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Terror among the trees

In the Allegheny National Forest, the middle ground in the debate over logging has been firebombed by eco-terrorists

Sunday, September 15, 2002

By Sam MacDonald

KANE, Pa. - Aug. 11, 2002. It will never be seared into the American psyche like Sept. 11, 2001, and that is as it should be. But take note: A terrorist act perpetrated just over a month ago in rural Pennsylvania, although largely overlooked by the rest of the world, is stoking the fires of an already rancorous environmental debate and threatening to silence anyone who defies the terrorists' demands.

  Sam MacDonald, former Washington editor for Reason, is researching a book about logging and environmentalism in Allegheny National Forest. He is a native of Ridgway, bordering Allegheny National Forest (macdonald@pennswoods.net). 

At approximately 5 a.m. on Aug. 11, unknown actors unleashed an incendiary device on the U.S. Forest Service's forestry sciences lab near Buckaloons in the Allegheny National Forest. None of the facility's employees was present at the time of the fire, but the attack caused $700,000 in damage. Only a quick response from local fire crews saved the facility -- and more than 70 years of world-class forestry research -- from total destruction.

Disputes over ANF management have become increasingly bitter over the past decade, but until now they have been largely peaceful. Environmental activists, who want to shut down logging in the forest altogether, accuse the Forest Service of making management decisions in secret and managing the ANF as a tree farm for its hugely lucrative black cherry timber. Loggers note that 80 years ago when the Forest Service took over, the entire region was known as the "Allegheny brush heap" because the area had been so heavily deforested. They say the fact that such a beautiful forest exists today is a tribute to good management, which activists constantly try to monkey-wrench through litigation.

If there ever was a middle ground in this debate, the recent attack threatens to eradicate it.

In early September, the Warren Times-Observer received an e-mail from the Earth Liberation Front claiming responsibility for the attack. The ELF is a secretive extremist group that spreads fear and mayhem in the name of Mother Earth. Unfortunately, the strategy can be horribly effective.

The August firebombing marks the first truly radical "direct action" on the ANF. The e-mail to the Warren newspaper claims that if officials rebuild the lab -- a process that is already under way -- they will burn it down again. Far worse, it threatens physical violence: "While innocent life will never be harmed in any action we undertake, where it is necessary, we will no longer hesitate to pick up the gun to implement justice."

The firebombing wreaked havoc on any attempt to discuss matters openly. A few days after the attack, I interviewed a retired Forest Service employee who now operates a family business. He possesses potent insights into the pros and cons of current ANF management. Sadly, he refuses to discuss the issue in public or have his name printed in association with his views. He fears that his long years of dedicated service will mark his business as a target for eco-terrorists.

This fear comes at a particularly bad time. The Forest Service, environmental activists and timber industry representatives are already having a hard time communicating. A Sept. 6 U.S. District Court recommendation that could conceivably shut down logging in the ANF highlights the dispute. In it, a federal magistrate sided with environmentalists in a suit against the Forest Service. It claims a proposed timber sale relies too heavily on clear-cutting and fails to adequately protect endangered species.

On Sept. 10, the Post-Gazette ran a story about the decision ("U.S. Forest Service Under Fire"), reporting that the "project would clear-cut 7,643 acres of national forest and use more selective timbering methods on 404 acres." Forest Service officials and timber industry representatives, all preferring to speak off the record because of ongoing litigation, say those numbers, which resemble statistics presented by environmental activists, are way off the mark.

They argue vehemently that not all 8,000 acres are being cut. They say the "timber sale" is more accurately described as a complete management package that involves a host of treatments such as planting and seeding. They say that less than 200 acres are slated for clear-cutting, most of it in widely dispersed plots.

U.S. Rep. John E. Peterson, R-Venango, whose district includes all of the ANF, is one of the few people to make the argument in public. He denounces the federal magistrate's decision and argues that "the clear-cutting which is being used by environmental groups to oppose the plan would be permitted over a several-year period on less than 0.04 percent of the land, with much of that reflecting the removal of dead trees."

The Aug. 11 attack has only exacerbated the situation. Jim Kleissler, co-founder of the Clarion-based Allegheny Defense Project and one of the most effective critics of logging in the ANF since the mid-1990s, angered timber industry representatives in a Sept. 5 interview with the Times-Observer.

After condemning the attack and reiterating his organization's commitment to nonviolence, he slipped in a dig at forest managers: "We condemn any kind of action that would destroy property, just as we condemn the Forest Service's destruction of our public property [through timber harvesting and drilling]." Kleissler's detractors fume that while he might not like how the Forest Service manages the forest, it seems a stretch to equate it with arson and violent threats.

In the same article, Rep. Peterson charges that zero-cut advocates at the ADP played at least an indirect role in the assault, despite that fact that no one has presented any evidence implicating anyone from the group. "Whether they endorse it or don't, their radical approach is what attracts these other groups to try and stop good forestry research."

While understandable, perhaps, carping over the attack is distracting everyone from what will be one of the most important political, economic and environmental discussions of the next 20 years. In coming months, Forest Service officials will begin soliciting public input in their effort to revise the long-term forest plan for the ANF. The uproar over the firebombing threatens to overshadow critical decisions about wildlife protection, wilderness areas, what areas if any should be cut and what methods will be used for decades to come.

As the anniversary of Sept. 11 slips into memory, one of the most persistent questions about that horrifying day remains: Why didn't we see it coming?

Nobody thinks that eco-terrorists pose as grave a threat as al-Qaida, but there is an important parallel: ELF extremists have not shifted their focus from property destruction to physical violence, but the threat is on the table. If they follow through and taint the forest plan revision, thoughtful observers surely one day will ask, "Were there any warning signs?"

The answer will be a resounding yes: Aug. 11, 2002.

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