Environment: War of the Worldviews

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside Magazine, February 1995

Environment: War of the Worldviews

Yes, Wise Users hate greens. But have they really inspired a wave of anti-green hate crimes?
By Paul Koberstein

Last Fall, in the northeastern Oregon town of Joseph, angry loggers and ranchers on hand for a Wise Use meeting fashioned a pair of effigies from gunnysacks, straw, tar, and feathers, labeled them Andy and Ric, and strung them up. They represented two environmentalists who are widely loathed in a logging community that's seen a couple of lumber mills go under in the last 12 months: Andy Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and Ric Bailey, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. The episode ignited a local debate over just how far the proextraction, property-rights-obsessed Wise Use movement can go in its efforts to stoke resentment against the green agenda. Was this a coarse but defensible act of free speech? Or an incitement to real violence?

That's a matter of opinion, and even Bailey and Kerr offer different reads. Bailey, 41, a resilient sort who's been in the thick of northwestern resource battles for nearly two decades, admits to being rattled, noting that he's received numerous death threats in the last four years. "I've had voodoo dolls hung on my fence that say 'Eco Nazi,'" he says. "An environmentalist is going to get killed one of these days. We're easy targets. We've got a bull's-eye on our butt the size of a clear-cut." Kerr, 39, whose group has been instrumental in blocking huge timber sales, says death threats are "a cost of doing business," but he doubts anyone would attack him. "They can't touch me," he says. "I'm a public figure. I walk up and down the street and nobody messes with me."

Is Kerr kidding himself? Journalist David Helvarg thinks so; in his recently published book The War Against the Greens, he argues that such examples of "anti-environmental violence" are not to be taken lightly. A San Francisco - based investigative reporter who has covered conflicts in Northern Ireland and Central America, Helvarg makes an astonishing claim: He compares the violence inspired by the "Wise Use backlash" to what he saw in those countries. Citing famous and not-so-famous cases -- including the 1990 car-bomb explosion that nearly killed Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney and the alleged arson fire that destroyed the Arkansas home of Greenpeace USA activist Pat Costner in 1991 -- Helvarg argues that the last six years have seen a "startling increase" in attacks on greens, with activists suffering hundreds of instances of abuse "ranging from...assaults, arsons, and shootings to torture, rape and possibly murder."

Helvarg stops short of accusing the Wise Use movement of organizing a campaign of violence -- he acknowledges that there's no evidence of this. But he points a finger at the rhetoric of movement leaders such as Ron Arnold, executive director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Washington, who, writes Helvarg, once told an interviewer, "We're out to kill the fuckers... Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all." Helvarg believes that Wise Use leaders are compensating for a lack of grassroots political support by inspiring local hotheads to make like vigilantes. The issue has been raised before -- most notably in a 1992 report by the San Francisco - based Center for Investigative Reporting and a subsequent 60 Minutes segment -- but it's been getting more media attention during this second wave, with treatments in Newsweek, the Boston Globe, In These Times, and The Nation, among other outlets. Newsweek gave a somber nod to Helvarg's thesis, in an article that concluded "activists are under violent attack."

There's only one problem: While there's no doubt that anti-green violence sometimes occurs, Helvarg's book doesn't come close to proving that a "war" is in progress. The bulk of it is a general history of environmentalism and the Wise Use movement, and his assertion of a "startling increase" in crimes is not supported by hard statistics. He cites about 60 instances of violence dating back to the mideighties, yet all but about a dozen of them involve alleged threats, not action. There's no year-by-year analysis showing whether the numbers are going up, down, or sideways, and Helvarg sometimes floats assertions that aren't backed up by facts, such as the idea that hired thugs from "private security" companies may be involved. The person he mentions as being "possibly" murdered is Leroy Jackson, an Arizona-based Navajo environmentalist who was found dead in a parked van in 1993. Jackson had received death threats, but he probably died, as investigators concluded, from an accidental methadone overdose (see "A Death in Navajo Country," May 1994).

Nonetheless, Helvarg deserves credit for pointing up tensions that are clearly dangerous. And as a check with dozens of environmentalists shows, there may not be a war, but there are certainly rumors of war. Last July the offices of the Pacific Justice Center, a public interest environmental law firm based in northern California, burned in a fire that, at press time, was still being investigated as a possible case of arson. Last summer, in Okanogan County, Washington, Jere Payton, a 53-year-old activist who has worked for years to preserve the North Cascade forests, claims she saw a camouflaged man waving a rifle in front of her home. No shots were fired, but Payton says the message was hard to miss. "Some of the local Wise Use people had already talked about murdering me in meetings," says Payton. And after a Kern County, California, bamboo farmer was charged last summer with violating the Endangered Species Act, Frank Kuncir, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in Clovis, California, received a bomb threat at his office.

Though Wise Use activists have not been connected to any of these episodes, the leadership's cries of total innocence can sound pretty thin. Chuck Cushman, a Washington State - based activist known for making incendiary speeches at Wise Use rallies, told Helvarg, "We've always advocated nonviolence like Martin Luther King Jr. or that guy from India, what's his name?" That doesn't square too well with the rhetoric that Rick Sieman, founder of the Sahara Club, a band of Mojave Desert off-road enthusiasts, dispenses in the club newsletter. "Find the opposing ringleaders and get right in their face," Sieman writes in a set of pointers for harassing "eco-freaks" at public meetings. "Spit in their face to make a point."

As Andy Kerr points out, Wise Use leaders should be smart enough to actively disdain violence. The anti-green agenda is doing OK in the marketplace of ideas -- witness last November's elections. Still, as long as tensions exist, the question remains: What should be done? The best tactics are probably careful tracking to determine whether or not anti-green violence really is on the upswing (the Environmental Working Group, a new Washington, D.C. - based outfit, is doing just that) and vigorous legal attacks when a crime does occur. That worked for Bruce Hare, a Long Creek, South Carolina - based whitewater outfitter and environmentalist who in 1992 won a $31,000 civil suit against a local Wise Use activist who assaulted him.

Beyond that, says Kerr, the best offense may be a good defense. "What do you do?"he says. "You either don't seek environmental reform, or you watch your ass."

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