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"Eco-Terrorism": Cui Bono?


In the 1980s in the North Santiam Canyon east of Salem, OR, Ancient Forest activism was peaking after years of dogged effort. This is the area of the famous 1986-89 North Roaring Devil blockade and tree sit (the second ever pro-forest tree sit; the first coming in the nearby South Santiam’s Millennium Grove actions of 1985). North Roaring Devil protection efforts went on for three years, over sixty folks were arrested for non-violent Civil Disobedience at the logging site; sixty-three acres of five-hundred-plus year old trees were leveled; but, in the end, a lawsuit stopped the logging of an additional 170 acres and even led to the Willamette National Forest Plan being thrown out and redone. The entire area is now a part of a 49,000 acre reserve.

Naturally, this effort gained a lot of notoriety. It was the first such effort to garner national attention to the plight of our fast-vanishing old growth forests, bringing in reporters from around the world. It led to a spread in National Geographic and some TV documentaries. By 1988, things also got going eight miles away in the Little North Fork Santiam drainage when a concerted effort was mounted to stop Forest Service plans to liquidate Opal Creek’s wondrous Ancient Forest.

The successful (it’s now a designated Wilderness area with over 35,000 acres preserved) Opal Creek endeavor led to even more attention coming to the Santiam area.

In 1995, sixty miles south at Warner Creek, activists mounted an occupation of a planned post-fire (an arson) “salvage” logging area. People from around the country came and camped out in the snow and rain for over a year before a lawsuit ended the threat of logging there.


Change in Tone

Soon a few new folks arrived on the two scenes advocating major violent defense of the forests. One who moved to the Detroit area claimed eco-bona fides as one of the folks arrested with famed activist Judi Bari when she broke into the home of Harry “we log to infinity” Merlo, CEO of Louisiana Pacific until he was rudely fired by LP shareholders in 1995 after years of mismanagement. Bari and friends famously drank Merlo’s sherry and soaked in his hot tub before arrest.

Of course, when Northwest activists checked into this guy’s story, he was not with Bari in California that night. He constantly pushed for more extreme actions by forest defenders. He claimed to have spiked trees in the area and falsely cited a recently deceased local (one of my best friends) as his accomplice. He even loudly claimed to have provided the accelerants used in the famous Vail arson. Then, he vanished one night and cannot be found, even by a contractor trying to settle a multi-thousand dollar monetary dispute in his favor.


On the Cusp of Victory

On Oct. 28, 1996, an arson fire broke out at the Detroit Ranger Station, the Ranger District responsible for both Opal Creek and the Breitenbush River area of the North Roaring Devil. A truck was burned and graffiti reading “Earth Liberation Front” was painted on the building. At the time, Earth Liberation Front (ELF) was an England-based group that had done no actions in the USA. This was a first.

Two days later, the Oakridge Ranger Station (yep, Warner Creek) was burned to the ground. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas visited the site declaring the arson an act of cowardly eco-terrorism. “This is what people do who do not understand how to operate in a democracy,” Thomas pontificated.

When peaceful protesters arrived the next day, Halloween, at Forest Service HQ in Eugene to protest yet another Ancient Forest timber sale in the Detroit area, they were met by a phalanx of riot police, decked out in full Seattle WTO Ninja turtle attire and surrounding the entire block.

From that point on, increased militarization took place at every forest protest; including ski-masked, black-attired, highly-armed characters slinking through the woods taking photos of every protester and, every once in awhile, leaping out of the brush and tackling and arresting folks for “violating a Closure Area.”

The big question at the time was; not so much who was doing these arsons, though that was high on everyone’s minds; but why here? Why in the two areas where activists were winning? It was so counterproductive that major research into spotted owls and recovering burned areas went up in smoke at Oakridge; research that made the case of the protesters!

Detroit was also well on its way to a transformation away from being the nation’s biggest timber cutting ranger district in the 1980s (an average of 13,000 acres of Ancient Forest was cut annually, leading to an average yield of 125 million board feet per year!) Now, after the transition, the Detroit Ranger District hosts over three million visitors per year and cut less than one million board feet last year; all from salvage and small tree thinning operations.


Who Gains?

All this brings me to last week’s arrests in a number of “ELF” and “Animal Liberation Front” (ALF) incidents. Bandied about universally in the media as “Eco-terrorism” cases, each event also cries out for the same “Why here?” analysis.

Even if one was a dedicated ELF/ALFer, why would one choose to attack these specific targets? Of course, one can find the rationales on their own website. (The notion of committed Luddites having websites is another issue.)

Tim Hermach, head of the Native Forest Council, has seen how the fallout from such actions has impacted non-profit advocacy groups like his. He put it this way, “It’s strange how easily we forget. COINTELPRO; industry’s arson, insurance fraud & strategic PR campaigns to divide & conquer its opposition of responsible citizens. ELF and its alleged crimes are far more likely to be one or all of the above rather than “us.” Just look at the targets. Just look at the results. Did they help us? Did they advance our cause or set us back? Even if one believed there were some willing dupes from within our ranks who played a role in “ELF” actions; were they directed, encouraged or manipulated by the FBI or industry agents?”

“Eco-Terrorism” as a concept itself is the brain-fart of Ron Arnold, guru of the Wise Use Movement. Arnold ginned up the entire notion as a way to combat ever-increasing public support for conservation.

And ironically, Arnold claims that “eco-terrorism” is clandestinely carried out at the behest of major non-profit groups and their funders when he himself uses the theory as the main cash cow for his own non-profit. While I agree with him on some things, especially that there is something just a tad shady about the Big Greens and their Big Oil foundation funders; it’s not them in any way behind this wave of arsons.

Nor is it the work of any of the many small groups that have organized to protect critical habitats. Despite the fact that a couple of the recent arrestees did spend some time at the Warner Creek blockade, they were not instrumental in that effort. Most long-time activists knew none of the accused.

And accused is all they are. We also must remember that the FBI arrested activists Judi Bari and Daryl Cherney after they were the victims of a car bomb. The FBI accused them of bombing themselves basically. After years of litigation, Bari and Cherney were exonerated and the FBI was forced to pay Cherney and the deceased Bari’s estate a $4.4 million dollar settlement for violating their First and Fourth amendment rights.

In summary: we have questionable actions at questionable sites; we have arrests with the aid of an unnamed “confidential informant;” we have provocateurs (informants?) who arrive, then vanish; and, after ten years, we have no arrests in the Bari bombing nor in the Detroit and Oakridge arsons or the arson of the Warner Creek forest; reminiscent of the lack of law enforcement effort on the “Anthrax letters” to the media and top Democrats.

A pattern emerges: issues that remain “unresolved’ are matters where activists or their causes are harmed or silencing dissent is the motivation. Should industry or their stooges be even slightly impacted by anything, legal (remember those increasingly-present Ninja turtles appearing wherever citizens are exercising their constitutional rights) or otherwise, the FBI stages a full-court press; rights be damned.

It really is “what people do who do not understand how to operate in a democracy.”

MICHAEL DONNELLY was instrumental in both the North Roaring Devil (he was the plaintiff in the lawsuit that stopped it) and the Opal Creek campaigns. He can be reached at


MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at

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