Forest Service building is torched by night raiders

  • Federal arson investigators at Oakridge Ranger Station

    Robert Kaiser/Oregonian

A Forest Service ranger station in Oregon has become the latest target in the wave of violence directed at federal installations around the West.

The Oakridge Ranger Station, about an hour's drive southeast of Eugene, burst into flames early on the morning of Oct. 30. By the time firefighters had arrived, the 25,000-square-foot building had burned to the ground.

Besides losing the $2 million building, agency officials and firefighters watched up to $6 million in computer equipment, furniture, artifacts, files and research materials go up in smoke.

Among the items destroyed: aerial photos of the forest up to 80 years old, photo points showing spotted owl locations, tapes and notes of interviews with now-dead area residents who had worked in Depression-era CCC camps and 20 to 30 years' worth of files.

"It's a real traumatic experience, almost like losing someone in your family," said Ernie Ledbetter, a fisheries technician who has worked at the ranger station for seven years. "It's really hard to sit down and start over when you have a pencil and paper, and that's all."

It wasn't the only incident of vandalism in the area. That same morning, authorities found a Molotov-cocktail-like device on the roof of a ranger station in the neighboring town of Detroit.

Two days earlier, vandals had set fire to a Forest Service pickup truck and sprayed "Stop Raping the Forest" and other graffiti on the Detroit ranger station's walls.

As of mid-November, authorities had not disclosed whether they had any suspects in the incidents, but they believe the fire was deliberately set, since it began in several wings of the six-section building at once. The fire's location, near the highly controversial, recently quashed Warner Creek timber sale (HCN, 9/2/96) prompted speculation that the blaze could have been the work either of "eco-terrorists' or terrorists seeking to pin the blame on environmentalists.

The Sierra Club, Oregon Natural Resources Council and the nonprofit National Forest Foundation in Washington, D.C., have put up rewards totaling more than $30,000 for information leading to suspects.

A possible clue: Authorities recovered hundreds of old nails from the station's parking lot the next day, just as environmental activists found numerous nails at the Warner Creek blockade site and the site of a wedding of two activists over the summer.

The latest incident, following bombings in Nevada and New Mexico and a fire in an Arizona ranger station in the past 18 months, evoked reactions of fear and anger among Forest Service officials.

"Some people are afraid to go out in the woods by themselves, but most of us are just plain angry," said Tim Bailey, a Forest Service biologist who has worked at the Oakridge station for 18 years.

"Arson is kind of a chickenshit crime, and it comes at such a tremendous cost to taxpayers. It's a pointless thing to do."

The reporter works in Salem, Oregon.

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