In the Willamette National Forest in Oregon, an arson fire destroys a ranger station. In Canon City, Colo., two men assault a federal Bureau of Land Management employee. Along a remote highway near Ely, Nev., a bullet hits the windshield of a vehicle driven by federal workers.
The "Sagebrush Rebellion" - the fight over control of federal lands in the West that pits environmental protection against economic interests - is taking a harsh turn. Caught in the cross hairs are employees of land-management agencies subject to threats of violence, assaults, and bombings and arsons directed at the facilities where they work.
Such attacks have increased since the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by a private group that provides legal support for government whistle-blowers. This group, the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), has gathered government data showing that in 1998 there were nearly 100 incidents in which agency employees or buildings "were the subject of physical attack, destruction, or a direct threat." Reported incidents involving the US Forest Service have increased 85 percent since 1995, according to this finding. Threats and violence against the federal Bureau of Land Management have jumped nearly fivefold.
Such attacks come from several sources: Antigovernment radicals, extreme "wise-use" proponents who believe public lands should be controlled by government at the local level (if at all). They also come from radical environmentalists whose protests against such things as logging on federal lands go beyond demonstrations and "tree sitting," animal-rights zealots, and criminals who vandalize facilities.
"It has become increasingly dangerous to be a federal land manager," says Rob Perks, who headed the research project for PEER. "More disturbingly, the agencies and the Department of Justice appear to be in denial about this problem. They have not vigorously pursued action against perpetrators...."
Agency officials deny such charges, pointing to prosecutions. A man accused of kidnapping a female Forest Service employee for three days in Oregon last summer was arrested by the FBI and local law enforcement and charged with state and federal crimes. The man charged with killing one Oregon State Parks worker and wounding another was quickly apprehended.
But the Justice Department has also urged Congress to repeal the federal law that directs it to compile annual data on violent acts and threats against federal, state, and local employees.
That law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, was passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, mostly federal employees.
In letters to congressional leaders, Justice Department officials describe the high costs and "significant practical difficulties" inherent in asking every city, county, and state to develop data-gathering systems.
Because of this official reluctance, "there has not been a credible data-collection system put in place," says Michael Pendleton, a senior researcher at the University of Washington.
As a result, Dr. Pendleton is not sure whether PEER's data is accurate. But his years of research have convinced him there is "a significant underreporting of crime data." And he faults the Forest Service for not adequately backing its employees.
The reasons for what appear to be a growing number of attacks against federal-land managers are complex. They involve firmly held beliefs about property rights and protecting the environment; changing values in the rural West as urban newcomers begin to outnumber ranchers, loggers, and miners; and an economy that is shifting from dependency on natural resources to one based on high-tech industries and tourism tied to the region's natural beauty.
In the wake of court decisions involving such contentious issues as the northern spotted owl, the amount of timber cut on federal lands has dropped sharply. Biologists say this is necessary for repairing ecological damage caused by years of industrial forestry.
But in the process, many rural communities are losing important sources of money for schools and roads as timber revenues decline. This has put pressure on the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, national landlords overseeing hundreds of millions of acres across the West. And with the recent listing of salmon as endangered species, the situation is expected to become even more troublesome.
Traditionally, the agencies have spent most of their efforts encouraging the harvesting of trees, the raising of cattle, and the extraction of minerals.
But in recent years, as public attitudes over the environment have shifted, the agencies have started to change direction as well. Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck tells all who will listen that "watershed health will be the overriding priority."
This riles people relying on national forests and rangelands for their livelihoods. In Minnesota recently, a group of contract loggers sued the Forest Service and two environmental groups on grounds that federal-land managers had adopted nature protection as a "religion," an outgrowth of what's called "deep ecology."
"There's a lot of pessimism, and there's a growing hatred for the federal government and these conservation groups," one logger told City Pages, a weekly newspaper in Minneapolis.
All this puts federal agencies in a tough spot, often criticized by both resource industries and environmentalists. As a result, local land managers, many of whom live in the communities where they work, feel the brunt of the frustration.
"They have to pick and choose their enemies, and that's felt by the ground-level officers," says Pendleton.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society