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The Environmental Hit List

Activists Put Up Their Dukes as Summer Approaches

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Like bears emerging from hibernation, spring means that environmentalists once again come out in full force. Although many environmentalists wrangle over policies year-round, the most dramatic and graphic battles over our state's wild spaces and resources are often bookended between Memorial and Labor Day.

Two summers ago, Portland was transfixed for eleven days as an activist staked himself out on a narrow two-story ledge adjacent to the US Forest Service offices. There to protest proposed logging practices at Eagle Creek, the protester refused to leave until bureaucrats reconsidered their plans to clearcut a swath of towering evergreens. (This past September, that same protester, Tre Arrow, shocked and horrified the public when he fell sixty feet from a tree sit in a coastal forest.)

Last summer, the fight raged once again over how to best use Oregon's natural resources--and who should make those decisions--when drought-stricken farmers in the Klamath Falls basin were outraged that dams wouldn't be open to help saturate their parched fields. The U.S. Fish & Game Department ordered that water had to be conserved to protect a rare suckerfish. That same tension between jobs and conservationists most likely will also define several fights in Oregon again this summer.

But since last year, there have also been two significant changes that will impact the focus and tenor of environmental battles: The growing confidence of the Bush Administration, and the philosophic fallout from the attacks on the World Trade Center.

What follows is a preview of the hot-button issues for this spring and summer.


Critical Habitat

In terms of sheer territory, the most pressing environmental fight is over so-called "critical habitat" designations for public lands. Think Spotted Owl in the early '90s: Conservationists successfully argued it is not enough to simply protect an endangered animal. What the Endangered Species Act provides is protection for the forest or waterways that endangered fauna depend on for mating and migration.

Although the struggle over "critical habitat" subsided for the past decade, since last summer, this debate has emerged as the most acute threat to more than 100,000 acres of protected forests and wetlands in west coast states. The true catalyst for these potential rollbacks is the Bush Administration. Pressured by lawsuits from developers, snowmobile associations and all-terrain vehicle users, in the past two months the Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Game Department have reneged on 19 critical habitat designations for salmon and coastal birds in Oregon alone.

Even local governmental bodies around Oregon have jumped into the fray, threatening to undo protections for endangered species. The City of Florence submitted legal briefs threatening to sue if thousands of acres are not opened up for recreational and commercial development. That land is currently a protected habitat for the endangered Snowy Plover, a plump coastal bird. In their legal briefs, they call the federal conservationist agents "biased," "dishonest," and "lame."

But, in a late breaking reversal of fortune, on Tuesday Sen. Ron Wyden announced that the US Forest Service will cancel its timber sales from the controversial Eagle Creek. This culminates almost a five-year long battle. Although some environmentalists around town expressed skepticism, most called the cancellation a major victory. Moreover, the announcement came just one week after Rep. Earl Blumenauer unveiled a proposal to set aside 400,000 acres in Oregon as wilderness, including the 2000 acre spread at Eagle Creek. (As a wilderness designation, as opposed to a national park or forest, the land would be protected from any sort of commercial use.) Called the 2002 Oregon Wild Proposal, the plan will now be presented to Congress. (For more information on the proposed wilderness designations, see www.oregonwild.org)


Eco-Terrorism

Sabotage has been operational protocol for rabid environmentalists for more than 20 years. Yet it was not until 1998 that the Earth Liberation Front truly made eco-terrorists a formidable concern. At that time, the ELF claimed responsibility for $12 million in arson damage to a partially constructed Vail, Colorado resort.

Since then, eco-terrorism has been a steady presence; much of that firebrand activism has been centered in the Pacific Northwest. Last Easter, ELF claimed responsibility for putting two fire-bombs in the "Easter baskets" of two Ross Island Sand & Gravel construction trucks. A week later, they torched a research lab at the University of Washington.

But, in the past few months, it seems as if the trend toward eco-terrorism has ebbed. FBI agents claim their policing efforts have been successful. Last June, for example, a Eugene judge sentenced one teenager to 23 years in prison for his role in firebombing an auto dealership. (The convicted arsonist said that he targeted SUVs because of their contribution to air pollution.) Also, since September 11, a congressional subcommittee on terrorism has orchestrated a wide-reaching investigation into eco-terrorism; they have likened groups like ELF to Hamas and the IRA.

But insiders claim that law enforcement efforts and a shifting national attitude have done little to deter activists. In fact, one claimed that most have shifted their attention to protesting the U.S. involvement in the so-called "war against terrorism."

Whatever the underlying reasons, over the past six months, there have been only six crimes associated with eco-activism, compared to 27 in the prior six months.


Chemical Waste

For the past several years, the Sierra Club has vehemently opposed the incineration of decommissioned chemical weapons currently stored at the Umatilla Depot. Regardless, the U.S. Army plans to go forward with a burn as early as this summer. In May, the Army will conduct a "test burn," a simulated destruction of the chemical weapons stored in Umatilla. (According to a spokesperson from the Sierra Club, sixty percent of those weapons are mustard gases.)

The Sierra Club has sued to halt the burn; it is believed that the case will go to court in October. In the meantime, the Army has made faint concessions that the burn may be more dangerous than previously anticipated; they recently expanded the aptly titled "kill zone" from a diameter of five miles from the chemical depot to one reaching 21 miles from the proposed burn.

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