Unabombers Everywhere: The Radical Green Connection
Ric Valois comes home from running errands and sets both his sidearms on the table. He greets his wife Fay, gives his dogs a snack, and changes into his comfortable shoes -- a pair of well-worn combat boots. On the wall hang an assortment of shotguns and rifles, well-oiled and ready for use. Valois, a Vietnam vet and former ranch hand, is one of a growing number of Montana dissidents who believes corruption has overrun the federal government, and is willing to take the law into his own hands. But Valois' radicalism isn't based on the Bible or right wing rhetoric. He's an environmentalist. The leader of the nation's first armed eco-militia, the Environmental Rangers, Valois predicts that it will take an armed confrontation to turn the tide of environmental destruction. "This war to save the planet isn't a metaphoric war," Valois says. "It is the gun that is actually sweeping the world clean, and that's a reality that environmentalists have not taken into account." When Valois starts talking about the battle he's preparing for, he of course says that he'd rather find a peaceful solution. But his main thrust echoes the Unabomber's manifesto -- violence can be used to force society's return to wild nature. Neither Valois nor the Unabomber, though, is the first environmentalist to use such inflammatory language. Fifteen years ago, Dave Foreman, a founder of Earth First!, openly advocated the use of bombs -- albeit against property rather than individuals. These parallels in tactical rhetoric have not escaped the national media or the FBI, both of whom have been looking into connections between environmentalists and the Unabomber over the past several weeks. On the opinion page of USA Today last week, columnist Linda Chavez called for an investigation of the Sierra Club, because Foreman serves on the group's board of directors -- and once, in a fit of hyperbolic vitriol, called for the blood of timber industry executives. "The Unabomber may well have taken his inspiration from the writings of Earth First!'s radical fringe," Chavez wrote, citing the Unabomber's 1995 fatal bombing of a timber lobbyist in Sacramento, Calif. On the April 5 broadcast of Peter Jennings' World News Tonight, ABC television reported -- on the basis of an FBI leak -- that Theodore Kaczynski, who had just been arrested as the Unabomber, attended a activist conference in Missoula, Mont. Again the Earth First! connection was made, and radical environmentalists were tainted by an alleged association with the Unabomber. According to organizers, Kaczynski's name does not appear on their list of conference attendees. But ABC reported that the FBI, which has monitored the actions of radical environmentalists for at least 10 years, had its own list. The FBI refuses to comment on the investigation; a spokesman in Washington D.C. says its against policy to discuss "pending investigations." Eco-activists have been scandalized by such connections between their work and the death and destruction caused by the Unabomber's 18-year reign of terror. Even the most radical environmentalists reject murder as a political tool. However, Western greens are torn. While they are trying to keep cool in the media spotlight -- and decide what place Valois and his Rangers have in the movement -- they are carefully trying to keep attention focused on the Northern Rockies. Western environmentalists are in the midst of planning a summer which may add to Montana's national profile as a repository of radical activism. They are planning to break the law in a series of non-violent direct actions designed to focus attention on the public lands debate while physically preventing loggers from getting at the last of the nation's old growth trees. But they are universally committed to non-violence as a means of achieving their goals.The days of torching bulldozers and driving spikes into trees are gone, according to Mike Roselle -- another founder of Earth First!. Those tactics, Roselle says, are no longer effective -- and he palls at the prospect of physical violence, even property destruction, which he says has no place in the movement. But it was not always that way. In 1985, Roselle spiked a stand of old growth in Oregon -- the first time that tactic had ever been employed. After a couple of weeks, he says, to prevent any danger to loggers and millworkers, he told the press about his stunt. With no witnesses, the law had no recourse. "At the time, it seemed the right thing to do," Roselle says. "It was never intended to stop logging. But it sent a good message -- that old growth wasn't being protected." Over the years, Roselle says, there have been fewer cases where tree-spiking has been an option. The court of public opinion ceased to tolerate the tactic, and law enforcement came down heavily on violators. So in 1990, Earth First! officially called for an end to spiking. Lawsuits, over the past decade, have stopped more timber sales than tree-spiking ever did. But with last summer's passage of the notorious Salvage Rider, environmentalists lost that tool as well. The legislation, prescribed by industry scientists and conservative Western legislators, suspended conservationists' ability to appeal timber sales through the judicial system. And now the U.S. Forest Service is gearing up to fulfill its expanded quota of timber. To date, in Region 1 alone -- which includes Montana, parts of Idaho, North and South Dakota -- 96 million board feet of timber covering more than 25 million acres have been offered; another 277 million board feet are expected to be offered before October. Earth First! and other groups have camped out for five years in the Cove Mallard Timber Sale, in the heart of Idaho's Nez Perce National Forest, watching for violations of environmental law, filing lawsuits, and disrupting road-building and logging operations. Earth First!er Robert "Ramon" Ammon, a former insurance salesman from New York, owns a small piece of land close to the operation. From their camp at that base, activists have staged classic EF! actions: burying themselves to their waists in logging roads, "tree-sitting" for days on platforms 50 feet above the ground, and chaining themselves to road gates and Forest Service vehicles. The Cove Mallard sale is as big as any in the region's history. Eighty-one million board feet of timber are scheduled to be logged in the heart of a pristine wilderness roughly the size of Ohio. Known as the Greater Salmon-Selway because of the two rivers that run through it, the area is the largest remaining roadless area in the lower 48. It is the last vast intact temperate forest ecosystem in the country -- and environmentalists say the Cove Mallard sale will destroy it.I was there at that meeting in the fall of 1994, which Kaczynski reportedly attended. I heard the strident warnings that the destruction of temperate forests, such as the Nez Perce, could mean global devastation. The activists spoke passionately, pointing out that clean water, clean air, the continued survival of thousands of species of flora and fauna -- and possibly all humanity -- relies on maintaining what's left. It is possible, if not likely, that those words could have stirred Ted Kaczynski. If the alleged Unabomber was indeed at that meeting, he would have been barely distinguishable from the other bearded-and-disheveled activists. Kaczynski looks an awful lot like just another environmental radical from Montana.Roselle was arrested last year, along with Missoula activist Tom Fullum, as the two blocked a logging road near Cove Mallard. Their arrest came just months after the Idaho legislature had passed what is known as the "Earth First! law," which makes it illegal to interfere with an approved timber sale. But they were not tried under that law -- nor has anybody else been. Their case was dismissed. This summer, Cove Mallard will be the site of the national Earth First! rendezvous: ten days of environmental strategizing, networking, merry-making and political action. Ric Valois has visited the Cove Mallard camp. He says that his group is committed to protecting Cove Mallard, in addition to the Rocky Mountain Front (where he lives) and a few other key spots in the Northern Rockies. He intimates that the Rangers have a variety of guerrilla strategies, but he will not explain them. He says that a willingness to hug the Earth, live with bug bites, and think independently can defeat any enemy -- adding that combat experience is also essential for any successful mission. The Environmental Rangers, Valois says, are comprised primarily of Vietnam-era Army Rangers, Marines and Navy Seals, as well as others with less military experience. A combat veteran himself, Valois also says that he and his comrades have techniques for avoiding infra-red night vision and outsmarting other technology employed by U.S. military and law enforcement. Valois' presence and rhetoric make some environmentalists uncomfortable; Howard "Twilly" Cannon, a Greenpeace skipper and environmental organizer based out of Missoula, says he sees no point in tolerating the kind of rhetoric Valois employs. It debases the discussion and the movement, he says. "It's like being half pregnant," Cannon says, "there is no partial non-violence -- and that extends to rhetoric, in my mind." Over the past decade and more, Cannon has been no stranger to direct political action. He sailed to Nicaragua as a relief worker in 1983, and was arrested last year for disrupting the testing of French nukes in the South Pacific. Together, he and Roselle raise funds for a non-profit organization that gives money to direct action groups, and this summer he will be directing an action camp in Montana's Bitterroot Valley. But non-violence is a key element in Cannon's political strategy. "The only way to survive and succeed is to be different -- not just to act different," Cannon says. "Rhetoric like Valois' just comes back and bites you in the ass. We have to embrace non- violence." Roselle -- who also is firmly committed to non-violence -- defends Valois' talk. "Ric contributes to the quality of the debate," Roselle says, adding that when Valois visits Earth First! camps, he leaves his guns at home. "I don't think you have to embrace non-violence as a lifestyle in order to use it as a tool of political dissent," Roselle says. "The problem we have with most people is getting them passionate about these issues. We struggle to get people to write letters to their congressmen, never mind picking up arms." Valois, in return, expresses mixed admiration for practitioners of non-violence. "The average Earth First!er who sits on the blockade is ten times the hero I could ever be," he says. "You can't go out and act offensively, only defensively." Ever the warrior, though, Valois ultimately rejects non- violence: "It's just a safety net. The next time a policeman puts you in an unnecessary pressure hold, I say, elbow him in the eye -- educate him -- he'll think about it the next time he walks up to that line."Inflammatory rhetoric lies at the heart of the main charge linking radical environmentalists with the Unabomber. Both ABC and USA Today referred to the fact that one of the Unabomber's victims may have come from something called the "Eco- Fucker Hit List," which was published in the anarchist/ environmentalist 'zine Live Wild or Die. Editors of the EF! Journal say the whole movement is being impugned, and take pains to distance themselves from the "hit list." Deni Elliott, a professor of media ethics at the University of Montana, says it's a shame that the media is trying to make the environmental movement take responsibility for the Unabomber's activities. "I am concerned about any movement being blamed for the act of an individual," Elliott says. "It would not be logical to hold the anti-abortion movement responsible for the action of a gunman. The fact that a belief can lead to an act of terrorism says nothing about that belief." Twilly Cannon disagrees. He says that movements can be held responsible by the public for both the words and actions of their associates. When it comes to the Unabomber, in the media age, he says, those associations don't even have to be real. "As environmentalists, we're not that concerned about substantive links, because there are no substantive links," Cannon says. "But we are concerned because it looks like the federal government is coming after us." "The weird thing about public consciousness," he says, "years from now, people will still associate the bombing with environmentalists."Ric Valois doesn't much care about what the media or the public have to say. Valois says his concerns extend to all the birds and the beasts, but ultimately most humans have nothing to do with the outcome of the environmental struggle. "People who object to fighting words are placated and anesthetized. We're addressing a higher argument," he says. "In any war, the majority doesn't have much to do with it. It's the preservationist minority versus the minority formed by extractive industries." For the record, Valois says the Unabomber is not an Environmental Ranger.