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Managing Protests on Public Land.

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.


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. When this occurs, officers on the scene usually cut off the activists' support system by not allowing other activists to provide food and supplies.

Just as they would do during a hostage or barricade situation, law enforcement officers also negotiate with the protestors. They may bring in technical or environmental experts who explain the government's position (the trees have died and need to be cut down, for example) or provide other information to help coax the activists from the site.


Removing activists from the demonstration site represents one step in handling environmental protests. At the same time, law enforcement must implement strategies to quell protests before they turn volatile. To do so, law enforcement must remain calm and professional while working behind the scenes to garner support from the community, the media, prosecuting attorneys, and the courts.

Prevent Altercations and Confrontations

Activists often disrupt or halt ongoing work, thereby affecting the livelihood of the workers. This causes hostility against the protesters and often leads to confrontations, which may result in repercussions for law enforcement. Following one incident, the activists filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the local sheriff's department and the Forest Service after loggers/contractors allegedly raided the activists' encampment, destroying property and threatening the activists. The lawsuit contends that neither the sheriffs department nor the Forest Service handled the incident responsibly. Law enforcement plays a key role in preventing such lawsuits by teaching their officers how to respond to potentially volatile protests.

Train Officers in Self-control and Confrontation Management

Although most officers have had basic training in confrontation management, officers who respond to protest activities should attend refresher courses. Many activists want the police to arrest them simply to gain publicity for their beliefs and causes. By their words and actions, protestors attempt to cause officers to react in an unprofessional manner and then rely on the media to exploit the behavior. Protestors may deliberately heckle and taunt officers to get them to use unnecessary force or make inappropriate comments. The entire incident may get recorded for posterity by the media or the protestors, who sometimes hide video cameras to film the reactions they provoke from law enforcement officers on the scene. By not allowing their emotions or personal beliefs to affect their actions, officers maintain the professionalism required to manage protests.

Gain Community Support

Communities readily lend their support when the local economy depends on work on public land; however, residents in larger, more cosmopolitan communities have less of a stake in the work. In fact, in these latter areas, a sizable number of people may sympathize with the activists' cause. Accordingly, law enforcement should not condemn the cause but, rather, should denounce the illegal tactics and acts of the protestors. The agency's public information officer plays a vital role by calmly, objectively, and accurately portraying the government's position. At the same time, a good working relationship with the media can ensure that the agency receives fair and favorable news coverage.

Get Good Press

Environmental activists depend on favorable press coverage and often attempt to influence reporters. The activists might portray the government agency as an illegal abuser of the environment. Law enforcement must have an equally good, if not better, relationship with the media to adequately counter the allegations the activists make. Thus, law enforcement agencies must appoint a competent and resourceful public information officer to accomplish the following objectives:

* provide accurate and timely information about protests and related issues to all concerned parties, including the media, without generating undue interest in and attention to the activists or compromising law enforcement operations;

* monitor media reports to ensure accurate news coverage; and

* maintain accurate records, including telephone calls and contacts.

Garner Support from Prosecuting Attorneys

Given their heavy caseloads, local, state, and federal attorneys may be somewhat reluctant to prosecute cases involving protest activities. Key law enforcement officials must establish sound relationships and open dialogue with prosecuting attorneys. In addition, ideally, one prosecutor should handle all of the cases in order to become knowledgeable of the intricacies of prosecuting these very difficult cases.

Earn Support of the Courts

Advance notice of potentially disruptive situations in the courtroom not only will aid in security preparations but also will gain favor with the presiding judge. Generally, large numbers of fellow activists appear in the courtroom in support of the activist/defendant's trial. Their exaggerated facial expressions and hostile demeanor reflect their disdain for law enforcement, the judicial process, and any questioning of their cause or actions. They may moan and groan or make comments that interrupt court proceedings. Obviously, judges do not look favorably upon these outbursts. They may grow intolerant of such behavior and tire of seeing the same individuals in their courtroom for similar offenses. As a result, they may impose harsher sentences, including jail time and strict conditions for release or probation. Accordingly, officers can work with probation and parole officers, providing information for presentence reports that may help judges formulate appropriate sentences. For example, a sentence that pro hibits a defendant from returning to the protest site can help law enforcement maintain order on the scene.


Whether they involve spotted owls in Oregon, timber in Montana, or wetlands in Florida, environmental protests occur throughout the United States. Peaceful demonstrations can quickly escalate to more serious violations of the law.

As the U.S. Forest Service has learned, managing protest activities can be intense, volatile work, requiring a balance between protecting the right for people to assemble and speak freely and enforcing the law when protesters' actions become criminal. To accomplish these goals, all affected local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies must cooperate. At the same time, law enforcement officers must develop close working relationships with the media, the community, prosecuting attorneys, and the courts.

Environmental activists show a commitment to their causes that few people can match. Dedicated, highly skilled officers performing their work in a professional manner can counter environmental protests while protecting public land for future generations.

Recently retired, Mr. King served as the special agent in charge of the Northern Region of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service in Missoula, Montana.

The author thanks Director William F. Wasley, Law Enforcement and Investigations Division, U.S. Forest Service, for his assistance in preparing this article.


(1.) Investigators may want to research the motives and methods of these groups. Many have Web sites that provide important intelligence, including for example, detailed descriptions of the devices they use to stage protests.
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Title Annotation:policing
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:The Community Outreach Program.
Next Article:Educational Assistance for Public Safety Officers' Survivors.

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