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Lawlessness Alive Out West // Employees Enforcing Environmental Laws Face Threats
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Lawlessness Alive Out West // Employees Enforcing Environmental Laws Face Threats

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Someone has threatened to kill Forrest Cameron, and to harm his

wife and children.

Cameron, the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, knows who

threatened to kill him, and why. He doesn't know who called his home in

Princeton, Ore., to harass his wife and daughters. But he assumes it's for

the same reason he says Dwight Hammond threatened to shoot him: because

Cameron was enforcing the law.

So was Tim Tibbetts. This was in Reserve, N.M., when Tibbetts was still

with the Phoenix office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tibbetts had just explained the Endangered Species Act at a

public forum and he'd gotten into his car in the parking lot of the

Catron County Building, he remembered, when someone opened the door

and said something about blowing his head off.

"That did cross the line," said Tibbetts, a biologist who now

works at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.

In California, activists issue instructions on how to harass

federal officials. "Find out where the ranger lives," urges a

newsletter providing information on how to picket outside a

ranger's home using "outrageous signs" that say "in lurid terms

what a rat Ranger Smith is."

In Reno, Nev., the warnings were not verbal. On Halloween night

1993, someone tossed a bomb on the roof of the Bureau of Land

Management's state headquarters.

Enforcing environmental laws has become increasingly perilous in the

West. Park and forest rangers, Fish and Wildlife Service officials and staff

members for the Bureau of Land Management report an increasing number of

threats and harassment incidents. Enforcement officers for state fish and

game departments also have been threatened.

So far no one has been hurt, and the law enforcement officials generally

shrug off the threats as empty posturing. But in at least one case, state

and federal officials surrendered to a threat of violence.

"We had a visit set up in June to do a major ground-water

assessment" of a project on federal land in Gila National Forest,

said Bob Salter of the New Mexico Department of Environment. "At

the 11th hour, the forest supervisor contacted us and requested

that we back off because of threats of an armed confrontation."

Western resource law enforcers also acknowledge that some of

this behavior is not new, that the region has always bred a few

angry people who crossed the line that separates a rugged

individualist from a violent renegade.

But this time it isn't just isolated angry individuals. The

outbursts and the intimidation are orchestrated, often by outsiders

using sophisticated, high-tech methods of organization and persuasion.

This time, in short, it's politics.

The threats in New Mexico are not just part of a political

movement. They come from local government. The Catron County

Commission adopted a resolution earlier this year warning that

proposed federal rangeland reforms could lead to "physical

violence." And with the approval of county officials, residents

have formed a quasi-official "militia."

According to Salter, that militia threatened to "force an armed

confrontation" last June if the state Environment Department and

the Forest Service insisted on inspecting the water surrounding the

proposed re-activation of a gold mill by local rancher Dick Manning.

Though the mill is on public land, Salter said, Manning has blocked it

off. So Salter slid under Manning's gate to do inspections -- and was told

that if he did it again he "would be arrested and put in jail" under the

terms of one of Catron County's new ordinances.

Catron County has passed a collection of laws that together

represent a modern version of Nullification, last espoused by John

C. Calhoun in the 1830s. The county is not likely to fare any

better than Calhoun, who lost his argument that state

"interposition" could block enforcement of a federal law within

that state's borders.

The Oregon threats also are connected to a political movement.

After Cameron arrested rancher Dwight Hammond last Aug. 3 on

charges that he interfered with federal officers, some 400 people

gathered at the Senior Center in the nearby town of Burns. Most of

them were local residents, but Chuck Cushman was there too.

Cushman is the director of the American Land Rights Association,

one of the oldest of the "wise use" groups, which oppose

environmental protection. According to a report in the Aug. 12

Portland Oregonian, Cushman warned against violence. But he also

urged his audience to maintain pressure on federal officials.

"One of the things they did," said Cameron, "they handed out a

list of key people on our staff and their home numbers and sought

to make life fairly miserable for the federal employees."

Cameron said his wife was so frightened by telephoned threats against

their children that she left home for several days while he was away.

In a telephone interview, Cameron also said Hammond had

threatened to shoot him at the time of the arrest.

The professional politicians who are helping to organize the anger, and

sometimes to orchestrate the threats, are a disparate bunch. Some of the

"wise use" groups are well financed and well connected.

Leaders of one of the largest groups, People for the West, have

bragged that they get most of their money from mining and forest

products firms. Others are supported by the real estate industry.

Still others are essentially one-person operations, with

letterheads but no members to speak of, which scramble to stay in

existence through speaking fees and selling advertisements for

newsletters that come out irregularly.

The threats and the attempts at intimidation reflect another recent

Western reality. The 1980s, rather like the 1880s, were a time of

lawlesness in this part of the country, lawlessness from both sides

of the resource-use dispute.

Environmental extremists -- "eco-terrorists" -- arguably started

it years ago by driving large nails into trees that were to be

logged. The nails can break the teeth of a chain saw and injure the

person wielding the saw.

From the other side, much of the lawbreaking had the tacit

support of the U.S. government. During the Reagan and Bush

administrations, Forest Service officials and other federal agents

often were prevented from enforcing the laws if timber, mining or

ranching interests objected.

When Jack Ward Thomas, the new Forest Service chief, told his

employees last year that part of their job was to "obey the law,"

he was implicitly acknowleding that his agency had not always

followed that practice in the past.

The threats of violence and intimidation in California also come

from a political organization. The Sahara Club, made up largely of

off-road vehicle recreationists, is one of the smaller "wise use"

organizations. In fact, it may be one of the one-man bands of the

movement, the one man being Rick Sieman, its president and the

author of its newsletter.

Most of the newsletter's suggestions for intimidation are

directed against environmentalists, not federal officials. But

often there is no distinction. The newsletter urges followers to

disrupt meetings and "use dirty tricks," such as calling

adversaries late at night.

"Do not do anything illegal," it says. But then it brings up -- without

specifically advocating such moves -- steps such as "letting the air out of

all four tires," squeezing hot pepper in someone's face and getting "large

and aggressive people ... to follow eco-freaks out of the meetings and

confront them in dark parking lots."

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