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February 27, 2006
Activists decry arson but fear its backlash
Ecologists disagree on whether legal action will affect
the law-abiding members of the movement
By PAUL FATTIG
Mail Tribune

Whether the recent arrests of extremists suspected in 16 arson cases throughout the West will have a chilling effect on the mainstream environmental movement remains to be seen.

Dominick DellaSala, forest ecologist who heads the World Wildlife Fund's office in Ashland, said he believes the arrests will have little impact. The incidents represent actions by a tiny radical minority in a different time and place, he said.

The arsons occurred from 1996 to 2001 and were claimed by the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.

"I don't think this whole issue is having any impact because this is not how environmental actions are done in our time and day," he said.

"These are criminal actions. No one in the (mainstream) environmental community supports anything like that. It doesn't reflect on us at all."

But Karen Pickett, a longtime Earth First! organizer from the San Francisco Bay Area, believes the arrests should be alarming to anyone in the environmental movement as well as others who may express views contrary to the Bush administration.

"There is definitely an attempt to paint these people as terrorists," she said. "It begs the question who is next, and how civil disobedience will be treated in the future."

Several other prominent local environmentalists, not wanting to be associated with the accused arsonists, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Noting that the vast majority of environmental activists always have supported only legal actions, DellaSala said the movement's main focus is on scientific-based education that motivates those concerned about the Earth.

"Nobody is going to win the hearts and minds of people by doing criminal acts," he said. "This is not how the very important environmental crisis we face will be resolved. This is not how the environmental solutions we need for our communities and our nation will be found.

"This is a fringe element -- it always has been," he said of those who committed the arsons.

Pickett agrees with DellaSala that the mainstream movement continues.

"I don't think the planning for campaigns has changed," she said. "The vast majority are using tactics that are legitimate. Civil disobedience is a legitimate tactic.

"But they (prosecutors) are making this big sweep to say there is a vast conspiracy," she added. "This is a campaign to limit ways people can speak out. It threatens all of our rights."

Pickett is familiar with acts of civil disobedience: She was among protesters arrested for trespassing during the Bald Mountain Road blockade in the Siskiyou National Forest in April 1983. She also has been involved in numerous environmental protests over the years, both in Southern Oregon and Northern California.

An activist since 1983 in Earth First!, a group she said supports only nonviolent direct action, Pickett is also with the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters. Based in Berkeley, Calif., the group is working to protect and preserve a portion of coastal redwood forests in Northern California.

"Terrorism is a real thing," Pickett said. "It includes acts of violence to intimidate. Most people interpret terrorism as a direct threat to someone."

The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the 9/11 attacks were obvious acts of terrorism, she said.

"But this is sabotage -- this is not terrorism," she insisted. "The first thing we need to do is call it what it really is."

She noted that none of those arrested in connection with the arson cases were charged with terrorism in the indictments.

"These were acts of sabotage to affect businesses," she added. "They were not designed to threaten people."

However, the owners of the targeted firms as well as law enforcement officials emphatically disagree. They believe the arsons were acts of threat and intimidation.

Drew Wade, spokesman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., said the ELF/ALF arsons should not be viewed as legitimate actions to further social movements.

"There is a clear difference between advocacy protected by the constitution and violent criminal activity," he said.

"Arson and the illegal use of destructive devices are crimes," Wade said. "It's very simple."

Pickett, who said she is familiar with some of the people accused, questions an indictment that the alleged arsonists referred to themselves as "the family."

"As far as I know, there is no truth to it," she said. "These people do not call themselves 'the family.' "

That term alludes to the Charles Manson family, she said, referring to a cult that killed seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, in 1969.

"They are trying to portray them as a shadowy, covert family," she said of those charged in the arsons. "That's very much in keeping with FBI shenanigans."

Pickett believes some of those charged in the arson cases will be cleared of wrongdoing.

"With these grand juries, a lot of what has come out in indictments has been repeated verbatim in the press," she said. "But these are just charges, accusations.

"What happened to people's presumption of innocence until proven guilty?"

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at fattig@mailtribune.com .

Reporter Mark Freeman contributed to this story.
 

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