Managing Protests on Public Land

By King, Thomas R. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Managing Protests on Public Land


King, Thomas R., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


National parks, forests, and other public land comprise nearly 37 percent of the land mass of the United States. While many citizens view them as vacation destinations or recreational havens, others use them as arenas to voice their political views. Indeed, demonstrations and protests often occur on public land, as citizens express their environmental concerns, such as objections to timber sales or grazing permits or the management of natural resources. Environmental activists claim no link to any groups but rather to philosophies, concepts, and ideals, such as Earth First!, the Earth Liberation Front, and similar movements. A strong polarization often exists between environmental activists and land managers, producing situations that may become volatile.

Because the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens freedom of speech and the right to assemble, protesters are well within their rights to gather peacefully. However, in many instances, the protests and demonstrations go too far and include acts that constitute violations of state and federal laws. For example, during the 1990s, special agents and law enforcement officers from the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with state and local authorities, and the FBI when appropriate, arrested and charged more than 1,000 individuals in the Pacific and Inland Northwest, mostly involving illegal acts committed during timber sale protests. In these and other protests, the acts involve predominantly nonviolent misdemeanors but occasionally include more serious violations, such as the vandalism of expensive logging equipment and assaults on officers.

The great expanse of public land combined with increasing environmental concerns means that any jurisdiction may face these protests. The expertise that Forest Service agents have developed can serve as a guide to other officers, helping them manage protests and reduce the chance of misunderstanding, litigation, and injury.

ACTS OF ACTIVISM

Environmental activists are persistent and resourceful. They can exist at a protest site for months, going so far as constructing snow caves for habitation during inclement weather. Many of these individuals remain extremely dedicated to their causes. For example, Earth First! lives by the motto, "No Compromise for Mother Earth." The commitment these groups possess strengthens their resolve and leads them to perform illegal acts to achieve their goal of stopping the officially sanctioned activity. These acts range from merely locking themselves to gates and thereby denying access to a timber sale area, for example, to imaginative and sophisticated lockdowns, blockages, and obstructions. [1]

The protestors may pile logs and debris onto the road to disrupt access, remove culverts from recently constructed roads, and spike trees to inhibit harvesting. More ambitious acts include locking themselves to one another or to special devices, including a "sleeping dragon," a pipe cemented into a road bed into which the protestors can lock their arms. They also may construct bipods and tripods--two or three upright logs lashed together diagonally, anchored in a road, and secured with a system of cables. The activists sit 30 feet or more above the ground on a platform at the top of the bipod or tripod. They then lock themselves to the structure with a device called a "bearclaw," two pipes welded together at a 45-degree angle.

To remove the protestors, specially trained law enforcement officers must use what is commonly called a "cherry picker" (such as those used by telephone line repairers) to lift themselves up to the bipod and then carefully remove the activist from the device. The ever-resourceful protesters bypass this strategy by placing platforms high up (often more than 100 feet) in large trees. This poses a particular problem because law enforcement's equipment cannot reach that height, and no other means exist to safely remove the activists from the platform. …

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