Harsh Sentences Silence Radical Environmentalists

The radical environmentalists of Eugene, Ore., have disappeared or gone quiet. Some say it's because of a government crackdown that includes stiff fines and harsh prison sentences. The sentences have been so harsh, in fact, that even a victim of one arson attack isn't sure it was fair.

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The Justice Department has launched a broad offensive against what the government calls eco-terrorism. At least thirteen people have been charged with conspiracy to commit arson in the name of environmentalism and the list of defendants may still grow longer.

As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, some radical environmentalists say the federal investigation has grown into a political witch hunt.

MARTIN KASTE: Between 1996 and 2001, the Western U.S. saw a spate of arsons against targets such as a ski resort, lumber companies, and even Forest Service ranger stations. Shadowy environmental groups claimed the credit. The Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front, or ELF and ALF, respectively.

In this 2001 video, ELF's self-described spokesman, Craig Rosebraugh, justifies what he calls economic sabotage.

CRAIG ROSEBRAUGH: When the state itself causes and profits in the very injustices we struggle against, how is it logical to believe the system will change without being forced?

KASTE: After 2001, the eco attacks dropped off, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Many in the region forgot about them, until late last year when the Feds suddenly started making arrests.

While announcing the indictment in January, FBI Director Robert Mueller made a point of using the "T" word.

ROBERT MUELLER: Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive.

KASTE: Terrorism, born and bred on American soil: Eugene, Oregon to be exact. The government says Eugene was the arsonists' home base. This laid-back college town is still home to more than its share of wooly environmental activists. Here in the offices of the Native Forest Council, three of them take a break from the computers and the copy machine for a little lunchtime jam session.

This group's founder is Tim Hermack. He got into environmentalism after he came back from Vietnam and found that all his favorite camping spots had been clear cut. Some might consider him a radical, but he doesn't have any patience for the tactics of ELF and ALF.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TIM HERMACK: Why don't they shoot themselves in the head? It's about as successful. It makes us all look like idiots. We're not standing up for liberty and justice; we're stupid. What purpose did that serve?

KASTE: At the same time, Hermack bristles at the way FBI agents have poured into Eugene to look for the arsonists.

HERMACK: Do you know how many Americans get killed every year by corporations? And they're not called terrorists.

KASTE: Most activists in Eugene feel similarly conflicted. While they reject eco-arson, they're spooked by the way the government has used the terrorism label to escalate matters.

As it stands right now, the accused arsonists face penalties that seem more suited to murderers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer confirms that the stakes are high.

STEPHEN PEIFER: Some of the defendants are facing potentially life in prison because they're charged with use of destructive devices, namely incendiary bombs, to commit the arsons. That offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years for the first one, and life for the second.

KASTE: The poster boy for super-sized sentences is Jeffrey Luers. In 2001, the young environmentalist admitted to fire bombing three SUVs at a Eugene Chevy dealership. The state judge shocked the community by slapping Lures with a 22- year sentence, three times the usual arson penalty. Luers's sentence has been resonating in Eugene ever since. Assistant U.S. Attorney Peifer says it seems to have had a deterrent effect.

PEIFER: Yeah, I'm not a criminologist so I don't know exactly, but let's just say that since that's happened, that we've seen the decline occur.

KASTE: But where prosecutors see deterrents, activists see political oppression. Jeffrey Luers's lawyer, Lauren Reagen, travels around the northwest giving civil rights seminars in leftist coffee shops. She says the government's political motives are perfectly clear when you compare the sentences for different kinds of arson.

LAUREN REAGEN: There was a woman, a U.S. Forest Service employee, who was charged and admitted responsibility for 35 arsons. And her reasons for committing 35 arsons was for overtime pay. She got probation.

KASTE: The Chevy dealer whose SUVs were burned, Steve Romania, says he has no problem with the government's treatment of these property crimes as terrorism.

STEVE ROMANIA: They're still terrorizing people and the potential for injury is still there.

KASTE: But even he seems to have qualms about the penalties. When asked whether he thinks Jeffrey Luers deserves 22 years for burning three cars, Romania pauses, then says he'd rather not say.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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