Congress searches for a 'green conspiracy'

  • Were logging protesters communicating with Vice President Gore?

    Kurt Jensen photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Congress does not just sit around and pass laws. Nosiree, Bob. It makes sure the executive branch does its job right.

This is known as congressional oversight, and it helps to keep the big boys honest. When a government project goes awry, a congressional committee will track down the facts, expose the dunderheads who let things get out of hand and force reconsiderations and resignations. One dictionary definition of oversight is "watchful care."

Another might be "mistake."

Such seemed to be the case regarding the "occupation" of the Warner Creek timber sale in Oregon in 1995 and 1996. The handful of protesters who decided to block logging on 9,000 acres of the Willamette National Forest were removed during August 1966. Five were charged with criminal trespass, and three were found guilty.

No one was hurt. No violence was used or threatened.

The protest didn't even delay the logging because the company was occupied elsewhere. When it was ready to move onto the site, the federal government bought out the sale to everybody's satisfaction, including the logging company's.

There was property damage. The protesters dug a trench across a Forest Service road. They also - a touch of irony here - chopped down trees to create "a sort of fortress, a high fence with a drawbridge," according to Patti Rodgers, the Willamette forest's public information specialist. And they blocked culverts, which were then washed out by the next rainstorm.

But they did not set fire to the forest, detonate explosive devices, or engage in the insidious practice of "spiking' - embedding metal bars in trees - so dangerous to loggers. They did not resist arrest. The state judge who found them guilty also found their sins so harmless that he neither sent them to jail nor levied a fine.

Was this "Eco-terrorism?"

So why is there now a Task Force on the "Warner Creek Timber Sale Eco-Terrorism Incident and Related Matters?"

A good question, especially considering that Forest Service law enforcement officials never classified the protest as "eco-terrorism."

Neither did William Fitzgerald, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. It's hard to see why they would. The dictionary defines "terrorism" as "any series of terrifying, unlawful deeds which tend to intimidate." The protesters who occupied the Warner Creek area for 11 months did act unlawfully. But they did not intimidate anybody, and no thesaurus calls "puerile" a synonym for "terrifying."

There was some violence in the area three months later. A ranger station was burned to the ground, a Forest Service vehicle was destroyed, and an incendiary device was found at another government building.

So far, though, there is "no indication of any relationship whatsoever," between these violent events and the peaceful occupation by a splinter group that had split off from Earth First!, Patti Rodgers said.

Nonetheless, here is this task force, essentially two Republican members and some staff - the Democrats are declining to participate - of the House Committee on Resources, demanding documents and subpoenaing witnesses who were told not to discuss their testimony "with anyone," wrote Rep. Jim Gibbons of Nevada, chairman of the task force.

"Anyone," in this case, apparently included lawyers. The seven federal officials, including Undersecretary of Agriculture James Lyons, who were ordered to appear at a March 10 hearing, were first told that they could not be accompanied by lawyers from their agencies.

Defending this decision, Resources Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska told the ranking Democratic member, George Miller of California, that House rules provide "that witnesses may be accompanied by counsel, but that does not presuppose that the counsel has to be from the entity by which the witness is employed."

The Republican majority relented in the face of Democratic complaints and allowed witnesses to bring lawyers from their agencies, as opposed to lawyers they would have to pay. But Young's remarks, combined with other statements from officials of the investigation, reveal the intensity of Republican conviction on the matter.

Young also said that witnesses, including federal officials, "might feel intimidated or be coached in how to respond." A resolution prepared by the majority staff disclosed that the probe "may involve allegations of criminal conduct," as well as "allegations ... that political pressure was brought to bear to protect the protestors (sic), prolonging the protest and endangering both government property and law enforcement personnel."

Precisely what this means is difficult to determine, especially because the only knowledgeable Republican who could be reached explained that he was under "strict constraints' preventing him from divulging any details about the probe. The Republican, who asked to be identified only as "a committee aide," insisted that the task force was behaving in "a very deliberate, very responsible manner."

But the majority's documents seem to indicate that the task force suspects that administration officials pressured law enforcers in Oregon to go easy on the protesters out of some political motive. And the task force must suspect the involvement of senior officials such as Lyons and Dinah Bear, the general counsel of the Council on Environmental Quality.

They were among the officials ordered to testify March 10, and told not to discuss the matter. They wouldn't. Most declined to return phone calls. Dinah Bear did, but only to say that she would honor her commitment to the committee, even though as "a believer in the First Amendment" she was uneasy about keeping silent. Paul Fishman, a former Justice Department official now in private practice in Newark, N.J., also declined to discuss what took place at the task force, but he did answer when asked whether he had been under any political pressure not to arrest or prosecute the protesters. "Unequivocally not," he said.

Reasonable people may differ over whether letting the occupiers stay in the forest was good policy. They were openly defying the law. On the other hand, after the debacle at Waco, the federal government was probably not anxious to launch an assault on unarmed citizens who weren't hurting anybody.

The congressman in whose district the incident occurred, Democrat Peter DeFazio, acknowledged that he urged the Forest Service to exercise restraint.

It was advice the agency did not need. "The experience around the region with these demonstrations is that you can go in and remove folks, and 24 hours later they're back, and we simply don't have the resources to keep playing this cat-and-mouse game," said Willamette spokeswoman Rodgers.

It's not as though national forest officials ignored the occupiers, or declined to prosecute them. Prosecutor Fitzgerald said he asked the judge to levy fines and require community service for the protesters. The judge refused. Fitzgerald also said he was under no political pressure to go easy on anyone.

But if the law enforcement policy is debatable, the apparent Republican suspicion of some political quid pro quo is downright goofy, not because the Clinton administration doesn't make political deals, but because no one makes political deals with people who have no political power.

The protesters were few in number, poor in pocket and without any political organization. They have no dealings with the mainstream environmental organizations; in fact, they disdain them as tools of the establishment. Most of them, fancying themselves romantic anarchists, don't even vote.

There may be a rational explanation for the task force. The Republicans could simply be engaged in political harassment of the other party, a practice with a long and not all that dishonorable bipartisan tradition around here.

What seems more likely, and scarier, is that these guys believe in their conspiracy theory, as though Al Gore was on his cell phone plotting campaign strategy with kids chained to a tree.

One person involved in the probe, speaking anonymously of course, noted that Chairman Young has often made statements comparing environmentalists with Communists.

In which context it might be recalled that when another Republican member of Congress claimed to hold in his hand the name of 205 communists who were employed by the federal government, he, too, was engaged in congressional oversight.

From his home in Vermont, Jon Margolis frequently visits Washington, D.C., as a task force of one.

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