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The Radical Element: Violent Conflict Over Resources

Struggles over natural resources in the western United States have a history of violence. Wells poisoned. Fences ripped out. Mining claims ''jumped.'' Forest and range fires deliberately set. Bison slaughtered as a means of controlling Indians.

The recent bombing in Oklahoma City, with its apparent ties to anti-government militia, sends a reminder that environmental conflict, too, has its violent side. While the apparent cause in Oklahoma is a more general act of anarchy fueled by conspiracy theories, much of the militia activity in the West (where it is most heavily concentrated) is provoked by opposition to environmental and land-use laws and the officials responsible for enforcing them.

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There is a radical element in the environmental movement that supports destructive actions. There have been instances of ''monkey wrenching,'' in which equipment associated with power generation or resource extraction has been damaged or destroyed. And the sporadic ''spiking'' of trees as a warning to loggers can cause serious injury or death.

But most of the violence (real or threatened) over environmental issues has come from those opposed to government policies and regulations.

Environmentalists themselves have come under attack. One Greenpeace activist had her home firebombed. Two organizers for Earth First! were badly injured when a bomb went off in their car several years ago in California.

At a public hearing in Everett, Wash., last November, an Audubon Society activist was threatened by two men who fashioned a noose with a sign reading, ''This message is for you.'' The men identified themselves as being associated with a militia.

''The appearance of armed militias raises the level of tension in a region already at war over environmental and land use issues,'' writes Daniel Junas in the spring issue of ''Covert Action Quarterly,'' which was published before the Oklahoma bombing and the subsequent focus on militias.

A case involving enforcement of the Endangered Species Act in national forests in the Northwest is an example. Last month in Challis, Idaho, United States Militia Association leader Samuel Sherwood warned a gathering of supporters, ''All it's going to take is for this crazy judge ... to actually shut down the forests, and there will be blood in the streets.''

Sherwood reportedly urged those in attendance to ''get a semi-automatic assault rifle and a revolver and a uniform.''

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Government employees with such agencies as the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have been under fire for some time.

On March 30, a small bomb went off at the Forest Service office in Carson City, Nev. A similar explosion occurred at the BLM office in Reno last year. Local authorities think conflict over restrictions on logging and grazing could have prompted the attacks.

Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing groups with Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., notes that in those parts of the country where economic recovery has not occurred (such as mill towns and ranching communities in the West), ''hate speech'' and the scapegoating of environmentalists and federal land managers has been increasing.

''If you're an environmentalist, the shooting war began several years ago,'' he told National Public Radio over the weekend.

Much about the Western tradition is worth preserving: hard work; a unique blend of independence and community; a sense of place. But violent conflict over resources (or in its modern version, the environment) is not. Especially to the extent that violent rhetoric becomes aligned with violent acts like the bombing in Oklahoma City.

Most of the violence (real or threatened) over environmental issues has come from those opposed to government policies and regulations.

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