An Idaho county jury recently assessed $1.15 million in damages against 12 Earth First! protesters, one of the largest civil awards ever levied against environmental rebels.


The Oct. 30 verdict was made in connection with construction delays and $20,000 in damage to a D-8 Caterpillar tractor, a rubber-tired skidder and an excavator in the Nez Perce National Forest in the summer of 1993.


The eight-woman, four-man jury awarded the plaintiff, Highland Enterprises of Grangeville, a logging road-building contractor, about $150,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. Highland had sought about $14 million in total damages.


Defense attorneys said they were eager to file an appeal for retrial.


D. Bernard Zaleha, a Boise attorney who represented 11 of the 12 defendants, contends that the plaintiff never linked any of the protesters to equipment damage. "There was an absolute failure to connect the two," he said. "The rest was guilt by association."


Zaleha says his clients were liable only for delays associated with three separate acts of civil disobedience in which protesters buried themselves in a road, chained themselves to a gate and sat atop wooden tripods.


Leslie Hemstreet, co-editor of the Earth First! Journal in Eugene, Ore., said the amount of the verdict was staggering. "The magnitude is so huge I can't even conceive of it."


Most of the defendants do not have jobs and will have trouble making payments, she predicted. If the defendants lose on appeal, they will be liable for damages for their lifetimes unless they file for bankruptcy protection, Zaleha said. Three filed for bankruptcy before the jury reached its verdict.


Followers of Earth First! have been protesting logging in the 78,000-acre Cove-Mallard roadless area since 1992. The densely timbered area lies adjacent to the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Salmon River ecosystem. Attempts to halt logging on environmental grounds have failed in federal court so far, although one case is still pending.


Meanwhile, contractors have proceeded with building about 27 miles of dirt road and logging about 7 million board-feet of timber, roughly enough to build 700 homes.


The Idaho county lawsuit is one of a number of similar cases elsewhere in the West in which timber corporations or logging contractors have filed so-called "SLAPP" suits in hopes of halting protests, says Earth First!'s Hemstreet. SLAPP stands for Suit Litigation Against Public Participation. But she said protests will continue as long as logging goes on in the Cove-Mallard area.


"This is the biggest roadless area in the lower 48," says Karen Pickett, a defendant in the case. "If you're concerned about wildlife habitat, this is one of the most important areas in the country."


The defendants and their total share of monetary damages in the case are as follows:


* Billi Jo Barker, 30, Harmony, Maine, $100,000.


* Jake Kreilick, 35, Missoula, Mont., $100,000.


* Peggy Sue McRae, 44, Friday Harbor, Wash., $100,000.


* Karen Pickett, 46, Canyon, Calif., $100,000.


*Jennifer Prichard, 31, Moscow, Idaho, $100,000.


* Erik Ryberg, 31, Fruitvale, Idaho, $100,000.


* Robert Borden, 31, Athens, Maine, $91,666.


* Beatrix Jenness, 26, Montrose, W.Va., $91,666.


* Lawrence Juniper, 28, Bolinas, Calif., $91,666.


* Peter Leusch, 30, Driggs, Idaho, $91,666.


* Michael Vernon, 45, Athens, Maine, $91,666.


* Dana Wright, 22, Waldoboro, Maine, $91,666.





* Steve Stuebner





The writer works in Boise, Idaho.