The conflict between loggers and environmental activists in central Idaho turned violent recently in the Nez Perce National Forest, when a rowdy and reportedly drunken posse stormed a "citizens' camp" in the woods at the end of August.
According to reports from the Cove-Mallard Coalition and Idaho law enforcement, on the night of August 21, invaders entered an area occupied by anti-logging activists, burned and vandalized gear, brandished weapons, and threatened the eco-minded campers.
For about six years, members of the Cove-Mallard Coalition and Earth First! have used various methods of civil disobedience to hinder road building and timber harvests. This summer, on the Otter Wing Timber Sale, they established tree platforms and served as human shields for the roadless area. Since the environmentalists began their protests in earnest, there have been more than 200 arrests, according to the Forest Service.
On the night in question-which is still under investigation-activists say they saw headlights and, thinking lawmen had arrived, scattered and hid. According to a guy named Daisy, (who refused to give his real name), at least five men and two women, who appeared "extremely drunk," yelled threats and insults for about an hour while trashing gear and setting fires.
Following the incident, which was partially captured on videotape by a frightened tree hugger, the attackers left, got their truck stuck on the way out, and then returned before dawn to threaten that they would kill anyone still there the next night.
Idaho County detective Skott Mealer says that a truckload of "yahoos" drove up a gated road in the timber sale where the activists were camped, and made them fear for their lives with serious-sounding threats. Mealer says that the video of the attack provides a good audio record of the chaos, but fails to identify the perpetrators.
Mealer adds that he thinks he knows who some of the attackers are. He's awaiting answers from the state crime lab about clues, and denies coalition charges that officers at the scene threw away and ignored evidence.
The activists claim they too recognize some of their assailants as employees or past employees of road-contractor Highland Enterprises. Whoever the attackers were, say coalition members, they would have had to open a locked gate and pass the contractor's camp inside the gated area.
Such allegations, the coalition says, further implicate the road crew.
Highland referred all questions to their attorney, Bruce Smith, who-citing last month's death of California protester-says safety has been the company's main concern. Smith says he has no knowledge of the August 21 attack, or whether particular individuals work or worked for Highland.
In turn, Smith counters that the activists may not always be non-violent. In 1996, a jury convicted 11 people of crimes including vandalism of equipment and ordered restitution to be paid to Highland and the timber contractor Shearer Lumber. The companies meanwhile have been granted a temporary restraining order against unnamed defendants.
The order came on the heels of accusations vandalism, suspension of steel cables, removal of markers, verbal and physical threats and tree-sitting. Cove-Mallard spokesman Sean Gale says the charges-except the tree-sits-are "total malarkey."
Activists accuse the authorities of complicity. The morning after the attack, according to Gale, U.S. Forest Service law enforcement, in contrast to its usual diligence in policing the protesters, offered little protection for the encamped activists, instead advising them to leave for their own safety.
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement declines to discuss the matter. Ongoing legal actions, according to federal litigation specialist Monica McGee, rule out agency comment.
Detective Mealer takes offense at the notion that the cops are dragging their feet, noting that Idaho County has only 14 patrol officers and round-the-clock patrols in remote forest are not an option. "We've always gotten along pretty well," he said. "I hate to see it turning this way."
Still, Gale calls the county law officers "totally complicit."
"They came out and said we're not going to baby-sit you," says Gale. "Of course, if we go out and sit in a tree, they're there in 24 hours."
For his part, Mealer says, he could also use more cooperation from the victims. Since many of the activists have their own legal problems, only one gave his real name. Loggers, Mealer notes, make similar complaints that his department fails to protect them and their equipment.
The Cove-Mallard Coalition claims the Otter sale, which calls for the harvest of 12 million board feet on 620 acres near the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area, is illegal on many fronts. The group says the Environmental Impact Statement is outdated, and that road building began before the necessary federal permits had been obtained. Specifically, activists complain, the sale will ruin habitat for threatened steelhead and bull trout protected under the Endangered Species Act.
While a lawsuit aimed at stopping logging in the area waits its turn in Idaho district court, a judge has refused the coalition's request that logging and road building be halted. The activists offer no specifics, but plan to continue their work as well.