It’s been a remarkable month for the merchants of “ecoterrorism.” In the two weeks since a group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for fires that engulfed a Vail, Colorado, ski resort, dozens of news stories have raised the specter of violent environmentalism, a supposedly growing “movement” of “murderers and arsonists,” as an editorial in Saturday’s New York Post put it. But to establish the case that the Vail fires are part of a trend, major media outlets elevated some of the anti-
environmental movement’s most virulent and dubious propagandists to the status of expert— without divulging their political ties.
The October 19 fires— seven separate blazes spread along a mile-long ridge on Vail Mountain— destroyed a restaurant, a patrol building, and a picnic shelter, and damaged several lifts. Two days later, a fax purporting to be from the ELF said the fires had been set “on behalf of the lynx.” Environmentalists have been battling the proposed expansion of the ski resort into 885 now-pristine acres of mountain forest, one of the last known habitats of the lynx, and just days before the fires, workers had begun clearing trees. No one was hurt, but the blazes caused some $12 million in damage.
Local activists and national environmental groups immediately denounced the arson, and only the Animal Liberation Front, a small group on the fringe of the animal rights movement, would unreservedly defend the ELF. But just as immediately, network news brought us “ecoterrorism.”
On October 23, CBS This Morning‘s Jane Robelot introduced one Barry Clausen, identifying him as “an expert on these attacks working for North American Research, monitoring left- and right-wing groups.” Robelot began their conversation thusly: “We don’t hear a great deal about ecoterrorism. Is it on the rise?” Clausen replied, “Yes, it is. . . . In 1986, there was about 10 terrorist attacks. In 1994, ’95, ’96, there has been in excess of 300 a year. And now we’re seeing more violence.”
Meanwhile, ABC brought in Ron Arnold, identified in separate reports as author of “a book on ecoterrorism,” and as someone who’s “been studying the tactics of radical environmentalists for years.” The New York Times proffered Clausen’s judgment that “we are seeing a decline in small acts of sabotage, against timber and mining, and an escalation of large acts of terrorism.” In another piece, the Times had Arnold drawing a connection between the ELF and the radical environmental group Earth First! The Times blandly identified Clausen as “a Northern California researcher who studies terrorist acts claimed by environmental extremists” and Arnold as “the vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, a defender of property rights and a critic of environmentalists who catalogues ecoterrorism.”
These descriptions are astonishingly incomplete. Arnold is better known— though not, apparently, by ABC, CBS, and the Times— as the founder of the Wise Use movement, the corporate-backed anti-
environmental coalition that in the last decade has rallied more than a thousand western groups under the banner of property rights, while being linked to the militia and county-supremacy movements in their crusade against Big Government and the hated Greens. Arnold once said of environmentalists, “We’re out to kill the fuckers. We’re simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all.” And Clausen has been “trying to discredit the environmental movement by any means necessary” for a decade, says Tarso Luis Ramos, research director of the Western States Center, a grassroots eco-coalition.
Relying on Arnold and Clausen for analysis of radical Green activism is “like asking David Duke to assess the rise of black militants,” says David Helvarg, author of War on the Greens. Clausen has been dining out for years on the strength of his “infiltration” of Earth First! for the timber industry— an achievement, notes Helvarg, on the order of “infiltrating the Shriners.” Clausen’s industry sponsors terminated his contract when he failed to produce any actual evidence of environmental terrorism. Instead, Clausen produced a risible book about his exploits, Walking on the Edge.
Arnold helped Clausen distribute his book, but in recent years the Wise Use guru has ostentatiously taken the high road. “When I say we have to pick up a sword and shield and kill the bastards,” he told Helvarg, “I mean politically, not physically.” In 1995, my colleague James Ridgeway, along with Jeffrey St. Clair, found Arnold furiously backpedaling from the militia movement: “I deplore them. I think the notion of taking up arms to defend what we’re trying to defend is wrongheaded. It’s stupid.” The distancing became necessary after the April ’95 Oklahoma City bombing focused media attention on links between Wise Use and the militias and county-supremacy groups. Arnold, for example, has sat on the advisory board of the county movement’s National Federal Lands Conference, whose October 1994 newsletter proclaimed, “Long Live the Militia!”
The mainstream media’s failure to include any of this background in its news reports on Vail allowed the extreme anti-Greens to “hijack the story,” as Tarso Ramos puts it. ABC, CBS, and the Times all failed to respond to requests from the Voice for comment, but those outlets were not alone in hyping environmentalist violence. A report produced last week on the coverage of Vail by FAIR, the progressive media watchdog, noted headlines such as “Ecoterrorism Growing More Violent” (Chicago Tribune) and “Violence Escalates in the Name of Environmentalism” (Christian Science Monitor), though little evidence of a trend exists. Indeed, in their catalogues of Green terrorism Clausen and Arnold— who claims to have coined the term ecoterror— cite demonstrators engaging in civil disobedience, graffiti sloganeers, and protesters who refused to climb down out of trees.
If anything, maintains Helvarg, the trend among radical Greens like Earth First!ers in recent years has been away from monkey-wrenching and toward ’60s-style c.d. And environmentalists, he says, are far more likely to be victims of violence: only six weeks ago, Earth First!er David Chain, protesting logging in California’s Humboldt County, was killed by a tree felled by a Pacific Lumber logger.
What makes the mainstream media’s performance even less creditable is the fact that Arnold and Clausen have peddled these wares before. When Ted Kaczynski was arrested in 1996, the two tried to use the Unabomber to discredit Earth First! An ABC World News Tonight report claimed to have uncovered Kaczynski’s connection to the group and credited Clausen with finding an Earth First! “hit list” that Kaczynski was said to have used to target one victim. Much was made of a Clausen claim that a “T. Casinski” had registered at a November 1994 conclave at the University of Montana at Missoula, “attended by top Earth First! members.”
All this was set right by Alexander Cockburn in a May 1996 Nation column, which noted that the vaunted hit list had actually been put out by the anarchist zine Live Wild or Die (which had urged boycotts, parodies, and the like on its enemies), and that the Missoula gathering— in reality an open conference attended by some 500 people, including Oklahoma representative Mike Synar— showed no Kaczynski or Casinski on its attendance roster.
Perhaps it’s asking too much for mainstream reporters and editors to be familiar with a Nation story. Still, ABC, CBS, and the Times have all produced lengthy reports in recent years on the Wise Use movement and virulent anti-environmentalists. Considering that much of this information was available in-house— not to mention out in the wild blue datastream— why haven’t big media wised up?