The environmental activists gather around campfires by Hughes Creek in the Bitterroots. As people straggle in on a pleasantly brisk June 22 evening, the notes of guitars and banjo pluck along to the tunes of “Shady Grove” and “Deep Elm Blues.” A few dogs roam, looking for scraps, while those around the fire ask each other where they’ve come from. The license plates indicate a vast migration—Washington (both state and district), California, New York, Texas, Colorado, etc. The scene is similar to that at your average campsite, except for the Greenpeace bio-diesel bus, complete with solar panels, that’s generating power for the entire campground. Approximately 80 forest activists spanning multiple ages, races and intensity levels mingle on the eve of what’s been titled the “Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms Forest Activist/Campaigner Training Camp.”
In the coming week, these environmentalists will learn how to increase their skills in organization, orienteering, media relations, non-violence, and—controversially—tree-climbing occupations and blockades.
Missoula resident Sarah Damsell has been to action camps before, but she says this one is different.
“In my experience, action camps are mostly young people talking about more anarchist Earth First! sort of tactics. Here, it’s all ages, there’s more city people, and it’s more about organizing than getting up in trees. That’s here, too, but it’s more about outreach,” Damsell says.
The mainstream media have focused mainly on the direct action aspect of the camp. Two weeks ago, KPAX news broadcast a story on the camp under the banner headline, “Eco-terrorists?”
Upon learning there’s a journalist present, organizer and Earth First! founder Mike Roselle asks sarcastically, “Hey, you seen any eco-terrorists around here?”
Nobody is wearing masks or camouflage, and organizers reiterate that the focus is on non-violent actions. Nonetheless, a degree of secrecy is at play. Camp organizers, for example, won’t distribute a schedule of activities to the Independent. When Roselle drops his sarcastic tone, he says, “Most of the education just happens from being here. The most important thing is being out here—seeing the forest and smelling it and hopefully stepping in bear shit.
“The other issue is obedience,” he says. “They are hippies, after all.”
Hippies or not, these activists have a mission. Jake Kreilick, project coordinator for the National Forest Protection Alliance (NFPA), explains that “The primary purpose of the camp is to give these people a strong sense that these forests belong to all Americans, not just the people who live next to them or the corporate executives who are looking to gain by destroying some of our natural heritage. It’s important to give people a sense that they have every bit as much right to talk and to participate in the future management direction as the local rancher or sawmill operator.”
Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull recognizes the right of the activists to gather, but he’s not without reservations.
“I’m a little concerned about having this kind of activity going on in the Bitterroot National Forest,” Bull says. “It draws a whole lot of unnecessary attention to things that, from my perspective, are not productive.”
One of those things is the Bush administration’s Healthy Forests and Restoration Act, which has already passed through the House, and should appear in the Senate in July or September. In answer to the Healthy Forests Act, environmental groups have a bill of their own before the Legislature—the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which seeks to put loggers to work on land restoration. The bill has received far less attention than the Bush administration’s.
“The media just want to cover the negative aspects of this debate, but we’re very much in favor of putting people to work restoring our public lands,” says Jeanette Russell, grassroots coordinator for NFPA.
The organizers’ main gripe with the Healthy Forest Act lies within the section that they say would cut the public out of public land management. Under the act, some environmental reviews would be subject to “categorical exclusion.”
“We’re pretty careful about which types of projects we’d exclude from documentation in an environmental assessment,” says Bull. “It’s got to be something that doesn’t have much impact.”
What troubles environmental organizers is that the Forest Service would be left to decide when an impact is “not much.” Bull indicates that such a decision would be arrived at after a survey of Forest Service studies comparing new projects to similar past projects.
But Greenpeace spokesman Matthew Anderson-Stembridge says that the recent “Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms” report co-released by his group and NFPA should be given as much consideration as Forest Service studies, because Greenpeace uses data collected by locals on the ground. The report lists Montana’s Bitterroot and Kootenai forests as among the nation’s top ten most endangered.
Bull calls that report inaccurate, but agrees that the Healthy Forests and Restoration Act would limit environmental appeals. As for categorical exclusions, Bull says, “It doesn’t mean [the public] can’t be involved. It means they can’t appeal.”
In the face of dwindling recourse to challenging Forest Service and Bush administration policies, Russell wonders, “Then what are you left with? It’s not going to take the issue away. Millions of Americans care deeply about their national forests…so they may be able to take away the [court] access, but they’re not going to take away the issue, and they’re just furthering the polarization.”
The polarization is emotionally charged. In the week prior to the camp, both Bull and District Ranger for the West Fork District Dave Campbell received phone calls from several citizens threatening to harass the activists. Bull and Campbell told the callers to leave them alone. While Campbell will look out for the activists’ safety, both he and Bull say that direct action is never justified.
“There’s not a time that it’s appropriate to take direct action,” says Bull.
Russell, on the other hand, believes her fellow campaigners are utilizing “a traditional American approach to social change.”
“Americans have been using civil disobedience since the Boston Tea Party,” she says. “It’s our history.”