Penthouse Retrospective

by Christopher Manes Originally Published: May, 1990

Green Rage | 30 Years Ago This Month

“We knew we were making history. It was the real birth of the environmental movement-a movement al I of us felt had to be born if the natural world was going to survive.”

Over the past few years, major timber companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Louisiana-Pacific have suffered an estimated $10 million in damages to road-building and timber equipment at the hands of “vandals” — the resource industry’s pejorative for radical environmentalists who have taken direct action to keep mining, logging, grazing, and any other kinds of development out of America’s wildlands. The radicals call their actions “ecotage” or “monkey-wrenching,” in homage to Abbey’s novel. Some of the companies’ bulldozers, graders, and trucks had their hydraulic hoses slashed, their electrical wiring cut, or were simply set afire. Most of the damage was caused when abrasives were poured into the crankcases of road-building vehicles, destroying the engines over a period of a few days and allowing the monkey-wrenchers to be far away when the problem was finally discovered — a technique called “siltation.” As one Earth First! member wrote, siltation is a way “to turn any internal-combustion engine into an expensive boat anchor.”

Ecotage against heavy equipment in national forests has become so prevalent that timber and mining companies now have to hire guards or use some other security measures to protect their machinery. The days when timber companies could punch roads into wild areas unopposed, except perhaps in court, are long gone.

No precise statistics on the total cost of ecotage have been compiled, not even by the law-enforcement division of the U.S. Forest Service — the agency in charge of our national forests — which until recently had also lumped ecological sabotage with acts of vandalism. In 1987 the Forest Service commissioned Ben Hull, a special agent in Region 6 (Oregon and Washington) to carry out a nation-wide survey of Forest Service personnel in order to get some idea of the amount of ecotage being carried out. The results were kept confidential, despite several attempts by radical environmentalists to get the information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Good estimates already exist, however, and they are high, ranging from $20 to $25 million a year. To give some indication, in just one incident in Hawaii in 1985, a wood chipper worth $250,000 was firebombed by environmentalists to prevent one of America’s last remaining tropical rain forests, dominated by 100- foot-tall ohia trees, from being ground into fuel for the sugar industry. Jim McCauley, forest-policy analyst for the Association of Oregon Loggers, says that the average ecotage incident in Oregon involves about $60,000 in damages, with many single incidents going as high as $100,000. There have been literally dozens of such incidents reported in the Pacific Northwest this year alone and, according to Dave Foreman, at least one authenticated act in every state west of the Mississippi, with others beginning to appear in East Coast states. Many more are never reported, since the resource industry is anxious not to give insurance companies another reason to raise rates in an industry already beset by safety problems.

Just keeping track of ecotage may involve millions of dollars annually, making it a very cost-effective proposition for the radical environmentalists, whose costs are typically no more than $100 or so and the loss of a night’s sleep. According to Eco-media Toronto, an organization that monitors government and corporate reaction to the environmental movement, at least six “Pinkerton-like” private agencies are investigating, and in some cases attempting to infiltrate, radical environmental groups.

The precipitous rise in monkey-wrenching incidents began in the early 1980s. Soon after the cracking of Glen Canyon Dam, in the Gros Ventre road-less area south of Yellowstone, radical environmentalists destroyed seismographic equipment and pulled survey stakes on a road under construction in a successful attempt to prevent Getty Oil from drilling in the area. In the Pacific Northwest, roads under construction to timber sales and mines are so routinely “de-surveyed” — that is, the survey stakes are pulled up — that the Forest Service now uses a fluorescent powder on the stakes in the somewhat forlorn hope of catching ecoteurs among the millions of square acres of wildlands that constitute our national forest system. Not surprisingly, the ecoteurs have taken to wearing gloves.

The only monkey-wrencher to be convicted of de-surveying a road was incriminated not by fluorescent powders, but by a hatchet-wielding Chevron employee who made a citizen’s arrest in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest in 1985. The environmentalist with this dubious honor was Howie Wolke, one of the six who cracked Glen Canyon Dam. He later told reporters, “I did it and I’m damn proud.”

In 1984 the most effective and provocative technique in the radical environmentalists’ repertoire appeared: tree-spiking, the practice of driving large nails into the trees scheduled for cutting. Tree spiking had apparently been going on quietly on a small scale for a number of years, but in October 1984 the Eugene Register-Guard received a letter, immediately brought to the Forest Service’s attention, saying that 63 pounds of spikes — about 1,000 20-penny nails — had been driven into trees of a proposed sale in the Hardesty Mountain wilderness area. The letter also claimed that Smokey the Bear had been taken hostage. To its dismay, the Forest Service found the claim was true (regarding the trees, not Smokey) and had to spend thousands of dollars removing the spikes.

There have been scores of tree-spiking incidents since then, at least a dozen in Northern California in 1989 alone, according to Forest Service Special Agent William Derr. Harmless to the trees, the spikes can damage chain saws and expensive band saws in the mill. The idea could have come straight from the Chicago school of economics, with an environmental twist: If the cost of removing the spikes is high enough, the cut will not be made, or at the very least a decreased profit margin will discourage future logging in areas controversial enough to mobilize this type of ecological resistance.

Ignore the environment for long enough, and it may protect itself with a Green Rage. The environmentalist simmer will eventually boil. Do nothing for long enough, and saving the planet will become a multifaceted active confrontation.

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