Earth First!ers experience Idaho-style justice

  • An Earth First! demonstration in Oregon

    Phillip Renault

MOSCOW, Idaho - State and federal judges have been hammering members of Earth First! who are fighting the Cove-Mallard timber sales in central Idaho.

In early February, Earth First!er Erik Ryberg was sentenced to six months in jail, with four months suspended, for interfering with a U.S. Forest Service officer. Ryberg also must pay a $500 fine, the costs of his court-appointed attorney, and serve two years probation.

Any probation violation or other false move virtually guarantees Ryberg two years in jail, U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge warned.

Ryberg is part of the group that wants to stop logging in the largest roadless area in the continental United States. He was convicted of the misdemeanor by a federal judge in a non-jury trial in November.

His sentence contrasts sharply with punishment handed down a day earlier to an Alaska man who admitted beating an Earth First!er. Donald Allen Cooper, 31, was sentenced to three months in jail, but the magistrate said he will consider releasing Cooper in 20 days.

All but $100 of Cooper's $300 fine was suspended. He must pay $600 of his victim's medical costs and is on probation for six months.

Cooper admitted beating Steve Paulson, 42, a third-generation Idahoan who stopped to invite Cooper and other loggers to an Earth First! camp near Dixie, Idaho. Paulson suffered a broken rib, deep cuts and permanent nerve damage to his right cheek.

Ryberg was arrested last August. He crawled under a U.S. Forest Service truck and threatened to drain the oil in an attempt to stop two Forest Service law officers from leaving the Earth First! camp, which is on private land. Ryberg said he wanted to detain the truck until someone could take a picture proving the officers were there.

The officers testified they went into the camp at the request of the Dixie postmaster to deliver a message to an activist about his grandfather's death. Earth First!ers contend the officers were vague about their mission and came into the camp uninvited.

The visit violated an agreement that law enforcement wouldn't come onto the private property without permission or a search warrant, Earth First! said. Three other activists were convicted in connection with pandemonium that broke loose after Ryberg's arrest, but weren't sentenced to jail.

Ryberg, who is serving his time in Moscow, Idaho, isn't surprised by the difference in sentences. "Courts always punish political crimes in a harsher manner than violent crimes," he said.

Activists were dismayed by the way the judicial system treated part of a group of Kooskia, Idaho, youth who stoned a bus they mistakenly thought belonged to Earth First! "The two adults involved were sentenced to four days' house arrest - in other words, they were grounded," said Robert Amon, who runs a support group for protesters called the Ancient Forest Bus Brigade.

Earth First!ers connected to the Cove-Mallard protest are drawing fairly stiff sentences across the board. Six were sentenced to 90 days in jail, with 60 suspended, for chaining themselves to a logging-road gate. They also were fined $300 and ordered to pay $260 in restitution to the road contractor, Highland Enterprises of Grangeville, Idaho.

Another half-dozen protesters, who buried themselves in a logging road or perched on tripods in the middle of it, received identical jail sentences, six months probation and were ordered to each pay Highland Enterprises $550 in restitution for the misdemeanor offense.

Fifteen other Earth First!ers - charged with entering an area of the national forest closed to the general public and interfering with Forest Service officers - escaped jail sentences after being convicted in November. Each was fined $200, placed on three years' probation, ordered to perform 200 hours of community service and enroll in college or get full-time jobs.

Things may get worse for activists.

At the urging of the timber industry, Idaho State Rep. Alan Lance, R-Meridian, introduced legislation in mid-February that would increase penalties against protesters. It makes conspiring to impede timber harvests a felony in state court.

If it passes, the bill would allow Idaho to extradite Earth First!ers who politicians allege are running the timber protests from the safety of other states.

There are problems on other fronts. Depositions are being taken in Highland Enterprises' civil suit against Earth First!, alleging a variety of sins including racketeering in connection with logging-road blockades. If Highland wins, it could be awarded triple damages. Collecting any money from the activists, most of whom have no visible means of support, could be a different matter.

Activists are expanding their tactics beyond civil disobedience. A more mainstream Cove-Mallard Coalition is being formed and will have an office in Moscow, Idaho, Amon said.

The coalition will coordinate criminal defense for activists, deal with the Highland Enterprises suit and continue trying to spread the word about Cove-Mallard and other roadless areas about to get the ax.

"We are convinced that if people are educated on this particular issue, whether they are Idahoans, Iowans or Indianans, they would not agree with what the Forest Service is doing," Amon said.

While logging is complete on one timber sale and the roads are finished on another, environmentalists won a temporary injunction delaying any further work in U.S. District Court in Boise Feb. 17. In granting the order, Judge Harold Ryan wrote there was strong evidence of possible violations of both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Nez Perce National Forest Supervisor Mike King issued a statement saying the Forest Service hasn't broken any laws and voluntarily halted logging and road building while it consults with federal agencies responsible for threatened chinook salmon and endangered gray wolves.

The suit was filed in September by the Idaho Sportsmen's Coalition, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the Ecology Center and other groups and is a significant victory, said Ron Mitchell, executive director of the Sportsmen's Coalition. "The whole issue is, this is the first time in the state's history that an Idaho-based judge has enjoined a timber sale of this magnitude," he said.

It's becoming clear the Forest Service is the one breaking the law, Mitchell said, and "that they put the wrong guys in jail."

Other activists aren't as confident, but they are determined to fight it out. "It wouldn't be surprising for (Ryan) to listen for a while and then throw it out, based on his past record," said Bill Haskins, director of the Ecology Center in Missoula, Mont.

"But, then again, most victories against the Forest Service aren't at the district court level, but at the appeals court."

Ken Olsen reports for the Pullman Daily News in Washington.

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