:

I think our cause is going to win because we're right, because we have the moral high ground," he said from his office at Princeton University. "Those who misguidedly use violence to achieve their end are undermining the cause. I can understand their impatience, but you can only succeed by persuading a majority of the people, in the long run."

But some environmental extremists say democracy just isn't democratic enough -- that their views go unrepresented or, at best, take too long to sink in and halt what they view as irreversible damage to the natural world. And they say they are incited by police, who have in recent years peppersprayed peaceful protesters; and by the death last year of Earth First! activist David Chain, who was crushed when a California logger felled a tree.

Jonathan Paul, a veteran saboteur in Southern Oregon who advocates the use of arson to inflict damage to property, told The Oregonian he prefers sabotage because, among other things, America's legal system fails to produce environmental protections fast enough.

Tim VerHey, the assistant U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted Rodney Coronado for a historic string of eco-terrorist crimes across the American West, wonders whether democracy is sufficiently inclusive.

"This is just my personal opinion, as a citizen," he said. "I think people are getting a sense that nobody is listening to them and they don't have any control over our government or any decisions that are being made. And they get frustrated and decide to take things into their own hands and try to change it, if they can, by force."

Michelle Arciaga, a Salt Lake City gang specialist with an interest in those drawn to ecoterrorism, says she likens young people today to those from the 1960s.

"The kids in the '90s, they're very passionate, they want a cause," she said. "There's no place for them in politics. They want something they can make a difference in, and this is one of those things that offers this to kids. Groups like ALF and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are saying to young people: 'Go do something. Just do it. Get involved.' "

She cites the Internet as playing a key role in broadening the discussion among young people -- and also in offering lessons on how to raid a fur comparry, how to build a milk-jug firebomb.

The trend since 1990 toward escalation goes as officially unrecorded as eco-terrorism itself and, for the most part, undiscussed.

But Jeffrey Simon, a former Rand Corp. terrorism specialist who runs his own consulting firm, Political Risk Assessment Co., in Santa Monica, Calif., says The Oregonian's finding that crimes have escalated in severity and value fits a pattern.

"In any terrorist group, there's this tendency to escalate," he said. Terrorists are frustrated if they think the public isn't attentive enough, "so there's an incentive to try something different," he said.

That's precisely what scares James N. Damitio, a U.S. Forest Service special agent in the Siuslaw National Forest in Southern Oregon.

"The actions have been spread over a long period of time and over a wide area," he said. "Perhaps we have had, for the most part, local impacts. When you're not dealing with large losses, you don't get large news coverage -- and you don't get large attention. If you don't get large attention, you don't get your message out."

Damitic, now worries that unchecked sabotage will kill someone.

"I think we've come very close to that line and we will cross that line unless we deal with this problem," he said.

Although eco-terrorism goes officially unrecorded, some think it surpasses The Oregonian's finding of 100 key incidents in the American West since 1980.

G. Davidson Smith, a counterterrorism specialist with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says numerous eco-terrorist strikes are covered up by vIctims.

"They don't want copycat activities," he said. "They don't want the attackers to know they were successful or that the attack bothered them."

You can reach James Long at 503-221-4351 or by e-mail at

You can reach Bryan Denson at 503-294-7614 or by e-mail at

Brian Hendrickson of The Oregonian's computer services department built databases for this series. Head librarian Sandra Macomber, assistant head librarian Gail Hulden and researchers Lovelle Svart, Margie Gultry and Kathleen Blythe also contributed.

Return to Part 3
Go to Part 1
Return to ALRA EcoTerrorism Source page

For More Information Contact:
American Land Rights Association
Tel: 360-687-3087 - FAX: 360-687-2973

Email us with questions or comments about this web site.
All pages on this website are ©1999-2006, American Land Rights Association. Permission is granted to use any and all information herein, as long as credit is given to ALRA