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Know the West

Terrorist tactics always undermine progress


"We're always a little afraid." That's what a staunch environmentalist told me shortly after I retired from the Idaho Legislature and left a big-firm law practice to work for the Idaho Conservation League.

"Afraid of what?" I asked him.

So he patiently explained certain realities of being an environmentalist in an Idaho Panhandle timber town. This is a town where newspaper editorials read like industry press releases, and the county commission defied Forest Service management of national forest lands by passing unconstitutional ordinances.

I thought about my colleague in the Panhandle when I heard about the Oct. 19 arson fire that destroyed a ski lodge and damaged lifts in Vail, Colo. He'd taught me that saying unpopular things out loud in certain places held risks we urban Boiseans couldn't really imagine: business boycotts, anonymous phone calls, muttered threats.

By speaking out for lower timber cuts, cleaner rivers and social change, my environmentalist colleague publicly challenged a lot of power. But, like many rural Idahoans, he kept raising his voice because he believed the rule of law would keep him and his property safe. He risked being unpopular because the law not only encouraged his protest, it also defended him against the majority who disliked his view.

Some Westerners have tried to justify the crime in Vail by blaming the victim and citing a "higher law" of environmental health. Vail Associates got what it deserved, the argument goes, because it makes obscene profits by abusing public lands and underpaid, powerless employees. The company had no legal right to destroy lynx habitat, because it bullied the Forest Service and federal courts into spineless complicity.

But this line of reasoning, which the Earth Liberation Front used to justify its actions, is morally bankrupt. Neither those who lit the match at night, nor those who egged them on by day, cared that their flaming cowardice will make life a little scarier for environmentalists like my brave friend in the Idaho Panhandle. They also failed to see that using criminal violence to push their cause only ups the odds that other zealots, holding very different views about habitat protection on public lands, may strike in the same way.

Progressive reform in the West has depended on extending the law's protection to dissident values. Behind these advances - labor unions for wage workers, civil rights for people of color, even the emergence of healthier attitudes about people's place in nature - are histories too often stained with lawless violence against people who challenged entrenched power.

Early this century, workers seeking better pay and conditions in mining and timber industries endured violent attacks by thugs working for employers. Courts, usually beholden to economic kingpins, stood aside. Even the National Guard became a lawless tool for repression: In 1917 in Ludlow, Colo., mine owners pressured the governor to declare martial law during strikes. Miners were massacred.

Real progress and dignity came when working people persuaded courts and legislators to grant them basic legal rights to defend their interests, secure their peace and pursue their share of the American Dream. Farm workers in the irrigated West favored peaceful, legal means when they tried to unionize in the 1960s and 1970s. Had they battled employers by burning warehouses at night, they would have forfeited their claims for economic and social justice.

Just as the "Earth Liberation Front" has forfeited any serious moral claim to be advancing "environmental justice" by torching a ski lodge. This act relegates them to the same moral wilderness stalked by Shelly Shannon, who tried to deny women their constitutional rights by terror-bombing family planning clinics around the West early this decade.

Maybe some future Western historian will romantically recall the thugs who torched the Vail lodge as "social bandits." But the history of social change in the real West identifies outrages on all sides instead of taking sides.

In the real West, we have moved ahead by legalizing and pacifying social conflict, not by justifying violence that serves someone's private definition of a "higher" end.

Anonymous violence in the night, whether bombing Forest Service offices and vehicles in Nevada in the mid-1990s or burning ski lodges in 1998, displays historical ignorance and moral weakness. Real heroes are those Westerners who, like my Idaho colleague, are willing to live with a little fear while standing with the law.

Karl Brooks lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News that syndicates essays to 32 newspapers throughout the West.