It may be the wartime mood, but lawmakers and law-enforcement agencies around the country are hot on the trail of terrorists.
Not the kind who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, but those who - in the name of animal rights and environmental protection - attack logging trucks, slaughterhouses, fur farms, and university research facilities.
Congress is working on legislation that would stiffen penalties and bring such crimes under federal racketeering laws. The FBI is deploying more agents to fight "ecoterrorists." Government land managers are stepping up security.
For the most part, crimes in the name of animals or the environment are carried out by small cells of individuals associated with a shadowy pair of apparently related groups that have no leaders or organizational structure: the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). There have been a few arrests in recent years, but the perpetrators seem to be as elusive as Osama bin Laden.
FBI counterterrorism chief James Jarboe told a House Committee this week that the ALF/ELF have committed more than 600 criminal acts in the US since 1996, resulting in more than $43 million in damages.
ELF's website boasts of "direct actions" on behalf of "animal liberation" and "earth liberation" and against genetic research and engineering - 137 illegal acts in 2001 alone. Among the most recent: A fire at a new University of Minnesota's Microbial and Plant Genomics Research Center in St. Paul and tree spikings in the Nez Perce National Forest in Idaho.
While the website offers how-to manuals on such things as "Setting Fires With Electrical Timers," it also claims to be "a nonviolent campaign, activists taking all precautions not to harm any animal (human or otherwise)."
Over the years, no one has been killed in any ecoterrorist "action." But officials reject the claim that ALF/ELF is "nonviolent."
"It's just a matter of time before a human life is taken," warns Rep. Scott McInnis (R) of Colorado, whose district includes Vail, where a 1998 arson fire at a new ski resort resulted in $12 million in damages and injured one firefighter.
ATTACKS by ecoterrorists are just one part of a broader clash in values between the Old and New West. Pro-environment newcomers now outnumber ranchers, loggers, miners, and others dependent on natural resources for their livelihood.
This has fueled other types of crime in the rural West, including the theft of natural resources and physical attacks on government land managers charged with protecting those resources.
Some experts say this is a more serious source of violence than periodic attacks by ELF members on bulldozers and mink ranches.
"While the $40 million dollars of damage attributed to ecoterrorist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front is clearly unacceptable and should be addressed, it pales in comparison to the $100 million dollar annual loss attributed to timber theft from national forests," says Michael Pendleton, a social scientist and former police officer from Washington State who has studied crime in the national forests.
And while US western myth and history includes a penchant for independence and freedom from government restriction, that history in recent years has included a growing number of attacks, including fire-bombings, aimed at those who wear the uniform of the US Forest Service, the US Bureau of Land Management, and other government agencies.
"There are far too many boastful threats about armed insurrection and civil uprising in the rural West to be sanguine about this situation," says Gloria Flora, a 22-year veteran of the US Forest Service. Ms. Flora resigned in 1999 to protest "pervasive and escalating intimidation and harassment" when she was supervisor of a Nevada national forest.
Some critics see the recent political hubbub over ecoterrorism as an excuse for tarring legitimate environmental activism.
"The 'ecoterrorist' label is a red herring," says Charlotte Fox, who works for the Government Accountability Project, a public-interest law firm in Washington. "Death threats, irresponsible gun use, theft of taxpayer resources, fraud, corruption, and other illegal activities are a daily challenge to federal land managers and law-enforcement personnel."
If the level of political rhetoric is any guide, the issue is likely to become as hot as a chain-saw blade or arsonist's torch.
"How best to deal with this home-grown brand of Al Qaeda? I propose that we use the model that has worked so well in Afghanistan," says Rep. George Nethercutt (R) of Washington. "Cut off their funding. Give them no rest and no quarter."
But Rep. Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia takes a different view. "Robbing future generations of Americans of the splendor and grandeur of publicly held natural resources is, in my book, a form of terrorism," Rahall says, referring to timber theft.