Shortly before Thanksgiving, Larry Campbell, a prominent Bitterroot Valley environmentalist and executive director of the conservation group Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), drove to the Bitterroot National Forest headquarters in Hamilton to pick up some documents he had requested. As he pulled up, he saw several logging trucks in the parking lot and dozens of people holding signs.
“Obviously, it was a demonstration,” says Campbell, about the presence of Timber Workers United, a newly formed group that supports the huge timber sale proposed by the BNF and vigorously opposed by FOB and other environmental groups. Given his high profile in the environmental movement, Campbell had to decide quickly whether to pull in or keep driving. “I asked myself, ‘Well, should I turn tail and run or go about my business?’ I decided this was still America and I was a private citizen doing business on public property.”
After retrieving his documents from the office, Campbell returned to his car, where he was immediately surrounded by at least four people who began rocking his car back and forth. “I rolled down my window to ask, ‘What’s up?’” One man, unknown to Campbell, began verbally abusing him, then spit in his face and threatened his life.
“He spit in my face several times. He threatened my life several times, and he threatened [to destroy] my cabin several times,” says Campbell.
Although Campbell says Forest Service law enforcement were at BNF headquarters at the time, no one intervened, so he drove away and reported the incident to the Hamilton police, who are now investigating the threats and may file criminal charges. In fact, the threats were a small piece of a larger picture that includes harassment and intimidation of local environmental activists. Two days after this incident, Campbell received a threatening phone message on his answering machine warning him of a “long, long winter looking over your shoulder.”
Such threats aren’t a new experience for Campbell. Over the years unknown gunmen have taken shots at his Darby-area home. “I was run off a job in Darby,” he says. “They threatened my life and put me out of work” by warning his boss that a group of eight to 10 men would shoot Campbell off his ladder if he showed up for work on Monday. Though the sheriff’s office investigated, the men were never identified, something Campbell finds suspicious given the difficulty of remaining anonymous in a small town like Darby.
Other environmentalists in the area have been threatened in similar ways. One, who asked not to be identified, says his Darby-area home was burned down in 1989. Though an investigation never determined whether the fire was arson, the owner says a suspicious pile of tree limbs had been left on the front porch.
Several years later, the same environmentalist hosted a meeting of the Ruckus Society, an environmental group that practices “direct action,” that is, sitting in trees to block timber sales, unfurling banners with environmental messages and other acts of civil disobedience. During the days-long event, several men raided the Ruckus Society camp and fired a pellet gun, penetrating a tent. In that case, criminal charges were filed against Ryan Lewis, who pled guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief in July 1996.
Deputy Ravalli County Attorney John Bell is waiting for the police investigation to be completed before deciding whether to file criminal charges.
“We take it real seriously,” says, Bell, who adds that it may take criminal prosecutions to get the message across. “Maybe they wouldn’t do it if they realized they were getting charged.”
John Schneeberger, chairman of the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance, met recently with Bell, Ravalli County Sheriff Perry Johnson, Hamilton Police Chief Allan Auch and Hamilton City Attorney Jim Haynes. Accounts of the meeting differ. Haynes says the Human Rights Alliance was condescending to the police. Schneeberger says the police were treated with respect, and Auch says everyone just appeared extremely frustrated. “Our responsibility is to point out human rights abuses and put pressure on public officials to respond,” says Schneeberger.
Nevertheless, the meeting did result in a public statement issued last week—signed by FOB President Jim Miller and Bob Walker, a Darby logger and president of Timber Workers United—condemning violence in all forms, whether against individuals or the community at large.
Walker, who attended the rally where Campbell was threatened, says he didn’t witness the incident. Ironically, he was in the office discussing with Forest Service officials the potential for violence over the pending timber sale. Walker says he is adamantly opposed to violence and is trying to get that message out to people in his group.
“We’re just letting people know we don’t condone any violence. I believe we’ve had very positive response,” says Walker. “But I’d be lying to you if I said I don’t see anything [violent] happening in the future. You can’t control everybody.”
Future threats or violence, Walker fears, may be directed by outside environmentalists against loggers. “Nobody wants it to happen, but there are other radical environmental groups out there. Maybe not FOB. I’m more concerned about Earth First! and ELF,” he says, referring to the Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy group that advocates property destruction in the name of environmental protection.
If there is violence against loggers or their equipment, says Walker, he knows how he’ll react: He’ll call law enforcement and urge that it be handled legally.
Meanwhile, Campbell is living cautiously and looking over his shoulder. He’s weary of the “long history of harassment and assaults and the use of terror and fear to get me and others to not speak up. These people may wave the flag, but they don’t act like Americans, not the Americans the Bill of Rights represent. The First Amendment is freedom of speech.”
Though Campbell’s past complaints to the sheriff’s office have accomplished little, he believes Sheriff Johnson, still in his first term, brings to the table an open mind when it comes to such complaints by environmentalists.
“It’s a new day in the Bitterroot,” says Campbell. “I saw in Perry Johnson’s eyes real compassion. I think he does care.”