In 1998 an environmental activist working to protect roadless areas in the Kootenai National Forest had his car firebombed in Libby. That same year, forest activists in Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest were attacked by seven people, during which the protesters had their tents ransacked, their personal belongings torched and were then taunted for six hours with shotguns and threats of rape. Then in September of that year, 24-year-old Earth First! activist David Chain was killed in Eureka, Calif., when a logger working for the Maxxam Corporation felled a tree—some say deliberately—in his direction.
Locally, Kalispell AM talk show host and Z600 station owner John Stokes routinely refers to environmental activists as “Green Nazis” and “counter-terrorists.” A local newspaper ran a letter to the editor from Scott Daumiller, who writes that if the Clinton roadless initiative is approved, “there will be blood in the streets.”
Menacing letters, harassing phone calls and incendiary language on web sites and talk radio are hardly a new phenomenon in the environmental movement, as familiar a sight in extractive industry country as yellow deer-crossing signs riddled with buckshot. Especially among those activists whose modus operandi involves direct-action protest—that is, physically putting oneself in harm’s way, sometimes illegally, to protect the environment—the potential for physical injury is always a real concern.
But what may be a more alarming trend is the growing intolerance for activists who are working for peaceful change within the system whose activities nonetheless have made them and their families the targets of intimidation, harassment and threats of violence.
Activists and journalists alike face the perplexing dilemma of how to respond to this trend. Unequivocally, professionals who monitor hate group activities say that threats or acts of violence should be made public. Yet many activists, especially those with desk jobs, are reluctant to go on the record with their stories for fear of either becoming a lightning rod for further harassment or by sending a message to its perpetrators that intimidation is an effective tactic.
Such was the case recently when a local activist with a well-known Missoula-based nonprofit group became a target. “Rich,” who asked that his real name and organization not be used, recounts how an out-of-state website posted a photo depicting his children and their friends in front of a billboard promoting their cause. The caption read, “Does anyone need target practice?”
“I thought that was over the line and in terrible taste,” says Rich, who notified the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office in Billings but was told that since the site didn’t directly threaten him or his family, there wasn’t much that could be done. Rich later complained to the website’s editor, who eventually pulled the photo. This fall, Rich made the difficult decision to leave his job after an anonymous caller threatened his life.
“There are some people running around out there, Unabomber types, who just need something like this to push them over the edge,” says Rich. “It just got a little too hairy. I have to consider what my priorities are, the safety of my family or my passion for protecting the environment. There’s no secret that most of people who do what I do are single.”
Law enforcement agencies do not specifically track threats of this kind, nor, say local environmentalists, is there a coordinated effort within the environmental community to document such activities.
“Working in this field, you kind of get used to being the subject of a lot of anger, because you’re a convenient target for a lot of pent-up emotion,” says Bryan Bird, an environmentalist with the Forest Conservation Council in Florida. “You become the one causing all these people’s problems.”
Bird should know. While working for a group called Forest Guardians, a Santa Fe, N.M., nonprofit involved in timber, grazing and water rights issues in the West, Bird arrived at work in March 1998 to find a 12-inch pipe bomb in his mailbox. The device was packed with large ball bearings that police told him were “meant to do a lot of damage.” Fortunately, the bomb never detonated. Bird is still involved in environmental causes and says the experience, while frightening at first, “reinvigorated my interest in the environment.”
“It’s very troubling that intimidation can force people out of activism and force people out of public life generally,” says Christine Kaufmann of the Montana Human Rights Network, the only statewide organization that tracks such activities. “That you have to retreat for fear of your own personal safety from the public policy arena is a very bad sign for democracy.”
Kaufmann says that anecdotal evidence suggests that threats against environmentalists are indeed on the rise but acknowledges that hard statistics are difficult to come by. Still, she encourages anyone who has experienced such threats to report them to her organization.
There are creative ways to respond to the problem, says Bethanie Walder of the Missoula-based nonprofit group, Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads. Last year, her group’s newsletter featured a story about Big Sky High School teacher Andrea Stephens, who had performed road surveys with a group of students. Later, a website called Off-road.com posted a photo of Stephens and her students, referring to them as “zealots, elites, extremists and terrorits (sp) of the environmental movement [which is] based on a pagan religion or a zeallous (sp) teachers hate for lawfull (sp) activities.”
Stephens later used the website as a teaching tool for her students to learn how people respond to controversial issues.