If it is rough to be a rancher, miner or logger in the West today, neither is it a picnic to be an environmentalist. Individuals who want to leave the next generation a legacy of clean air and water, of old-growth trees and essential habitat, are being branded radical troublemakers.
More and more, especially in rural areas, enviros are encountering harassment, trespassing, vandalism, property damage and denial of services at the hands of angry activists in that movement known ironically as "wise use." Where, we wonder, does free speech end and intimidation begin?
In 1992, my opposition to cattle damage on public lands brought lynching threats from ranchers in rural Latah County, Idaho. I made the mistake of pointing out how waters are fouled and soils eroded when cows, their ancestors bred in wet Asia, are loosed upon the arid West.
My 1993 collection of edited essays, proposing an international park in the North Cascades, brought out conspiracy theorists in droves. (Remember Timothy McVeigh?) Do not collaborate with Canada! Detractors alleged that such a park would be patrolled by United Nations troops.
In 1996, the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge was seeking public input on its management plans. My wife and I planned to give our input and then camp peaceably in the park, but hostile locals scowled and copied our license plate conspicuously. We slept elsewhere that night.
Many of us have been named in the blame game that too often passes for commentary in the opinion columns of the daily Spokane newspaper. Hot potato bombs are tossed across the Idaho border. We have seen the civic discourse, diminished by ad hominem attacks, dwindle.
In the present century, radical wise-use ideas have been mainstreamed. Logging and farming lobbyists have written legislation for Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R-ID) and the Idaho Legislature. Forest-products company Boise-Cascade, ensconced in the capital, has changed its name to, simply, Boise.
Last year, the largest grower and burner of grass seed on the Rathdrum Prairie sponsored a bill that would absolve field burners from any damages incurred by the chemicals and particulates from burning fields. Farmers will no longer be liable if respiratory disease victims downwind from their smoke clouds suffer injury or die. Some state legislators operate ranches and farms, grow cattle and grass, pollute public water and air; then, switching hats, they sponsor bills that legally exempt them.
Such acts have sent us searching for radicals. They abide in state capitals and the White House, slyly unraveling decades of environmental progress from such historic bills as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act.
To bring such problems into sharper focus, consider the word "ecoterrorist" worming its way into our dialogues. Several weeks ago, an ecoterrorist registry was proposed for legislation in Washington state. Thanks to the Patriot Act, eco-activists might be registered like sex offenders.
No one has been injured in an act of ecotage, but prevailing political winds and right-wing advantage in the American media make possible a semantic sleight-of-hand that equates Greenpeace members with Middle East "suiciders." What an irony last week when our government cleansed the event of the deadly ricin mailed to the U.S. Senate by declaring it a non-terrorist act.
If there is any doubt that irresponsible media can both dumb down the discourse and pump up the volume, consider the example of Flathead County, Mont. There, a self-inspired wise-use shock-jock named John Stokes has used his radio show to advise listeners to take their revenge on environmental organizers in the towns of Kalispell, Creston, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
Stokes moved to Montana from Washington, where he had reviled our North Cascades international park plan a decade before. Hiding behind his banner of free speech on radio station KGEZ, Stokes proudly and openly damns enviros and even gives out their addresses, egging his listeners on, inviting reprisals and violence.
Remember the Rush Limbaughs in grade school who beat up on the weaker kids? The Montana Human Rights Network, based in Helena, considers the harassment of enviros by wise-users enough of a problem that it issued a 2002 report on the subject, "School Yard Bullies." Verbal assaults in person and on air, e-mail threats, intimidations: these are the wise-users' stock-in-trade.
TV, radio and the print media do their part by continuing to mainstream the Republican Revolution initiated in 1994. Enviros are a favorite target. Newt Gingrich might have fallen from grace, but his legacy lives on in the vilification of conservation and conservationists.
All this energy, all these resources, directed against people who simply want to preserve the remaining ancient trees, water and air for future generations. What a radical concept.