Environmental extremists have declared guerrilla war on resource developers…and the environmental mainstream stands by silently.


In the small hours of a clear May night in 1982, a series of explosions shattered the wilderness silence of British Columbia's craggy Vancouver Island. Four blasts sounded from the mountains behind Qualicum Beach, across the island-studded Strait of Georgia, and echoed back from the forested mainland. At dawn, a B.C. Hydro utility construction crew arrived for work at the remote Dunsmuir electrical substation to discover a smoking ruin. Expertly placed dynamite charges had wrought $6 million in damage to four 500-kilovolt transformers.

On May 30, 1981, a $180,000 helicopter leased by Publisher's Paper Company to apply brush control herbicides on a commercial Douglas fir plantation was firebombed near the little forest town of Toledo, Oregon, and reduced to charred aluminum rubble.

Near Missoula, Montana, late in January 1981, Montana Power Company's timber-truss Franklin Bridge was cut with a chainsaw, doused with diesel fuel, and torched, removing motor vehicles' sole access to the boundaries of the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area.

Getty Oil Company workers in June 1982 reported to the Teton County, Wyoming, Sheriff's Department that survey stakes along 2.5 miles of proposed road leading to a wilderness oil drilling site had been removed and survey instruments thrown into a creek. Damages were estimated at $5,000, and the project was delayed.

Four isolated incidents—or are they? Interviews with law enforcement investigators reveal that a growing number of them are convinced that dozens of such unsolved vandalism cases are actually related acts of "ecotage" or eco-terrorism—deliberate destruction of the artifacts of industrial civilization in the name of environmental protection. Some agents think these four incidents are indeed eco-terrorist attacks and may be somehow connected.

Edward Wilson, an inspector with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia, says, for example: "We believe with 85 to 90 percent certainty that the Dunsmuir incident is somehow mixed up with an environmental or ecological type person or group." Before newswires got word of the bombing of the electrical substation that May night, Vancouver radio station CKNW received a phone call from a person claiming to represent 37 antiherbicide protestors who, he said, planned and executed the raid. Within days, a two-page letter claiming responsibility for the blasts arrived at 18 media and citizen group offices in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, England, and Oregon. All the copies of the letter, which purported to be from a group called Direct Action, had been return-addressed to the victim, B.C. Hydro.

To protect their case, the police will not identify the recipients, but I did obtain a copy of the letter, which Canadian authorities regard as authentic. It reads as a literate, almost literary, defense of the attack: "We reject both the ecological destruction and the human oppression inherent in the industrial societies of the corporate machine in the West and the communist machine in the East." After denunciations of patriarchy, imperialism, and industry, the letter ended: "We must make this an insecure and uninhabitable place for capitalists and their projects. This is the best contribution we can make towards protecting the earth and struggling for a liberated society."

The three other incidents appear to have eco-terrorist connections. In the Oregon helicopter firebombing case, two masked women calling themselves members of the People's Brigade for a Healthy Genetic Future called a press conference with Coast News Service television reporters. They had "sabotaged poison-spreading machines as an act of self-defense," they said to the reporters.

Steven Morton, US Forest Service resource assistant at the Missoula Ranger District said of the Franklin bridge-burning, "This seems to be part of a trend to take revenge on cycle users," referring to previous reports of roofing nails being scattered on the Franklin road. Hikers opposed to motorized traffic were suspected but never apprehended.

Two weeks after Getty Oil's road survey had been destroyed, Dave Foreman of the national radical group Earth First organized a rally in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to oppose wilderness oil exploration. He denied that Earth First had anything to do with the road sabotage but told an audience of about 350 that his group was "fully prepared to come back and blockade the canyon" to keep Getty from the drilling site.

The very idea of eco-terrorism may seem to some a preposterous anti-environmentalist invention designed to discredit the programs of established groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. Scoffers have pointed out that industrial vandalism is nothing new in the United States. The standard case usually turns out to be the inspiration of some disgruntled employee taking revenge on the boss or the work of an unbalanced individual tormented by nonideological personal demons. These points are quite true, but mounting evidence indicates that eco-terrorism is no phantom.

Since the rise of the environmental movement in the late 1960s, advocacy of eco-sabotage has become increasingly open. "The Fox" of Kane County, Illinois, was lionized in the early '70s by columnist Mike Royko in the Chicago Daily News for sabotaging steel mill drains, sealing off factories' chimneys, and the like. In Dade County, Florida, the Eco-Commando Force received publicity when it illegally entered sewage plants and tossed yellow dye into sewage tanks to prove that treated waste lingered in open canals longer than claimed. Such individuals and groups glamorized eco-terrorism and established it as an article of faith for the radical element of the environmental movement.

Author Edward Abbey has forged a substantial career crafting tales of eco-terrorism. His 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, traced the adventures of colorful Westerners who became environmentally inspired saboteurs. It garnered such praise from the Denver Post as, "If you ever dreamed of destroying a bridge that spoils a pristine gorge, The Monkey Wrench Gang is for you," and from the National Observer, "It'll make you want to go out and blow up a dam."

Abbey himself has become something of a campus celebrity, frequently called upon to speak out for eco-sabotage. He was invited to Dave Foreman's Earth First rally against Getty's Wyoming drilling project and told receptive listeners that they should "oppose, resist, if necessary subvert" oil companies' access to wilderness lands. "I'm not advocating illegal activity," he added, "unless you're accompanied by your parents, or at night."

Individuals such as Abbey and small groups such as Earth First are not the only open advocates of eco-sabotage. Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Action, a group that now has 25,000 members and an annual budget in excess of $700,000, sponsored a contest for eco-sabotage ideas with results published in the 1971 Pocket Book Ecotage! Ecotage was somewhat whimsically defined in this manual as "the branch of tactical biology that deals with the relationship between living organisms and their technology. It usually refers to tactics which can be executed without injury to life systems."

Environmental Action may be best known as the coordinator of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, but on page 87 of the manual Ecotage! published this advice from a California group:

The best way to slow down or stop a road or a recreational development is to disrupt the survey.…Tools needed are hammers, small folding shovels, and cut brush to erase the original survey sight. If the road is going through private property, you must be careful not to get caught trespassing and be very sure not to cut fences or leave gates open. Slick-bottomed boots should be worn so that no identifiable foot marks are left. If the road is going through public lands, they cannot keep you out; just be careful no one sees you carrying your equipment in. Backpacks are very good for carrying tools in and stakes out of the area.…

Each time part of the project has to be resurveyed, the costs go up. If you are careful and quick, you can tie up a project for many months and buy time for other actions that will stop it.

This set of instructions, coincidentally or not, is an exact description of the modus operandi of the Getty road saboteurs. William Covey, supervisor of Siskiyou National Forest headquartered in southern Oregon, says that similar cases of survey destruction are legion in the West: "The Forest Service is constantly faced with resurfacing roads because of sabotage."

Siskiyou National Forest is also the locale of one of several eco-assaults on people. For despite Environmental Action's reassuring words, ecotage is not always limited to tactics "which can be executed without injury to life systems."

The issue at Siskiyou, in the spring of 1980, was brush-control aerial spraying by the Forest Service, using the herbicide 2,4-D. Environmental organizers held a preliminary "training weekend in nonviolent resistance," according to a bulletin posted in several public places. The Forest Service noted extensive scientific data documenting safe use of the herbicide, but 80 to 100 protestors, including some from neighboring states, occupied parts of the national forest to block the spraying, which the Forest Service would not carry out with people in the area. On Friday, May 2, the protestors were asked by the Forest Service to leave the area. When they refused, two were arrested for trespassing while the rest scrambled away. Forest Service Ranger Jim Schelhaas then negotiated with the protestors and the next day, Saturday, agreed to end aerial spraying, which was about 80 percent complete.

One critical area of young conifers needed to be cleared of competing brush to assure proper growth of timber, however. On Sunday morning, Schelhaas, 3 law enforcement officers, and a ground crew of 12 set out to do the job by hand using backpack 2,4-D spray equipment, which avoids the general spread of chemical with aerial application.

About an hour after the crew began working, some 80 angry protestors who had been alerted by citizen band radio confronted the crew. Many of the protestors were armed with knives and clubs. As Ranger Schelhaas describes the scene, "Each spray crewman was surrounded by shouting, spitting protestors. Spray rigs were yanked from the crew's backs and my people were roughed up. One enraged man charged at me with a large limb held up like an axe, shouting he was going to split my head open, but a sheriff's deputy stopped him. The mob was wrought up and definitely out of control, so there was nothing to do but gather our equipment and leave.

"We got to our vehicles and drove about 200 feet down the road to find it had been blocked by the protestors using logs and rocks. When we got out to remove the debris, the protestors attacked again, this time in a real fury. It was obvious that my crew's lives were in danger. I shouted an offer to end the season's program with no more spraying of 2,4-D, and after lengthy and heated discussion signed a paper to that effect. I've been criticized for that decision, but if I hadn't done it, someone would have surely been badly hurt or killed."

The Forest Service considered pressing assault charges, but Siskiyou Supervisor William Covey, who had not been involved in the attack, decided to try diplomacy. His efforts evidently paid off: in the two years since, antiherbicide activists and the Forest Service have negotiated their differences without incident, and the Forest Service has gone forward with its herbicide program for timber management.

Some 200 miles south, in Plumas National Forest in California, another antiherbicide protestor assaulted a forest officer in the spring of 1982. According to a Forest Service official, during a public meeting on the use of herbicides, one Doug Wellborne came forward from the audience to the speakers' table and confronted Ranger Dewey Riscioni, shouting, "You like 2,4-D so much, you son of a bitch, let's see how you like this!" Wellborne then squirted a liquid from a plastic hand-pump container into Riscioni's face three times and rushed from the room. Riscioni washed himself and continued with the meeting, suffering no injury from the unidentified liquid—there was insufficient residue for proper analysis. Wellborne was later arrested, found guilty of assaulting a forest officer, fined $200, and placed on two years' probation.

Probably the hardest-hit ecotage target is the forest products industry. Destruction of logging equipment, ranging from slashed brake lines on crew buses to arson and dynamiting of large logging machinery, is a chronic problem. Eco-terrorist notes are frequently left on the wreckage. I obtained this example from an Oregon incident:

We are acting on behalf of LIFE. The trees you have cut down were not dead—you have killed living beings. We will NOT allow this. We are incapaciting [sic] your death machines with our actions.…We only hope that during this period of inconvenience, each of you will seriously contemplate what you are doing here. Take a moment to FEEL the Earth around you, the beauty and power. Look at the worldwide destruction and pollution being done to our environment our Earth, our home.

Is the killing worth the false wealth you get???

The message was signed "People of the Earth." Agents of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, involved because of the use of explosives, have been unable to apprehend the saboteurs.

Many ecotage victims, particularly those in private industry, assume there is some underlying conspiracy, controlled perhaps from Moscow or Peking. My years of experience in the environmental movement lead me to believe that this assumption is far from the truth. Environmentalism, even the radical ecotage elements, appears to be an entirely home-grown phenomenon. There are indeed definite linkages between all environmental groups, but a conspiracy theory comes from a failure to grasp the true nature of movements.

Anthropologists and sociologists have for many years studied movements in general and the environmental movement in particular. Two noted scholars, Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine, have spelled out the actual workings of movements in numerous scientific journals and in their books, People, Power, Change: Movements of Social Transformation, and Lifeway Leap: The Dynamics of Change in America. Their studies may cast some light on the issue of ecoterrorism.

Gerlach and Hine discovered five factors crucial to the growth of a movement: its organizational structure, favored patterns of recruitment, ideology, personal commitment, and opposition. Movements are not organized according to the familiar bureaucratic pyramid structure with a central authority, hierarchies of leadership, and clear channels of command as found in business and government. Movements instead have a unique structure characterized by the acronym SPIN, as Gerlach and Hine would have it, which stands for Segmented, Polycephalous, Ideological Networks.

Movements are segmentary—composed of many cells or organizations, each of which may emphasize a different aspect of the movement's goals. They are decentralized, or polycephalous ("many-headed"), which means that no one leads a whole movement or can even speak for a whole movement. Rather, each group or cell leader influences his or her own group and may also form coalitions with other segments of the movement.

Movements have an ideology, a set of beliefs that act as the "glue" binding the whole structure together. The environmental movement's ideology centers around certain ideas borrowed from the biological sciences and transformed into social ideals: the notion of an ecosystem, earth as a closed system (spaceship earth), limited resources, the need for radically altered lifestyles to avoid ecocatastrophe (a thoroughgoing cultural transformation to a no-growth or "steady-state" economy), and massive centralized control to implement these social changes.

(It is ironic that even though most environmental groups individually emphasize cooperative communal living and the decentralization of power, they all lobby for strong federal controls and trust the bureaucratic model of environmental protection. As environmental philosopher William Ophuls expressed this part of the ideology in Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, the alternatives are "authoritative rule or ecological ruin." Likewise, in an essay in Environmental Politics he wrote: "The problem that the tragedy of the commons forces us to confront is, in fact, the core issue of political philosophy: how to protect or advance the interests of the collectivity as a whole when the individuals that make it up…behave in a selfish, greedy and quarrelsome fashion. The only answer is a sufficient measure of coercion." This emphasis on collectivism and coercion is a fundamental but seldom-noted feature of environmental ideology as reflected in the movement's behavior.)

Movements are reticulate (networked) in a variety of ways: even though single groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Friends of the Earth may be structured according to the standard pyramidal hierarchy of command, many of these groups are loosely networked together through individual participants' shared overlapping memberships. Industrialists targeted by environmentalist campaigns frequently comment that half a dozen local environmental groups consist of the same dozen people. Networks are also formed by personal ties between leaders of different groups. The leadership of the Sierra Club, for example, has intimate familiarity with the leadership of the National Audubon Society, to the point that lobbyists for one will occasionally quit and go to work for another with no need for introductions or a break-in period. Lobbyist Brock Evans went from the Sierra Club to the Audubon Society with no difficulty, so networked were the issues the two groups had pursued. Linkages are also formed by "traveling evangelists" who move across the whole network contributing to its cohesion and ideological unity. In this way, an idea used by protestors in New York may suddenly spring up in California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in the wake of a solitary traveler. The environmental movement's network is also a very effective communication grapevine and logistical financial support system.

A key point missed by most analysts of the environmental movement is their need for opposition. Gerlach and Hine found that, as in most movements, the environmental movement embraces a typical "we-they," ingroup-outgroup orientation. As the two researchers put it, "As a kite flies against the wind, so a movement grows with the strength of its opposition. Opposition, either real or merely perceived, is necessary to promote a movement, to offer a basis for its commitment process, and it is a force against which to unite its disparate segments." James Watt discovered that his policies as secretary of the Interior Department made him one of the environmental movement's most powerful fundraisers since the days of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. The "mutual escalation of opposition and commitment is a hard fact of movement dynamics," note Gerlach and Hine, and "a powerful weapon in the hands of those who understand it." Movement groups actively seek out opponents and provoke attacks, then use the attacks to gain greater commitment from members and sympathizers, a fact recognized for decades by sociologists who use the term "struggle group" to describe movement organizations.

Radical elements of the environmental movement that openly endorse eco-terrorism (but deny actual terrorist acts) at least encourage ecotage and may in fact participate in it, as do factions of the antipesticide segment. Even this observation does not tie the old-line conservation groups to ecotage, but I have spoken with law enforcement agents who wonder if there is not in reality some connection. Gerlach once more points us to research of use: he found that it is possible to range the various groups in any movement along a continuum of conservative groups to radical according to means and goals. While the more conservative groups publicly deplore the "impetuous newcomers" and claim that radicals will "ruin all of the things that we have accomplished and lose us the good will of the public we have so painstakingly cultivated," Gerlach discovered this telling fact: "The more mid-range and conservative groups, either purposely or inadvertently, use this radical action to spearhead their own drives and make their own demands and actions seem comparatively reasonable." In short, the more moderate environmental groups need ecoterrorists and other radicals to further their own advances toward social change.

I confirmed this finding quite by accident after a 1980 speaking tour during which I had quoted from the movement's philosophers such as Ophuls, Garrett Hardin, and others who appear to have an antitechnology bias against industrial civilization or who prescribe coercion as the social paradigm of their various ecotopias. Michael McCloskey, the Sierra Club's executive director, sent me an angry letter complaining that, "by implication, one would also be led to believe that the Sierra Club was committed 'to the destruction of industrial civilization.'" I responded by offering the suggestion: "Leave no question where you stand. People can't tell; they constantly ask me if the Club is out to destroy America. I tell them to ask you." I also advised that the Sierra Club should "publicly disavow environmental advocates who by word or deed act to destroy industrial civilization," noting that club publications accepted articles from and advertisements for various ecotage advocates. McCloskey's response was enlightening in view of Gerlach's research: "We no more have an obligation to run around denouncing extremists using the environmental movement than Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to go around spending most of their time condemning the views of left or right wing extremists."

Political observers will notice that McCloskey's assessment is far off the mark. Party whips in Congress constantly pressure straying members, and even environmentalist arch-foe James Watt rides herd on his conservative supporters when they become too extreme. A January 23, 1982, Newhouse News Service story headlined "Watt Spanks New Right for Pouting" describes how Watt checked criticisms of President Reagan from conservatives who thought his programs were "too weak and halting."

But this episode makes the point that even midrange environmental groups can promote eco-terrorism indirectly without open advocacy or actual participation by publishing and advertising the works of extremists and by refusing to dissociate themselves from such people. The research of Gerlach and Hine makes the benefits of eco-terrorism to midrange groups quite transparent. Radical environmentalists tend to believe that one cannot work within the system to change it, since they feel it to be responsible for not only pollution and ecological destruction but also the major ills of poverty, racism, and war. The radicals' solution, as pointed out by environmentalists Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway in Political Ecology, is "structural attack on the political and economic system itself."

Victims of ecotage will generally not discuss the problem with reporters, fearing reprisals and further destruction. Law enforcement is difficult and frustrating because of the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of ecoteurs and the diffuse network structure of the environmental movement, which can easily hide dozens of such people in its large membership and among its legitimate staffs.

My investigation of eco-terrorism has led me to the conclusion that there is a good deal more to the environmental protection movement than its advocates care to admit. The environmental protection motives are clearly only part of the movement's ideology, and those goals appear to be inimical to free minds and free markets. How else can one interpret the constant offering of coercion as a social model by environmental philosophers or the constant lobbying for command-and-control measures by environmental activists? Eco-terrorism is a twofold weapon in achieving coercive command and control: it first burdens private enterprise with economic loss and psychological intimidation and secondly provides the midrange political pressure groups with a perspective by which to judge their own proposals as comparatively reasonable.

The problem of eco-terrorism is real and of multi-million-dollar proportions. It has serious implications for the future. Our society ought to be concerned about it.

Ron Arnold is the author of At the Eye of the Storm: James Watt and the Environmentalists.