by Yuxing Zheng, cross posted from The Orgonian
SALEM — With talk about “environmental terrorism,” the Oregon House approved two bills Monday that target tree sitters and other environmental activists who interfere with logging in state forests.
House Bill 2595, which passed 43-12, would create the crime of interference with state forestland management. House Bill 2596, which passed 51-4, would allow private contractors with the Oregon Department of Forestry to sue environmental protestors for the cost of damaged equipment, employee wages, attorney fees and similar costs. Both bills head to the Senate.
The legislation comes amid divisive efforts to increase logging in Elliott State Forest near Reedsport and proposals to increase logging in federal forest lands. Environmental activists affiliated with Cascadia Forest Defenders and Cascadia Earth First! staged protests at Elliott State Forest in recent years and at the Oregon State Capitol in May and June 2012, which led to arrests.
“They are known to overturn their vehicles on roads, chain themselves to trees, chain themselves to equipment, damage equipment, dig ditches in the roads, drive spikes in trees to cause injuries to workers, among other dangerous acts,” said Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, who carried both bills. “This type of conduct cannot and should not be tolerated.”
House Bill 2595 would allow district attorneys “to charge these terrorists with a crime and make them accountable,” he said.
Krieger also cited protests at a State Land Board meeting in 2011 and sit-ins in the offices of Secretary of State Kate Brown and Treasurer Ted Wheeler in June 2012, when protestors locked themselves together. One protestor also urinated on the carpet in the offices of the treasurer, and protestors howled and made animal noises, Wheeler’s spokesman said. State police arrested six protestors.
The bills passed despite concerns from environmental activists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon that they would infringe upon free speech rights of environmental protestors. Activists can already be prosecuted for disorderly conduct, trespass, property damage and criminal mischief, said Becky Straus, legislative director of ACLU of Oregon.
“House Bill 2595 is effectively criminalizing civil disobedience for one particular group, and we think it’s really very dangerous to give this sort of discretion to law enforcement,” Straus said. “It’s taking conduct that can already be penalized under our criminal code and heightening the criminal penalties of the conduct, simply because of the content of the speech and the type of person who engages in the conduct.”
Defendants convicted of interfering with forestland management for the first time would face up to a year in jail, a $6,250 fine, or both. Subsequent convictions would net a minimum of 13 months in jail and a $25,000 fine. The maximum penalty would be 18 months in jail and a $125,000 fine.
If House Bill 2595 becomes law, environmental activists vow to challenge it in court.
“I can assure you that as soon as this bill becomes law, we’ll have as many people arrested and prosecuted under it as possible,” said Jason Gonzales, a spokesman with Cascadia Forest Defenders. “There’s no law that can stop somebody from acting on something they passionately believe in. There’s not some level of punishment that will make us not want to do that.”
Cascadia Forest Defenders has staged road blockades, tree sits and protests in Elliott State Forest in recent years. The group is opposed to an October 2011 decision to increase logging in the forest. Three environmental groups in May 2012 filed a lawsuit that said logging would threaten the marbled murrelet, a threatened sea bird.
Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, welcomed the passage of the two bills Monday. Although contractors can already sue for damages, current law is “a little vague and nebulous,” he said.
“When protestors or obstructionist activities in the forest cause a contractor to go home, and they’re unable to perform their duties, that costs money,” he said. “The value of these bills is to put people on notice that there are consequences to their illegal actions.”