Stoking the Flames



A commonly held theory about drought posits that the longer one lasts, the greater the amount of precipitation needed to reverse its effects. In other words, a drought-plagued region that, after years of insufficient moisture, receives an historically average amount of rain will not only not reverse the drought, but may actually extend it.

If this theory holds true for economic as well as watershed health, then the Flathead Valley, like the rest of the state, is in the midst of a seemingly endless dry spell. As Montana founders in the gap between an extraction industry-based economy to a new, as-yet undetermined economic engine, the residents of the Flathead–an area once renowned for its legendary forests and huge deposits of mineral ore–are feeling the pinch.

But despite the fact that Flatheaders are slightly better off than Montana residents as a whole—according to 2000 Census figures, the county’s median household income is $32,387, compared to the statewide average of $29,672, with the number of people living below the poverty line actually lower than the state average—a number of individuals, schools and businesses are becoming the scapegoats for the region’s financial woes.

In an increasingly vitriolic public discourse, everything and everyone, from sporting goods stores to high school teachers to area environmentalists, are being singled out in McCarthyist fashion as the primary culprits for the loss of a once-proud way of life. And the backlash has grown to the point where some residents no longer feel safe in the communities that they call home.

The threatened residents of the Flathead point to one common denominator as the instigator for the ill will blowing their way: a daily, three-hour talk show on a Kalispell radio station owned by outspoken right-wing organizer John Stokes.

The name-calling begins

The trouble began in the spring of 2001, less than a year after Stokes purchased the KGEZ-AM radio station and instituted a format that revolves around hardcore, youth-oriented music and “The Edge,” a talk show that features Stokes’ views on the news of the day paired with the call-in opinions of his listeners.

In Stokes’ world view, most of the troubles plaguing the Flathead Valley are the direct result of the environmental movement, which he contends is a conspiracy that rivals Germany’s Nazi Party of the 1930s.

In a letter written to media outlets in Montana this spring, Stokes writes: “Yes, Virginia, there is a FOURTH REICH. It has its roots in the same deep ecology and environmental extremist movement as the infamous third Reich. Today, they work hand in glove with the fourth estate. Only the uninformed would also deny the existence of the GREEN NAZIS and that they are operating in this state. … Because for over a decade or longer of these green extremists groups operating unchecked or exposed, Montana is now the economic equal of Appalachia. … We intend to peel the Fourth Reich like a grape with the facts, the truth, public opinion, and use legal due process to rid our schools and the state of these eco facist [sic].” In May, the Montana Human Rights Network sponsored a visit to Kalispell by Klaus Stern, a Holocaust survivor who took Stokes to task for his free use of the term “Nazis.” Stokes responded on his radio show by calling Stern a “cheap whore,” and, commenting on the fact that Stern had lost 35 family members to Nazi concentration camps, said, “too bad, so sad, get over it.”

Environmental activist Keith Hammer is a 37-year resident of the Flathead, a former Forest Service employee, ex-logger, and head of the Swan View Coalition, an organization formed to fight a development project in the Swan Mountains east of Bigfork. In April, Hammer, who is a frequent on-air target of Stokes, began receiving threatening, obscene and anti-Semitic e-mails from a person identifiable only by the e-mail user name, “jmpnfish.”

Although no direct link to Stokes or his radio station has been made to “jmpnfish,” that e-mail user name, along with the Z-600 station Web site, was listed as a contact in a Daily Interlake article for information on a relief convoy to the farmers of Klamath Falls that left Kalispell on Aug. 18.

When contacted in August, Flathead County Attorney Tom Esch told the Independent that the e-mails had been traced to a single individual, who had been ordered to cease and desist. Esch went on to say that no further activity along those lines had occurred since May.

But if local authorities had hoped that such intimidation tactics against environmentalists would cease, those hopes have since been dashed. Cesar Hernandez, who runs the Montana Wilderness Association office in Kalispell, has been verbally accosted and threatened twice in the last month. According to Hernandez, the first episode occurred Sept. 27, during which a man entered his office and accused him of costing people their jobs, as well as causing the deaths of firefighters. (A frequent topic on Stokes’ show has been the contention that environmentalists, through their support of the federal Endangered Species Act, are responsible for the deaths of four firefighters in Washington this summer).

Hernandez says that the man called him and Keith Hammer “eco-terrorists,” and said that their names were on a list of people who will be “taken care of.” When the man refused to leave the office, Hernandez called the police, who escorted the man out and told him he would be arrested if he ever showed up there again. Hernandez’s version of events were confirmed by Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont.

Then on Oct. 12, Hernandez attended a public meeting dealing with the protection of Montana’s lynx population, where he was again confronted by the same man. This time, Hernandez says, the man, accompanied by an acquaintance, instigated a shouting match that had to be broken up by three Forest Service employees. In a written report of the incident, Hernandez states: “This is the second unfriendly and uncomfortable confrontation I have had with this individual in two weeks time and I believe that bad blood is brewing between us. The comment from [the man’s] friend that “this is not the place,” can be construed in many ways, but inclines me to believe that the issue between us is not resolved.”

Targeting women and children

Not everyone feeling the heat in the Flathead Valley is an environmentalist, however. Brenda Kitterman moved to her home at the base of the Swan Mountains three years ago from Caspar, Wyo., where she worked as a police officer. Part of her reason for moving was to bring her daughters closer to their father, who has roots in Great Falls and Helena. Kitterman originally intended to continue her law enforcement career in Montana, but her effort was thwarted by a labor dispute at the Kalispell Police Department at the time. Although Kitterman has never been a member or contributor to any environmental organization, the events that have transpired in the last six months have not only caused her to re-think her attitude towards local law enforcement, they’ve got her looking for a new place to live. After hearing that swastikas were being placed on the windows of local businesses mentioned on Stokes’ show in April—he had identified them as supporters of the Missoula-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies—Kitterman tuned in to hear callers criticizing Hernandez, who had made an appearance in Stokes’ studio. “Stokes and his listeners were making statements I recognized as militia-oriented propaganda,” says Kitterman. “Due to my law enforcement background and training, I knew how potentially violent it could become.”

After deriding Klaus Stern on the air, Stokes mentioned by name a high school student at Stern’s lecture who had questioned Stokes’ use of the word “Nazi.” That student was Kitterman’s 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who later interviewed Stern for her school newspaper. In response to the on-air attack on her daughter, Brenda Kitterman wrote a letter to the editor denouncing Stokes, which was published in three separate newspapers in May.

Stokes read the letter on the air for his callers to discuss, repeating Kitterman’s name several times. Within a couple of days, Kitterman says, a campaign of intimidation began against her and her daughter. One day, the hot tub on the deck behind her house was vandalized, resulting in $525 in damage. Later that night, she saw a man in her yard, and reported the incidents to the police.

About a week later, a tire on her daughter’s car was slashed. Then the harassing phone calls began, sometimes 30 or more a day. Some were just hang-ups, others were males voices talking about killing environmentalists.

One night in early June, Kitterman says, a man stood in the trees bordering her yard and yelled, “Brenda, get your ass outside! I said now!” She called the police, but by the time they showed up, the man was gone.

Kitterman decided to go public with what was happening to her. She gave an interview with KPAX-TV in Missoula, thinking that the exposure might help stem the tide of harassment. Stokes derided her on his show, talking about “a woman, who shall remain nameless, getting airtime because she was threatened.”

A week or so later, Stokes mentioned on his show the school newspaper article written by Kitterman’s daughter. Although he changed her name to “Catherine Bitterman” on the air, he followed by suggesting that she was affiliated with the Human Rights Network, another one of his favorite targets.

On June 8, Brenda Kitterman spoke at a PRIDE rally in Kalispell as a friend of gay rights. Shortly after leaving the rally, she was followed for several miles by a man on a motorcycle. “The motorcycle followed me in, and the driver held up a lasso of short roping rope while he looked directly at me,” she says. “He shook it a few times, and I took it to mean a noose, as I had heard on Z-600 that they were going to use stones and nooses on the gays.”

In July, Elizabeth Kitterman began to be followed home from work. According to her mother, Elizabeth was tailed at least three or four times, once by a man who reportedly displayed a gun to several of her friends. Needless to say, the incidents have left Elizabeth nervous.

“Leaving work is a big deal now,” she says. “I always make sure someone walks with me. I refuse to park in our parking lot because it’s not lit up. It just gives me the willies. I’m always checking the rear view mirror to see who’s following me. I’m constantly checking over my shoulder.

Still, she doesn’t back off what she wrote in her school newspaper.

“I don’t regret writing the article,” Elizabeth says. “I was ashamed of what Stokes said, and I wanted to let the other kids know what was going on.”

Although Elizabeth hasn’t been followed since early August (the Kittermans took a vacation for much of the month), Brenda was again followed on Sept. 19 by a man who tailed her for twenty minutes, staying within inches of her rear bumper and then nearly ran her off the road. She never got a good enough look to identify the driver.

Last month, Kitterman began looking for a place to relocate her family, but the stock market crash after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has taken its toll on her savings.

“I remember as a police officer, dealing with people who called in all the time,” she says. “It was a real pain, and I don’t want to be like that. But I’m at my wit’s end here and I don’t know how to stop it. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel safe living here anymore, and I fear for my daughters’ safety.”

Kitterman is looking for a more tolerant community to live, and knows that political conservatism and social tolerance are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

“In Caspar I was one of maybe 11 registered Democrats,” she says. “People would take me around and introduce me as the token liberal, even though I wasn’t politically active. I was readily accepted, I wasn’t seen as a threat. Here, on the other hand, I was labeled by Stokes and I know there’s a lot of Democrats here but they’re afraid to express themselves in public. People don’t even talk about that amongst friends unless they know each other really well. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Teaching intolerance

The winds of agitation blowing from Stokes’ show have been felt in the school system as well. School fundraisers for environmental causes have been the object of Stokes’ ridicule, and at least one was cut short because of a picketing threat.

Randall Hansen, a Flathead High School social studies teacher in his 19th year of service, had a first-hand encounter with bullying protesters. While teaching a class last spring about the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations, Hansen asked the class for comparable organizations.

“Someone said ‘The United Nations,’ and this kid says, ‘The UN is nothing but a bunch of blue-helmeted Nazis, and they should all be executed,’” Hansen says. After warning the student about the consequences of using such loaded terms, the issued faded, or so Hansen thought.

Several months later, three men, accompanied by the student in question, confronted Hansen in the school hallway outside his classroom. “These guys had anti-UN T-shirts on, and one of them got right into my face, saying that I had taken away the student’s freedom of speech. I got a little riled up, and it degenerated into a shouting match. When they finally left, they got into it again with the vice principal, dropping f-bombs all over the place and saying that this would get on the radio.”

The next day, he says, Stokes was on the air encouraging people to vote against an upcoming school levy because of teachers like Hansen. The student was also on the radio show, and said of Hansen, “[He’s] more than one [of the teachers] that sponsors the Green Party and goes along with fascist statements against students.”

Drawing no lines

“I’m not the anti-Christ,” Stokes says in a phone interview with the Independent. “I’m nobody’s leader, I don’t follow anybody, I don’t belong to any organizations. I’m sorry if people think I’m some sort of Pied Piper, but I’m not. I don’t have that kind of Svengali effect on people.”

He is quite aware of the charges leveled against him by the “the opposition,” but says that he and his station, along with the businesses that advertise with him, are the real victims of harassment and vandalism, not the environmentalists. He cites instances of broken headlights, broken windshields, egging and spray-painting of buildings, phone threats to himself and his sponsors.

“I’ve seen on the opposite side of the fence that their propaganda, their zeal to turn the country into green totalitarianism, has invoked a lot of damage, property damage, jeopardy to people’s lives,” he says. “They call my sponsors probably 15 times a day and threaten them and harass them with all kinds of nasty stuff.”

Asked whether he feels any responsibility about the harassment endured by members of the opposition, Stokes says, “See, they believe this stuff. ‘Oh, he’s going to make people do things. We’ve got to stop him because at some point somebody’s going to go off.’ I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. That’s just propaganda they spread around among themselves to keep their faithful in line. They have to have a boogey man, and I’m their convenient boogey man for rallying their troops.”

Stokes goes one further, contending that if these instances of intimidation are occurring, it may well be coming from inside the environmental movement itself.

“Knowing how these people operate, I would not be a bit surprised if it was some of their own people, psychological warfare, calling some of their own special people, threatening them with the implication that it would be me,” he says. “I mean, what better way to do it than with counter-terrorism and scare your own people?”

According to Stokes, the conspiracy against him doesn’t end with the environmentalists; other radio stations in the Flathead market are targeting him as well. “I’ve been framed a lot, let’s put it that way. I know that some other employees of other radio stations, who are my competitors, are the ones behind it. And I know full well who does it,” he says.

When pressed if there is a line of public discourse that shouldn’t be crossed, Stokes remains defiant.

“I’m looking at the Constitution, at the First Amendment, and that’s a slippery slope that you’re asking me to define where the line is,” he says. “I don’t want any politically correct police defining where the line is, because obviously the line has changed decade after decade based on hindsight. Today, it’s not politically correct to say ‘Jap’ or ‘Redman’ or ‘Chink,’ OK. That was common language at the time. Today, that might be inflammatory and somebody may say that’s crossed the line to incite violence. It’s a constantly moving line and I don’t necessarily want to get into that debate.”

Stokes remains convinced that the environmental movement is on its last leg, and that soon all forest land will be open to all people and any vehicles. “I see a return to where sustainable harvesting does come off,” he says. “Trees grow back, and they have to be managed. Biolife can co-habitate with humans, as they always have done. I see great opportunities for all out there, and it’s called free market. [Environmentalists] are in the death throes of their movement, and they’re lashing out right now, just like the KKK, in my opinion. At one point, they were pretty powerful, everybody thought it was a good idea. Now you probably can’t get anybody to admit they’re KKK.”

Answering the rage

Such hard-line rhetoric is familiar enough to journalist and private investigator David Helvarg, author of The War Against the Greens, a book that documents the backlash against environmentalists in the mid-1990s when the “wise use” and militia movements were at the peak of their power. The scene playing out in the Flathead, Helvarg says, was once fairly common.

“You’ve got an economy in transition, people getting displaced, and then you have a right-wing organizer come in and give them easy answers to complex questions,” says Helvarg. “It’s not atypical, although most of this kind of ground-level targeting of local environmentalists has gone by the wayside in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.”

Helvarg’s advice to targets of intimidation tactics is unequivocal. “Historically, when people stand up to this stuff and speak out, it has a positive effect. The more people let themselves be intimidated by that sort of behavior, the more it encourages and perpetuates it.” Helvarg, like Stokes, sees a movement on its last legs, at least from a populist standpoint. “It’s getting increasingly tough to sell the idea that environmental protection is stealing jobs,” he says. “The market itself is beginning to recognize that sustainability is a requirement and that states with the best economic profiles are the states that have the best environmental protections.”

As for the threats and harassment to Kitterman and others, the police say there’s not much they can do about it. “I don’t think they’re making it up, but we haven’t reached a point where we have evidence to believe someone is being followed,” says Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont. “We don’t do anything until a crime is committed. We don’t, nor does any police agency in Montana, have enough people to put a stakeout on a place unless there’s a substance to a claim, and normally there’s not substance to these claims.”

Perhaps. But for those who still have unanswered questions about the mysterious death last April of Flathead Valley environmentalist Tary Mocabee, such assurances ring hollow.

Whether or not people get hurt or arrests are made, it’s a safe prediction that one way or another, Stokes’ war on the greens will end up in a courthouse. Word among the green community is that Stokes will be the subject of at least one slander suit sometime in the near future.


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