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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Terrorism in a Small Town

Air Date: Week of

In rural Joseph, Oregon, a group of ranchers and loggers recently hung the tarred and feathered effigies of two local environmentalists. Patrick Cox of Oregon Public Broadcasting explores what is behind this public display of extreme anti-environmentalism.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Peaceful political protest is a fundamental right in the US, but recent times have seen some of the largest outbursts of political violence against individuals since the height of the backlash to the Civil Rights movement a generation ago. The series of murders of abortion clinic workers is the most extreme example of the trend, but not the only one. Dozens of environmental activists also report being personally targeted for their political beliefs and activities. Of course, the hands of environmentalists aren't completely clean themselves. Tree spiking and the sinking of whaling ships, for instance, have injured some, threatened lives, and destroyed property. But investigators say there's a widespread pattern of harassment and intimidation against environmental activists across America. That the harassment has sometimes turned violent with arson, rape, assaults, and attempted murder. And that the trend is closely linked to what's become known as the "wise use movement," which opposes restrictions on the use of private and public property. We'll talk about these charges shortly with a private investigator, and with a leader of the wise use movement. But first, Patrick Cox of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on hostile words and acts aimed at 2 environmental activists in the small town of Joseph, Oregon.

(Ambient voices on television)

COX: It's a cold December evening in Joseph, Oregon. Retired saw mill worker Paul Morehead and his wife Ethel are sitting in their front room watching a home video of a boisterous crowd. The Moreheads interpret the images for an out of town visitor.

E. MOREHEAD: You'll see 'em all lined up in front of the, with the dummies.

P. MOREHEAD: Some little kids come along; they decide they'd join in. (Laughs.)

E. MOREHEAD: Hang 'em high, honey!

COX: Despite the way the Moreheads are talking about it, the taped event is hardly a family affair. The screen shows 2 tarred and feathered dummies being strung up on the beams of one of Joseph's Main Street businesses. The effigies are meant to resemble Andy Kerr and Ric Bailey, both environmentalists who live in town. Paul Morehead helped organize the hanging.

P. MOREHEAD: There's quite a few of us here in the county that think that we've been fighting this battle wrong. And there's quite a few of us here that think that you just have to keep in these folks's face all the time, go after 'em.

COX: The mock hanging took place 3 months ago. The 50 or so people who cheered on were local timber workers and cowboys angry at all the unwanted changes buffeting their community. Two thirds of Wallowa County is Federal land. In pastures where cattle once roamed free, the government now strictly regulates grazing. Logging in recent years has drastically decreased, too, causing scores of layoffs and closing 2 local saw mills. Then, earlier this year, one of the environmentalists most hated by ranchers and timber workers, moved to town.

(Sound of a fire burning)

COX: Andy Kerr's new home is a log cabin overlooking a lake in the shadow of several 10,000-feet mountains. Even on a cool, wet night, it's clear why he moved here, and why Wallowa County has been dubbed the Switzerland of America. Living here among his critics hasn't softened Kerr. Inside his new home he rails against the local ranchers who have ostracized him.

KERR: If they want to play cowboy, they can play cowboy, I would argue. But they shouldn't do it with their hand in the taxpayer's pocket, and they shouldn't be fouling the public lands doing it.

COX: That's vintage Andy Kerr. Kerr heads the Oregon Natural Resources Council, and for years he spearheaded the fight to save the spotted owl. This year he called for the abolition of cattle grazing on public land, comparing its effects to child abuse. As his notoriety has increased, so too have the death threats.

KERR: You know, they either come in writing, or they come on an answering machine, and you could hear the tinkle of bar glasses in the background.

(Machine buzzes; sound of a computer modem making connection)

COX: Kerr now telecommutes to his Portland office via modem. His organization still files plenty of lawsuits, and Kerr still is a favorite of the region's media who turn to him for pithy, unapologetic sound bites. All the same, Kerr says he's surprised at the intensity of local feeling here.

KERR: They think that I'm out to get them or their lifestyle, and that's not it. If I was wanting to wage a social war on Wallowa County, it would frankly be easier to do if I didn't live here.

COX: Kerr is the better known of Wallowa County's 2 high-profile environmental activists. The other, Ric Bailey, is a long-time resident who heads a group dedicated to turning nearby Hell's Canyon into a national park. Bailey is used to hostility and boycotts. He hasn't been able to get his truck worked on locally for years. And since the hanging, some people are refusing to do business at the mall that houses Bailey's storefront office. His landlady would like him to move out of the mall, but Bailey says he's staying put. Unlike Kerr, he says he's not about to quit town.

BAILEY: My philosophy, having lived here for 17 years, has always been that you don't change your routine in order to accommodate intimidation. You don't change your beliefs, you don't change your way of doing things. If I want to go into the tavern and have a beer on a Saturday night, I'm going to do it. I'm going to live my life like a normal citizen of this community, like anybody else would do.

COX: Both Bailey and Kerr have discussed their situation with California-based private investigator Sheila O'Donnell. For several years, O'Donnell has monitored the growing movement of property rights, timber, ranching, and mining interests, which want to roll back government restrictions on land use. A conference featuring leaders of what's come to be known as the wise use movement took place in Joseph the same weekend as the effigy hangings. O'Donnell says the timing was no coincidence, and the hangings fit into a clear pattern.

O'DONNELL: I think it's a clear attempt to deprive people of their First Amendment rights. The wise use organizers actually talk about doing things to intimidate activists. Their intent is to silence activists and to make activists just stay home, and let the resource extractors have their way.

COX: Local support for such groups has been growing, says Phil Brick, an environmental politics professor at Whitman College in nearby Walla Walla, Washington. According to Brick, some locals feel hunted, and they've come to see their battle with environmentalists in more and more extreme terms. Brick says the targeting of Kerr and Bailey is a tactic to demonstrate their anger.

BRICK: And they want to make sure that the rest of the state understands that they're not going to be walked over. And they're not going to allow someone to move into their county who has, as their objective, what they see as the equivalent of ethnic cleansing. To remove them from the land.

(Cow mooing)

COX: At a cattle ranch a few miles from Joseph, Pat and Judy Wortman lead their herd of angus cows down from the mountainside for the winter. The Wortmans have hosted many wise use meetings: meetings that have taken an optimistic turn since November's Republican sweep of Congress. Many of the loggers and ranch hands who come to these meetings intensely dislike Andy Kerr and Ric Bailey. But they're also put off by the violent imagery of effigy hangings, and Judy Wortman says running environmentalists out of town is a waste of time.

WORTMAN: I don't see how those kinds of things are productive down the road. I see us as Wallowa Countians to have a major, major opportunity here in the next couple of years, legislatively, and I think one of the big battles that's going to happen is going to be amending the Endangered Species Act to include social and economics. And I'm sure as heck not going to spend my time on Ric Bailey and Andy Kerr if I can be back in Washington, D.C., and try to help change that Act.

COX: The radically changed political landscape may provide golden opportunities for some in Wallowa County. For others, it has pulled them back from the brink. Effigy hanging organizer Paul Morehead.

MOREHEAD: If we had not obtained control of the House and the Senate, there's no doubt in my mind that there would be armed insurrection.

COX: Morehead speaks of a future in which an environmentalist-run government will seek to de-populate Wallowa County, evicting people from their homes. He sees no irony in his own quest to drive Kerr and Bailey out of town, saying he just wants to make life so uncomfortable for them that they'll leave of their own accord. And if they don't, Morehead says he doesn't know what'll happen.

MOREHEAD: I've heard people say well, if I knew I had a terminal illness, I'd go out and I'd take care of these guys. And I said you mean to tell me that you would go out and you would commit murder, sacrifice your soul, and they'd stop and they'd say well, maybe not.

COX: Despite all the talk, no one has physically attacked either Kerr or Bailey. All the same, both say they're taking a few extra precautions without letting the threat of violence rule their lives. As Andy Kerr says, Wallowa County may be dangerous, but it's no more dangerous than living in most big cities. For Living on Earth, I'm Patrick Cox in Portland.



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