Today’s U.S. political climate is prompting environmental activists to use to carry out acts of civil disobedience, with the intent of calling attention to and halting environmentally-degrading practices and industries.
In Oregon, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is fighting alongside environmental advocates to defeat a bill in the state’s legislature that aims to classify acts of civil disobedience by environmentalists as a terrorist activity. The ACLU claims it’s a redundant, unnecessary piece of legislation that would infringe on protesters’ First Amendment rights.
On Monday, the Oregon House approved two bills aimed at environmental activists who are getting in the way of logging operations. HB 2595 classifies the actions of environmental activists who “interfere” with “management practices” in state forests to be subject to a felony carrying a maximum of 18 months in prison and a $125,000 fine for repeat offenders.
The other bill, HB 2596, gives private companies operating in the state forest the authority to sue environmental activists for charges relating to the cost in loss of production, creating a scenario that would pit an individual against the wealth of multinational oil companies.
It’s that latter portion of the bill that is causing excitement among logging companies. While activists can be arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct, they’re often released — and then they return. The Associated Oregon Loggers, the trade organization that represents the state’s logging companies, has been a vocal proponent of HB 2596.
“When protesters or obstructionist activities in the forest cause a contractor to go home, and they’re unable to perform their duties, that costs money,” Jim Geisinger, executive president of Associated Oregon Loggers told the Oregonian. “The value of these bills is to put people on notice that there are consequences to their illegal actions.”
The Oregon bill comes in the midst of a national debate, as recently released documents show the FBI has labeled the Earth Liberation Front, an organization dedicated to extreme acts of civil disobedience, an eco-terrorist organization, adding to the FBI’s operation against ecoterrorism in the U.S. — an initiative launched in 2004.
With calls for civil disobedience in the lead-up to Keystone Pipeline construction by organizations like the Sierra Club, environmentalists are keeping their eye on Oregon legislation, claiming the widespread adoption of similar laws could hamper the free speech of activists.
“For civil disobedience to be justified something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest,” Sierra Club Michael Brune said in a statement. “Such a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound act of patriotism.”
Can’t activists already be arrested?
With the bills on their way to the Senate, the environmental community is calling out lawmakers for passing a redundant law, as activists who step outside the realm of law are already subject to arrest for criminal mischief, property damage, trespassing and disorderly conduct, just as any other activists around the nation are.
This week in Minnesota, 35 members of the Catholic Workers Movement were arrested for blocking two ‘frac sand’ mining facilities, joining a movement throughout the U.S. of environmental advocates using civil disobedience to protect their land.
Meanwhile, on April 22, 61-year-old Alex Johnson was arrested in Arkansas for locking himself to a piece of machinery poised to begin construction on the pipeline.
While companies have the ability to sue activists at the moment, there are some nuances in the law that leave wiggle room for activists. Logging companies want to close them up.
“House Bill 2595 is effectively criminalizing civil disobedience for one particular group, and we think it’s really very dangerous to give this sort of discretion to law enforcement,” ACLU Legislative Director Becky Strauss told The Oregonian. “It’s taking conduct that can already be penalized under our criminal code and heightening the criminal penalties of the conduct, simply because of the content of the speech and the type of person who engages in the conduct.”
Logging in Elliott State Forest
The legislative actions come in the midst of a battle taking place in the heart of Elliott State Forest, where advocates have risked life and limb to defend the once-protected area from the logging industry.
“They are known to overturn their vehicles on roads, chain themselves to trees, chain themselves to equipment, damage equipment, dig ditches in the roads, drive spikes in trees to cause injuries to workers, among other dangerous acts,” Republican Rep. Wayne Krieger said. “This type of conduct cannot and should not be tolerated.”
Krieger was the first to claim that more aggressive measures are needed now to crack down on protesters fighting off increased efforts by the logging industry in Elliott State Forest.
According to a 2011 report by Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Department of State Lands was calling for double the effort for the logging industry in the state forest, in part to raise money for Oregon’s schools — with school funding tied to Elliot Forest land ownership, logging goes directly into the school’s coffers. Oregon’s constitution requires the State Land Board to generate the greatest amount of money for the schools.
Yet environmental advocates say the Department is doing so at the risk of violating agreements it reached with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — agreements aimed at protecting the habitats of spotted owls. This comes on top of the destruction of a forest filled with old-growth trees –an authentic classroom students could be learning from.