Environment: Operation Snuff Smokey

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

Environment: Operation Snuff Smokey

A slew of bombings casts the U.S. Forest Service in a new role: victim
By Jonathan Franklin

Guy Pence is sleeping better these days, though it's still hard to escape the recurring thought, What if I'd been at my desk? He's certainly growing tired of telling the story: how last March, a few hours after quitting time, someone skulked up to the window ledge of his office at the Toiyabe National Forest in Carson City, Nevada, placed a homemade bomb there, and lit the fuse.

When Pence returned the next day, wiring and plastic from his computer were scattered. A piece of window framing was embedded in the wall. A small art collection was in shambles. All told, the bomb caused $10,000 worth of damage.

No sooner had the Toiyabe blast occurred than two similar bombs ripped through an outhouse on Forest Service land in Elko, Nevada. Then came a rash of bomb threats, forcing Forest Service and BLM offices in the West to be evacuated some 20 times in the following weeks.

Understandably, most of the violence was overshadowed in the media by the ghastly images emanating from Oklahoma City last April--after all, no one was hurt in the anti-Forest Service incidents. Nonetheless, as autumn approaches, nerves are still frayed at outposts from New Mexico to Washington State, with employees wondering whether the decades-old feud between those who use public lands for their livelihood and the agencies that manage those lands has entered a new, more violent era.

"We think the bombings are the works of different individuals," explains Mac Thomson, a Forest Service agent assigned to the bombings. "I don't think you can assume that any particular group or militia is behind them."

That may be so, but while Thomson and the FBI continue to search for leads--at press time two suspects were in custody in the Elko bombing but no arrests had been made in the Carson City incident--one particular group is bearing the brunt of the finger-pointing: ranchers. In the last 12 months, Forest Service and BLM employees in the West have fielded a higher than usual number of complaints and threats from ranchers angry because, among other reasons, lands on which they'd once been permitted to graze cattle had been closed for environmental reasons. Many have even been calling for the abolition of the two agencies and the establishment of local control over federal lands. Until this spring, however, the conflicts had remained nonviolent.

"Civil disobedience is not the way to go about changing things," says Karen Budd, a Wyoming attorney who represents ranchers and other so-called Wise Use interests in the West. "We don't condone this kind of behavior. But tell me this: Why don't you see anything in the media when violence happens to ranchers?"

According to the FBI, no cases have been reported of ranchers or their property being bombed. But with no end to the conflict in sight, federal land managers are taking precautions. Forest Service brass, for example, recently ordered all agents to travel in pairs and to stay in constant radio contact with their home base.

Meanwhile, Pence is back at work, in front of the same window that bore the brunt of last March's bomb. His office is now rigged with two alarm systems, the receptionist has been trained to screen incoming packages, and all personnel are well rehearsed in describing suspects to police sketch artists. "We would prefer not to do business this way," says Pence, betraying a touch of anger. "But if I can do anything about it, the Forest Service will not be bullied."

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