Nation Topics - Environmental Activism
News and Features
The $4.4 million damages award in June against FBI agents and Oakland
police for violating the constitutional rights of environmental
activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari, wrongly accused of terrorism in
1990, represents more than the culmination of a twelve-year struggle for
vindication. The case also highlights the risks of today's antiterrorism
measures and offers lessons both daunting and encouraging about the
In May 1990, an explosion tore through the car carrying Earth First!
organizers Bari and Cherney. Bari suffered a fractured pelvis; Cherney,
less serious injuries. They assumed the bombing was the work of
antienvironmentalists, meant to disrupt planning for the Redwood Summer
of civil disobedience against the logging of old-growth forest.
The FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force jumped to quite a different
conclusion. As soon as Bari and Cherney were identified, the FBI
informed the local police and leaked to the press that the pair were
terrorists. The authorities claimed that Bari must have made the bomb
herself and that it had accidentally exploded while the two were
carrying it to an unknown target. Bari was placed under arrest in her
hospital bed. Police and FBI agents searched houses in Oakland where
Bari and Cherney had stayed and questioned their fellow activists. Over
the next two months, until the government announced it would not charge
the two environmentalists, the local police and the FBI continued to
call them terrorists.
Only after years of litigation did the truth emerge: The FBI, before the
bombing, had been investigating Bari and Cherney because of their
political activism. When the bomb went off, the FBI shaded the facts to
fit an ideological presumption of guilt. It was also revealed that the
FBI, even after Bari and Cherney had been cleared, collected data
nationwide on hundreds of individuals and groups merely on the basis of
their association with the two Earth First! activists.
The case demonstrates how the truth will come out when the judiciary
fulfills its constitutional role. With patience, skill and funding,
committed activists and lawyers can bring accountability to the FBI.
Just as Bari and Cherney won, just as the secret evidence cases brought
after the 1996 antiterrorism law melted in the face of judicial
challenges, so the material witness detentions and other rights
violations of today will ultimately be held unconstitutional. But the
FBI and the Justice Department will resist oversight and use secrecy and
delaying tactics to evade accountability, prolonging personal and
political damage. Justice was too late for Judi Bari. She died of cancer
The most sobering lesson of the Bari-Cherney case may be this: The FBI's
focus on politics over hard evidence meant that the real bomber was
never captured. In the same way, the Attorney General's recent
announcement that the FBI can monitor meetings and groups with no prior
suspicion of criminal conduct is likely to take the FBI down the path of
investigations based on politics, ethnicity or religion, while real
terrorists escape detection.
When it comes to oil politics and Alaska the Bush Administration and the environmental movement are already treading the measures of a familiar dance. President Bush is insisting on the urgency of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He points to a supposed oil shortage that has somehow darkened homes and businesses up and down the West Coast. The environmental movement is already ramping up its national mail campaign rallying supporters for the battle to save the Refuge.
The actual game is bigger and more sinister.
Let's start by disposing of some myths. Start with the ludicrous claim of the Bush crowd that California's energy crisis can be solved by oil drilling in Alaska. Nationwide, oil provides only 3 percent of the source fuel used to generate electricity. In California the figure is less than 1 percent.
Bush is offering California exemptions from its supposedly onerous clean-air rules, claiming that once freed from such red tape the state's utilities and power producers could build a new generation of plants powered by fossil fuels. The Wildlife Refuge's oil won't be of much help here, since government officials estimate that even on an expedited schedule, oil couldn't flow from the Refuge until the year 2015.
Nor is the oil companies' problem in Alaska a shortage. Recall that back in 1995 British Petroleum, ARCO and Chevron entreated President Clinton to cancel the twenty-two-year ban on export of crude oil from Alaska to other countries. Congress had made such a ban a condition for permitting construction of the Alaska pipeline. The intent of the ban was to insure that Alaska's oil would help stave off any West Coast oil shortage. The companies wanted the ban lifted because they had a glut on their hands and required new markets.
Clinton dutifully assented, and the oil companies began exporting Alaskan crude forthwith to Japan, South Korea and China. The extremes to which they went in using Clinton's waiver to bilk US consumers came to light in January when The Oregonian won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, gaining access to 4,000 pages of documents in the Federal Trade Commission's files concerning the merger of BP-Amoco with ARCO.
An FTC economist had concluded that BP-Amoco was selling oil to Asian refineries at prices lower than it could sell to US refineries on the West Coast, in order to manufacture a US shortage. As evidence the FTC had e-mail traffic passing between BP managers who talked about "shorting the West Coast market" in order to "leverage up" the prices there. Another BP manager gloated that this scheme was a "no brainer." The FTC reckoned that this ploy allowed BP to hike prices at West Coast pumps by as much as 3 cents a gallon.
So the oil companies' strategy is to exploit the electricity crisis to seize at last a number of long-sought objectives: not just access to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which would be a great symbolic victory, but also tax breaks worth billions for oil and gas extraction from wells across the country.
The big prize for the oil companies in North America isn't the Refuge but sites off the Alaska coast and the Gulf of Mexico: "Deepwater," says Geoff Kieburtz of Salomon Smith Barney, "is where the real pure exploration activity is going on in this country." Here we come to one of the lesser-known legacies of the Clinton era. Under the encouragement of Bruce Babbitt's Interior Department, deepwater drilling operations nearly doubled in the Gulf of Mexico in the year 2000 alone.
Among those roaring their protests at this activity is Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, who three days after his brother's inauguration implored the new team to place a moratorium on deepwater wells in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, saying that "Florida's economy is based upon tourism and other activities that depend on a clean and healthy environment."
Right now the Interior Department is looking at 688 lease applications that piled up in the Clinton years for new offshore oil development in the Beaufort Sea, and from the Gulf of Alaska's Copper River Delta (perhaps the greatest remaining salmon fishery in the world), the Cook Inlet (flanked by the Katmai National Park and the Kenai Peninsula), Bristol Bay and the Chukchi Sea up by Point Hope, the entire coast of Alaska is in play.
At the national level the big environmental groups are focused entirely on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is indeed in peril. But they would be advised to learn the history of that very Refuge. It was originally set aside in 1957 by President Eisenhower. In the same package Ike's Interior Secretary, Fred Seaton, opened up 20 million acres of Arctic coastline to oil development.
There are local groups--from the Gwich'in trying to save the Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay, to the Inupiat Eskimos defending their whale hunting grounds against oil derricks in the Beaufort Sea, to the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks--taking on the oil companies' grand plan. They understand the stakes more clearly than the national green groups, with the laudable exception of Greenpeace.
As for the Wilderness Society, National Audubon and the others, rapt in their fixation on the Refuge, they seem to be ceding without a fight the rest of the Alaska coast, the Gulf of Mexico and maybe even the Rocky Mountain front. Just listen to Deborah Williams, executive director of the lavishly funded Alaska Conservation Foundation. She recently journeyed to the Refuge with Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes and vowed that not one oil rig would ever rise on the plains of the Refuge.
But at the same time Williams told the New York Times that she supports oil drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is eight times as large and just as pristine as the Refuge, because "I drive a car and use petroleum products. We all have to be responsible and balanced." Williams, it should be added, was working for Bruce Babbitt at the Interior Department as his Alaska specialist when he OK'd test drilling in that very part of the Alaskan tundra.
They'd rather die than admit it, but environmental organizations thrive on disaster. They remember well enough what happened when Ronald Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Hardly had Watt hung an elk head on his office wall before the big green outfits were churning out mailers painting doomsday scenarios of national parks handed over to the oil companies, the Rocky Mountains stripped for oil shale, the national forests clearcut from end to end.
By the time the incompetent Watt was forced to resign, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation had raised tens of millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of new members. All this money transformed the environmental movement from a largely grassroots network into an inside-the-Beltway operation powered by political operators in Washington, DC.
Then came the Clinton/Gore era. Because the mainstream green groups had anointed Gore as nature's savior and had become so politically intertwined with the Democrats, they had no way to disengage and adopt an independent critical posture when the inevitable sellouts began.
Thus it was that the big green groups let Clinton and Gore off the hook when the new administration put forward a plan to end "gridlock" and commence orderly logging in the ancient forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, they held their peace when Gore reneged on his pledge to shut down the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator in Ohio. Year after year they stuck to their basic game plan: Don't offend the White House; preserve "access" at all costs.
One consequence of this greenwashing of the Clinton Administration was a sharp decline in the green-group memberships. But by now the big green outfits had grown comfortable on fat salaries, inflated staffs and fine new offices.
To maintain the standard of living to which they had now become accustomed, the big green groups sought to offset their dwindling membership revenues by applying for help from big foundations like Rockefeller, the Pew Charitable Trusts and W. Alton Jones. But charity rarely comes without strings. All the above-mentioned foundations derive their endowments from oil, and along with the money they inherited an instinct for manipulation and monopoly.
By the mid-1990s executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts were openly declaring their ambition to set the agenda for the environmental movement during Clinton time, using as leverage their grant-making power. Let a small green group step out of line, and in the next funding cycle that group would find its grant application rejected not just by Pew but by most of the other green-oriented foundations that were operating like the oil cartel of old.
So now, with the shadow of a Republican administration across the White House, the green groups see a chance to recoup, using the sort of alarmism that served them so well in the Reagan-Watt years. Already during the campaign they painted George W. Bush as a nature-raper, and then, only days after the election on November 7, e-mail alerts began to flicker across the Internet, warning that the incoming Congress will be the "most environmentally hostile ever."
But how can this be, if we are to believe the premise of the big green groups, backed by regular "dirty-dozen lists" from the League of Conservation Voters, that Democrats are by definition kinder to nature than Republicans? Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives and now split the Senate with the Republicans 50/50. By this measure the e-mails rushing across the Net should be modestly optimistic instead of presaging doom.
In fact, one of the natural kingdom's greatest enemies in the US Senate, Slade Gorton of Washington, has gone down to defeat. Another nature-raper, Representative Don Young of Alaska, is being forced to vacate his chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, victim of a term-limits agreement by House Republicans a few years ago.
Good news doesn't raise dollars or boost membership. So the big green groups will go on painting an unremittingly bleak picture of what lies in store. But the likelihood is that a Bush administration won't be nearly as bad as advertised by alarmists.
Indeed, there are some causes for optimism. The model here is Richard Nixon, our greenest President, who oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and smiled upon our single greatest piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was trying to divide the left and worked to develop an environmental constituency. Bush, if he makes it to the White House, will be similarly eager to garner green support.
Bush will also be keen to undercut attacks on the question of his legitimacy as President, and a kinder, gentler policy on the environment would be one way to do it. The current betting is that his nominee for Interior Secretary will be Montana Governor Marc Racicot, a Republican version of the present incumbent of the post, Bruce Babbitt. If the speculation about Racicot is borne out, this would be a severe blow to the expectations of the Republican hard-liners, who yearn for Don Young to supervise the dismantling of whatever frail environmental protections America still enjoys.
Of course there will be savage environmental struggles over the next four years. Oil leasing will be one battlefield. Salvage logging will be another. But if you receive a hysterical mailer from one of the big green organizations, set it aside and give your support to one of the small groups that have been fighting doughtily on the same issues through Clinton time, when the big groups were toeing the party line and keeping their mouths shut. Why not, for example, send a check to Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, thus honoring its founder, the late David Brower?
In a small brick house strung year-round with Christmas lights, behind curtains made of flowered sheets, Jeremiah Smith is listening to his favorite preacher on the radio.