Blue Planet: Ecoterrorism redefined

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 13, 2002 at 3:10 PM
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In this Sept. 11 week, it is useful to examine the word "terrorism" -- especially the inflation of definition that has accompanied it.

In the spring of 1981, I sat in the Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyo., interviewing Howie Wolke, a longtime friend and an environmental activist in the Rocky Mountain region.

The Cowboy Bar is the sort of place tourists think of as a Western bar. It is narrow and dark and has those slatted swinging doors through which the bartenders throw out the drunks in movies. Most of the light comes from rectangular faux-Tiffany Budweiser lamps hanging above the pool tables. Top-notch country music bands entertain in the evenings, while beautiful women in tight blue jeans dance the Cotton-Eyed Joe.

The bar runs nearly the length of one wall, the barstools in front of it are saddles -- a tip-off the place really is not a Western bar. Saddles make excessively uncomfortable seats. Few cowboys will sit in one unless they are being paid to do it.

In any case, neither Howie nor I was a cowboy. He recently had left his job as a regional representative for the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Now he was working for the bar -- as a bouncer. I was a journalist at the High Country News, a bi-weekly that covered environmental issues in the Rocky Mountain region.

This interview with Howie, and another guy whose name I've forgotten -- a Vietnam War veteran with an encyclopedic knowledge of explosives -- concerned what we then called "ecotage," the destruction of property of companies that were, in the opinion of some people, degrading the wilderness.

The second fellow -- let's call him Steve because I really can't remember his name -- had described it this way: "The legal process isn't working. There's a lot of money against the environmental movement and there's a lot of propaganda that the average environmentalist is a bleeding heart. As more conventional and legal methods of saving planet Earth are failing, it becomes necessary to force the issue."

A group had organized in the Jackson area to sabotage efforts to explore for oil and gas in the Bridger-Teton Mountains, a major petroleum play just south of Yellowstone National Park. The kind of activities they did, by today's terror standards, seem pretty juvenile: pouring sugar into vehicle fuel tanks, cutting up seismic cable, pulling up survey stakes. Most of these things had been described in Edward Abbey's classic novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," so it's often called "monkeywrenching."

Howie and Steve had organized a group that went around spreading ecoterror into the hearts of the corporate interests they saw as threatening the mountains ringing the Cowboy Bar. I pressed Howie for the name of the group, since that's the kind of detail that makes up a good story. He hemmed. He hawed. Finally he said, "I can't tell you. We might want to use it for something else."

The name of their group was Earth First! -- exclamation theirs.

In 1986, Howie was arrested for pulling up survey stakes for a road being built by Chevron Oil into the Grayback Ridge roadless area in the B-T. He pleaded the felony down to a misdemeanor, but was given the maximum sentence -- six months in the county jail.

It was the kind of activity that would warrant the equivalent of a parking ticket -- 10 days, suspended, say -- if it had not been a political act. Howie Wolke was, essentially, a political prisoner.

The monkeywrenching in Jackson continued. In fact, the Chevron road was disrupted again later by a group calling itself "Barmaids for Howie." I never did learn what happened to Steve.

As an environmental journalist, I occasionally receive "communiqués" from a group called the Earth Liberation Front, an "underground" organization that commits acts of sabotage ostensibly in pursuit of pro-environmental goals. Because their actions are illegal, ELF doesn't send e-mail, it sends communiqués -- to make them sound more like the free French underground, I suppose.

In a recent "urgent news advisory," ELF claimed credit -- if that's the appropriate word -- for breaking two plate glass windows at a Detroit-area McDonald's, setting fire to eight Ford Expeditions at a Detroit dealership and starting a fire at a Weyerhaeuser office in Washington state someplace -- the details were a little vague.

Ecoterrorism has come a long way since Howie pulled up Chevron's survey stakes. Earth First! is still around, although Howie quit in 1990. "It had become militant vegan feminist witches for wilderness," he said recently. "People wanted to talk about tree-spiking and bombing, not ecosystems."

Earth First! is practically mainstream.

Earth Liberation Front's best-known action was the arson of a restaurant atop the Vail ski area in Colorado. ELF was founded in 1992 in Brighton, England, by some disgruntled Earth First! activists. Despite a bonfire of publicity, and apocalyptic warnings from property rights activists and congressional committees, the list of ELF's "accomplishments" is small: Two "actions" in 1996, three in 1997, eight in 1998, three in 1999, nine in 2000 and four in 2001.

Having pulled up a few survey stakes myself, I'm not in a position to take the high moral ground. But is it terrorism? Is even burning a restaurant -- and we all know how tough it is to find a good restaurant -- on the same level as blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., or leveling the World Trade Center?

There is an enormous difference between principled civil disobedience -- including monkeywrenching -- and murder. The word "terrorism" has been thrown around too loosely.

I hadn't talked to Howie in many years -- he's now a successful wilderness outfitter in Montana -- so I called him to find out if his views had changed since we sat around that day at the Cowboy Bar.

"My perspective on non-legal protests really hasn't changed fundamentally since the early days of Earth First!" he said. "I think that civil disobedience has always occupied an essential role in American politics -- and I fear the day where it no longer does so. We should all fear that day, even people who may vehemently disagree with the goals of a particular nonviolent civil disobedience protest."

Given the country's mood post-Sept. 11, Howie said, "There is more danger that we are losing our tolerance of people who are on the legal fringe in terms of the way they protest. I think it is more important than ever -- especially given the U.S.A. Patriot Act -- for Americans to really look at the essential role that nonviolent civil disobedient protest has played in social change, from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-war movement."

Even the conjunction of the ecological with civil disobedience in America is old. Henry David Thoreau, America's first environmentalist and the author of "Walden," declined to pay his poll tax as a protest against slavery. In his 1849 essay, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," he wrote: "Even voting for the right thing is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority."

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