On the Front Lines of the Climate Change Movement: Mike Roselle Draws a Line

Mike Roselle (right) with James Guin McGuinness (left). Photo Antrim Caskey.

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank.

The beard is graying. The hair is clipped military-short. He is a large man, oddly shaped, like a cross between a grizzly and a javelina. It’s Roselle, of course, Mike Roselle—the outside agitator. He and a fellow activist have just spread an anti-coal banner in front of a growling bulldozer in West Virginia on a cold February morning in 2009. He’s in this icy and unforgiving land to oppose a brutal mining operation and will soon be arrested for trespassing. Massey Energy, the target of Roselle’s protest, is the fourth largest coal extractor in the United States, mining nearly 40 million tons of coal in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee each year.

The arrest was nothing new for Roselle, who cut his teeth in direct action environmental campaigns decades earlier as a co-founder of Earth First!, a top campaigner for Greenpeace US and later as the wit behind the tenacious Ruckus Society. Unlike most mainstream environmentalists, you are not likely to see Roselle sporting a suit and lobbying Washington insiders on the intricacies of mining laws—you are more apt to see this self-proclaimed lowbagger (one who lives light on the land, works to protect it and has few possessions to show for their hard work) engaged in direct, but nonviolent, confrontations with the forces of industrialization, using tactics honed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. And his dissent in West Virginia is more than justified.

The mountaintops of the Appalachia region, from Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal industry—an industry that cares little about the welfare of communities or the land that it is chewing up and spitting out with its grotesque mining operations.

The debris from the mining pits, often 500 feet deep, produce toxic waste that is then dumped in nearby valleys, polluting rivers and poisoning local communities downstream. Currently, no state or federal agencies are tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named “mountaintop removal,” where entire peaks are being blown apart with explosives, only to expose tiny seams of the precious black rock.

On December 22, 2008, a coal slurry impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, spilled more than 500 million gallons of toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River. The epic spill was over 40 times larger than the Exxon Valdez in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash flowed into tributaries of the murky Tennessee River—the water supply for Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in the states of Alabama and neighboring Kentucky. The true costs—environmental and social—of the spill are still not known.

As a result of the ongoing destruction of this forgotten region of Appalachia, Roselle and others affiliated with his latest group, Climate Ground Zero, have set up shop and vow not to end their actions until this mining practice has been outlawed. But the West Virginia media, long in the pockets of Big Coal, has not depicted Roselle as a nonviolent activist who has been pushed to act because his conscience has forced him to. On the contrary, Roselle has been portrayed as a potential eco-terrorist and a threat, not only to jobs in the region but to human life as well.

“A quick search of Roselle’s name on the internet produces pages of accusations that he will go to any length for his cause, vandalism that could put lives in danger,” reported WSAZ-TV on February 11, 2009.

Fox affiliate WCHS-TV8 went even further in a story they aired on the same date stating, “Roselle has been called an ‘eco-terrorist’ by some because of his tactics. He’s someone we think you should know about. Tomorrow night don’t miss the ‘Roselle Report’ when we’ll take a closer look at how this man’s radical methods of protest may put lives at stake in West Virginia.” Being labeled a terrorist isn’t a new accusation for Roselle, who has been at the forefront of dozens of nonviolent direct action environmental campaigns throughout the past several decades. “I have been arrested over forty times in twenty states,” Roselle remembers with a smirk. “My longest time in jail is four months in South Dakota for an action on Mt. Rushmore against acid rain.” Even anti-environmentalist Ron Arnold, who coined the term eco-terrorist in Reason magazine in the early 1980s, came out with a statement in opposition to Roselle’s terrorist label.

“I don’t agree with him, but he’s no terrorist. I’ve covered Roselle since 1995 and even devoted dozens of pages to his protest activities in my 1997 book EcoTerror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature,” said Arnold. “I covered his actions to distinguish between radicals and terrorists. I say he’s a radical environmentalist, not an eco-terrorist. It’s not a crime to be a radical and Roselle has never been charged with any violent crime.”

Despite Arnold’s clear distinction between terrorism and environmentalism, western states like Idaho and Oregon seem to disagree.


Saving Idaho’s wilderness had come to this: Two militant greens standing in the middle of an isolated, snow-crusted road in a place where machines should never be, bracing their bodies against a train of logging trucks, snowmobiles and Forest Service jeeps groaning at the gate, demanding entry, willingly subjecting themselves to arrest by Idaho troopers armed with automatic weapons, Billy clubs and a draconian and subconstitutional new law. All in a last-gasp attempt to halt a vastly destructive timber sale in the heart of the nation’s largest roadless area called Cove/ Mallard, a timber sale two federal judges already found to be a brazen assault on our national environmental laws.

Charged with felony conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, Roselle and Tom Fullum, of the Native Forest Network, faced a possible five-year prison terms and $50,000 fines under Idaho’s so-called Earth First! Statute—a law geared to smother popular dissent against the transgressions of multinational timber companies by slamming the jailhouse door on anyone bold enough to bodily protest logging on federal lands in the Potato State. The bill was signed into law in 1993 by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, a noted liberal who called the Cove/Mallard protesters “just a bunch of kooks.”

The 90,000-acre Cove/Mallard roadless area is a biological cradle in the mountains, a rolling landscape of ponderosa pine forests, meandering streams and wet meadows that serve as a critical biological and migration corridor between the Salmon River and the high country of the Gospel Hump and Selway Mountains. One of the wildest places in the lower 48, its brisk streams are home to steelhead, Chinook salmon, bull trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat, while the broad meadows harbor some of the best elk country in the Northern Rockies. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats inhabit the tall mountains and the entire area is a key part of the Central Idaho grizzly bear and gray wolf recovery areas. In fact, over the past ten years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has documented numerous confirmed wolf sightings in the Cove/Mallard roadless area.

Federal and state governments have long targeted the civil rights of environmentalists. In the mid-1980s, swaths of new laws were passed that targeted the acts of direct, action-oriented, environmental protests. The laws followed a tree spike incident in Sonoma County, California, during the height of the battles to save the ancient redwood forests. As a worker thrust his blade into the trunk of a mighty tree, the blade hit a spike, snapped and flung back only to strike the logger. The media and logging industry called it eco-terrorism. But it wasn’t an environmentalist that hammered that spike into the tree; it was a furious local right-wing landowner who had no part in the protests to end logging of the redwoods in the state. He was just pissed it was happening in his own backyard. Nonetheless, the tree spiking opened up attacks by the media, treating the incident as legitimate terrorism. The timber behemoths lobbied hard and the result was a series of laws that were meant to deter activists from targeting the logging industry in any way in any form.

The problem with most of these laws is that they do not decipher between acts of civil disobedience and vandalism. There is no line drawn, for example, between property damage like arson and chaining oneself to a logging truck. States across the West followed California’s and Oregon’s lead, making it a crime to hinder or delay any timber sale on public or private land. Activists that shut down logging operations directly, even by nonviolent means, were soon being deemed eco-terrorists, and not only by the media, but by the state laws themselves.

“Some of these laws, like the Earth First! Statute, made it a felony to conspire to or advocate any of those actions,” recalled Roselle. “During debates on the House floor, outraged legislators said the law was intended to apply to professional radical environmentalists who recruited innocent kids from college campuses, and sent them off to block legal-logging operations, and take food out of the mouths of working families. Imagine!”

The Noble timber sale was one of nine big timber sales slated for the Cove/Mallard. These sales called for 200 different clear- cuts, the logging of 81 million board feet of timber and the construction of 145 miles of new logging roads. The Cove/Mallard timber sale planned to leave behind only an empty infrastructure: its web of roads a lethal impediment to the migration of wolves and elk, its eroding swaths of bare land quietly smother- ing salmon and trout.

The evidence of an imminent ecological collapse of Idaho’s river systems in the area is overwhelming. In one of America’s wildest state, more than 70 percent of the streams are out of compliance with the standards of the Clean Water Act, dozens of stocks of salmon gasp along with the bull trout at the brink of extinction. This means that every additional clearcut or mine gouged into these watersheds creates a necrotic wound in the fragile ecosystem. This was the emergency situation to which federal Judge David Ezra responded with an injunction to halt the logging.

Of course, the predictable backlash swiftly erupted in rural Idaho when news of the injunction was leaked to local timber contractors, ranchers and mining companies by the Forest Service. Local papers played up the inevitable chest beating by a mongrel assortment of tree cutters, ranch hands and placer miners from towns with names like Challis, Dixie and Kamiah. Then came the apocalyptic assessments of the ruling by mega-corporations such as Boise/Cascade, Potlatch and Hecla Mining: Mills and mines will be closed, they warned; thousands will be thrown out of work; bars will run dry and already impoverished communities will be driven deeper into destitution. Environmentalists and not greed were to blame.

The injunction also became a pretext for yet another round of vituperative cant from Idaho’s reactionary Congressional delegation against outside agitators like the hippie Roselle. On the floor of the Senate, Dirk Kempthorne (who would later become Idaho’s governor and then interior secretary under Bush the Younger) bellowed that he would seek Congressional action to shred the injunction and “the ill-conceived laws it was based on.” Meanwhile, Rep. Helen “Call-Me-Congressman” Chenoweth denounced the injunction as the work of “animal worshipping nature cults.” And the stentorious Larry Craig, the ex-senator with the wide stance, amplified the volume of his “forest health” crusade—a cruel hoax on the public in which the last roadless forests in the West will be stripped of the meager protection provided them by current environmental laws and opened to indiscriminate chainsaw surgery in the name of medicating the ecosystem.

The response to Idaho’s Earth First! law was predictable said Roselle, “We went to a bunch of college campuses … we intend- ed to recruit a bunch of new students to block, impede, halt, obstruct, and otherwise obliterate logging in the Cove/Mallard Timber Sale. We continued to block the road until the US Forest Service was halted, impeded, blocked and obliterated in Federal court. It turned out that the logging in Cove/Mallard never was legal after all.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Idaho’s anti-environmentalist statues aren’t the worst you’ll find out here in the Northwest. In fact, the neighboring state of Oregon has pushed the envelope so far that home invasions, felony charges and police brutality have become the norm, not the exception, to how law enforcement reacts to environmental campaigners. And like Idaho’s egregious Earth First! law, Roselle is also at the center of Oregon’s attempt to paint environmental civil disobedience as eco-terrorism.


It was during the State legislative session of 1999 when the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and the Oregon timber industry joined forces to lobby their allies at the capital in Salem to pass special criminal legislation, worthy of a felony charge, for any individual or group that interfered with business operations. Entitled “Interference with Agricultural Operations,” (Ag-Ops law) the new statues prohibited any activist, sans union or labor disputers, that knowingly or intentionally “obstructs, impairs or hinders or attempts to obstruct, impair or hinder agricultural operations.”

Call it Oregon’s version of Idaho’s Earth First! law, or at least its latest incarnation, and like Idaho’s statute, Mike Roselle found himself in the middle of the liberal state’s crackdown on pesky enviros.

In March of 2005, activists traveled to Josephine County, Oregon, near the quiet town of Ashland, to protest what they believed to be illegal logging operations. Like good direct action environmentalists of old, they blocked public roads that led to the cut in the Siskiyou National Forest where the Biscuit timber sale was taking place. The logging operations were being contracted by the United States Forest Service (USFS) to private timber outfits that were looking to cash in on a rather dismal occupation.

Like the untouched forests of Idaho, the Siskiyou National Forest is one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in the continental United States. It houses five nationally designated wild and scenic rivers, as well as one of the healthiest stocks of native salmon in the country. The plan introduced by the USFS included extensive logging in 12 roadless areas, which covered well over 12,000 acres of taxpayer-managed land.

In all, the USFS placed 1900 acres of public land on the auction block and, of those, 1160 were mapped out for demolition. The venture, titled the “Biscuit Fire Recovery Project,” was the largest forest service sale in US history. In all, almost 30 square miles of federal land was handed over to chainsaw-happy timber barons.

Not surprisingly, the Forest Service wanted onlookers to believe these types of logging operations are for “restoration” purposes only, not profit, as this patch of old trees in the Siskiyous fell victim to massive natural wildfires in the summer of 2002. During a meeting among timber, conservation and USFS officials on July 26, 2006, over lawsuits the groups had filed regarding the Biscuit sales, eco-activists were simultaneously erecting a 75-foot tall tree platform and a large road blockade in hopes of halting access to “Indi,” the first salvage sale site set for cutting by the beginning of August.

“Logging is not restoration,” said activist Kay Pittwald as she hung from her suspended platform high above the soggy forest floor. “The future of this remote area is healthy salmon, clean water and a thriving tourist economy. It is not a place for an out-of-country timber grab to ship wood products to Asia.”

US District Judge Michael Hogan, who handled the lawsuits, was of little comfort to the conservationists that attempted to stop the logging in the courts. Indeed, Hogan, one of the most conservative federal judges in the Ninth Circuit, has a long history of siding with extractive industries (and later being overruled on appeal). In 2001, he called for the delisting of threatened Coho salmon, and in 2002 he allowed logging in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest to proceed after talks between Big Greens and industry officials.

Forest fires, like the one in the Siskiyou National Forest, became stigmatized only when forests began to be viewed as a commercial resource rather than an obstacle to settlement. Fire suppression became an obsession only after the big timber giants laid claim to the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. Companies like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific were loath to see their holdings go up in flames, so they arm twisted Congress into pouring millions of dollars into fire-fighting programs. The Forest Service was only too happy to oblige because fire suppression was a sure way to pad their budget.

In effect, the Forest Service’s fire suppression programs (and similar operations by state and local governments) have acted as little more than federally-funded, fire insurance policies for the big timber companies, an ongoing corporate bailout that has totaled tens of billions of dollars and shows no sign of slowing down, even under President Obama. There’s an old saying that the Forest Service fights fires by throwing money at them. And the more money it spends, the more money it gets from Congress. Sadly, the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project was no different.

“Their world-view dictates that ‘healthy forests’ equal tree farms,” said George Sexton, who worked as the Conservation Director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center at the time.

“Industry wanted a train wreck at Biscuit.”

In the eyes of the activists who blocked the logging road that March afternoon in 2005, they had been successful. Logging was halted for the moment. But when logging operations stop, law enforcement officers are dispatched to get the chainsaws running again and, in order to do so, activists are arrested and charged, often with trespassing (on private lands) or disorderly conduct. But in this case, with a new law in their arsenal, the Biscuit protesters, Roselle included, were charged with disrupting logging operations, a potential felony. For those arrested, the court imposed sentences of two to four days in custody, additional fines and probation for 18 months.

“[One] problem with [the Ag-Ops law] is that it does not forbid ‘hindering’ an agricultural operation to the point of cessation, property damage, or any other tangible point,” wrote Lauren C. Regan and Misha J. Dunlap of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in their appeal brief, which claimed the law used to sentence the defendants was unconstitutional. “Instead, it leaves the person conducting the ‘agricultural operation’ free to decide when a group of people shall be dispersed and/or arrested. The point at which there is harm (or ‘hindrance’) under [the law] is not readily identifiable and, in fact, reaches to protected conduct of peaceable assembly at sites of agricultural operations. This clearly violates Article I, section 26 of the Oregon Constitution. The constitutional right to publicly assemble in a public forum cannot be prescribed by a statute that is intended to protect commercial interests. Commercial interests do not trump fundamental constitutional rights.”

The lawyers also argued in their brief that the law is aimed at the content of one’s speech and targets that speech based on the content. In the context of the statute used, it does not prohibit all speech aimed at disrupting agricultural operations, but only certain types of speech—that which does not relate to labor protests.

On October 28, 2009, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Biscuit protesters, striking down the Ag-Ops Law as unconstitutional. The court ruled that the law unfairly singled out environmental demonstrators as a separate class, in violation of the equal protection clause. Labor protests, for example, were specifically excluded from the law.

“The overwhelming majority of people prosecuted under the law were environmentalists,” said Dan Kruse, an attorney for the protesters.


Back in West Virginia, Mike Roselle sat back and conducted one of his many radio interviews by telephone. Empty beer cans were piled up in the kitchen. Roselle’s rental home has become the headquarters for Climate Ground Zero. In this particular interview, Roselle spelled out his defense of the tree-sitters who are attempting to halt Massey Energy’s mining operations by setting up camp in their blast zone. It was an unusually busy summer for Roselle, as hundreds of boisterous activists descended on West Virginia to voice their objections to mountaintop removal. The fight has heated up, so much so that even Roselle is surprised at the grassroots outpouring. There have been dozens of arrests and several major protest actions. Yet, Roselle is still sympathetic to the workers’ concerns and shrugs off the negative media coverage as par for the course.

“Those who are not involved in the mining industry are almost unanimously opposed to it. And even a lot of the folks who work for Massey Energy are not really happy with what they’re doing , but they’re kind of—because this is one of the poorest states in the country, they don’t have many choices. There are no other jobs,” Mike Roselle told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! in April 2009. “I don’t think there’s really that much support throughout West Virginia for destroying the mountains. There is support, I think, for supporting the coal industry … the best way to maintain coal jobs in West Virginia is to end mountaintop removal immediately because it employs a lot less people than underground mining. Underground mining is a lot less destructive to the environment, and it could be even less so if more regulations were enforced and new ones put in place.”

So, his fight to save the mountains of Appalachia continues. Laws may attempt to deter Mike Roselle as accusations of terrorism attempt to tarnish his reputation. Yet, he soldiers onward, and will do so until he sees an end to mountaintop removal. In the meantime, however, you can expect Massey Energy, in conjunction with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the coal industry in his state, to do their best to outlaw the actions taken by Roselle’s Climate Ground Zero campaigners. Even if it means trampling over their civil rights in the process.

February, 2010

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net and trolled on Twitter @JSCCounterPunch. Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank.