Snoop: The Secret Life and Prying Times of Barry Clausen
Who is Barry Clausen and why has his two-bit cloak-and-dagger act made so many radical environmentalists, FBI agents, animal rights activists, and conservative ideologues furious?
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If you were to describe the office of North American Research, this is what it might look like: First, a massive, dented metal desk, the kind you find in rural insurance outposts, dominates the room. Then a few overstuffed filing cabinets (one of them plastered with the bumper sticker I LOVE ANIMALS: THEY’RE DELICIOUS!) crowd the door. Old, faded issues of Earth First! Journal litter the floor. A dog-eared copy of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching rests next to the coffeemaker, around which are clustered Styrofoam cups stained with yesterday’s inspiration. Pinned to the wall is the de rigueur “WANTED BY THE FBI” flyer, and taped to the window, a relic of the spotted-owl wars: “This business supported by timber dollars.”
That might be what the office looks like, but it’s impossible to say, because Barry Clausen, 58-year-old rogue private investigator, self-styled ecoterrorism expert, and moving force behind North American Research, a one-man information clearinghouse targeting radical environmentalism, refused to reveal the location of his workplace for this article. He also would not give out his home address, was leery of divulging his e-mail alias, declined to disclose his wife’s last name—and now that you mention it, he’d prefer that you forget her first name, too. Clausen resides in a world insulated by double-secret precaution. “I have no doubt that somebody would like to find me,” he says ominously.
Clausen’s got reason to be more than a little paranoid. Over the last decade he has succeeded in turning himself into the radical environmental movement’s chief persecutor. Why haven’t you heard of him? In part, because that’s the way Barry likes it. But for good or ill, his reputation in green political circles is sharply defined.
“Barry Clausen is a fraud who aims to discredit the environmental movement by any means necessary,” proclaims Tarso Ramos, research director of the Western States Center, a left-wing research organization with headquarters in Portland, Oregon. One Earth First! activist describes him as a “professional snitch”; another calls him “nothing but a pain in the ass.” Some say Clausen is a distortion artist out to smear legitimate conservationists as “ecoterrorists” and whip up public fear about nonviolent environmental groups. Others just find him hard to take seriously. “Truthfully,” says Portland, Oregon–based Craig Rosebraugh, spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, “I think he’s a fool.”
“Barry,” says Asante Riverwind, a director of Oregon’s Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project who has sparred with Clausen off and on for ten years, “is going to need a lot of healing at some point in his life.”
What has this man done to attract such vitriol and mockery? A lot, actually. In the shadowy world of private intelligence-gathering, Clausen’s specialty is the eco-activist database. An insatiable reader and avowed pack rat of radical publications like Earth First! Journal, the British eco-zine Green Anarchist, the Animal Liberation Front newsletter The Underground, and Black Clad Messenger, a sort of New Republic for Eugene, Oregon–based anarchists, he keys every byline, subject, date, and suggested industry target into his computer. (The subscriptions aren’t in his name, of course; a friend with a post office box forwards them.) When he hears about an Earth First! rally or an animal rights protest, he often shows up to record names, car makes and models, and plate numbers. When he hears about an act of ecotage—a firebombing or fur protest, for instance—he’ll call up the victimized company or local police agency and let them know he has information that might prove useful. It’s an operation built on the backdoor quid pro quo. “Barry knows a lot of players,” says one FBI agent (who, along with many other officials in law enforcement and the timber industry, declined to go on the record about Clausen).
This avocational snooping might pass unremarked if it weren’t in service of a larger goal, which is to unmask Earth First! as the most criminal bunch of American radicals since the Weather Underground. Since 1990, when he briefly infiltrated Earth First! chapters in Montana and Washington, Clausen has tracked the group and its members with a doggedness that borders on obsession. But obsession has its weird ego perks. ABC News, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press, and countless radio talk shows have all turned to him for quotes on environmental extremism. While some observers might argue that Earth First! was already on the wane as a force to be reckoned with by the time Clausen made the group his bête noire, he continues to portray it as a Sinn Fein–like front for such violent groups as ALF and ELF, which use “direct action” (read: arson, destruction of property) to get their point across.
“The original concept of Earth First! was to make other environmental organizations look more mainstream,” Clausen contends. “But the group’s radicalism has escalated, and now there’s basically no control. Even [cofounder] Dave Foreman left Earth First!. It’s one thing to protest or spray graffiti. What they advocate has gone beyond that. It’s gone into terrorism.”
Environmentalists write him off as a kook, and even some of his allies treat him with suspicion. And yet Clausen’s campaign, conducted from the hinterlands of the West, has influenced the environmental debate far out of proportion to his fans (few), his fame (negligible), and his funding (nonexistent). Which is to say, when Clausen talks, some powerful people listen. Two years ago, members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime listened as he gravely warned that Earth First! “advocates anarchy, revolution, and terrorism to the youth of our country.” FBI agents, assistant U.S. attorneys, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have debriefed him on some of the most well-known eco-crimes of the last decade, including the Unabomber case and the 1998 firebombing of Two Elk Lodge in Vail, Colorado. And as incidents of crop-crushing by anti–genetic engineering groups increase (more than two dozen have already been reported this year in the U.S. and Canada), leaders in agricultural research are turning to Clausen for information on activists in the so-called Frankenfood battle.
For a man caught up in such a high-pitched sociopolitical battle, Clausen maintains a complex relationship with the facts. “Barry’s not so stupid that he’ll just make things up,” explains one acquaintance. “There are just enough kernels of truth to what he says to make the whole thing sound credible.” Perhaps the strangest fact of all is that underneath his outrageous conspiracy theories and cloak-and-dagger theatrics lies an uncomfortable truth about radical environmental activism in the year 2000: It ain’t just monkeywrenching anymore.
Before Clausen agrees to meet face-to-face, he has a couple of important issues to discuss.
“Do you eat meat?” he demands.
As long as it’s medium rare, I tell him.
“Ah-huh. And what kind of beer do you drink?”
The cheap kind, I say. This goes over well. He agrees to pick me up in a couple of weeks at the airport in Redding, California, which is about as close as he’ll come to disclosing where he lives.
Before I meet him, I track down a copy of Walking on the Edge, Clausen’s self-published 1994 memoir. Spanning 1986 to 1993, the book details his struggle to become an undercover police informant on small-time drug deals in rural Montana. The author is referred to as “Barry,” à la “Mailer” in Armies of the Night, but there the resemblance ends.
[quote]Clausen might not merit attention if it weren’t for his larger goal: to unmask Earth First! as the most criminal bunch of American radicals since the Weather Underground.[/quote]
Plot point No. 1: Barry, a navy veteran and former railroad engineer, hires on with a computer company in Montana only to discover that the outfit is a cocaine smuggling front. “Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!” exclaims our author. Plot point No. 2: Barry contacts the state attorney general’s office and offers his services as an undercover source. The cops are impressed by his ability to chat up the local riffraff. “Hell,” one agent tells him, “you could teach some of the regulars a thing or two.” Barry thrives on the shadow work and helps break up a marijuana-selling ring. Plot point No. 3: When the market for amateur narcs dries up, Barry hires on as a seasonal trail worker for the U.S. Forest Service and meets Bruce Vincent, owner of a small family-run logging operation in northwest Montana. Vincent believes that his dump trucks and backhoes have been vandalized by radical environmentalists. “If these radicals are doing this kind of damage,” asks a perplexed Barry, “how come they aren’t in jail?” Aha! Which leads to Plot Point No. 4: After he drops hints about his investigative acumen, a group of loggers hires Barry to infiltrate Earth First!. He trades in his Trans Am for a beater truck, pulls on his scruffiest clothes, and learns the finer points of tree-sitting. But after attending Earth First! rallies and actions for nearly a year, Clausen’s information leads to no arrests. Alas, the book ends with a whimper: The FBI stops returning his phone calls, the loggers cancel his contract. “Barry,” writes Barry, “was disappointed, discouraged, disillusioned, and disgusted.”
As a self-portrait, it’s a bit thin. And getting Clausen to fill in the gaps takes time. Born in 1942, young Barry spent his childhood running an old skiff down the Fraser River in Vancouver, British Columbia, catching salmon and selling them at his grandfather’s boat-repair shop. The Huck Finn days ended at 12 when his folks split up and he moved with his mother to Seattle. He left high school to join the U.S. Navy, where he learned how to fuel carrier jets and bust a little ass on shore patrol. After a six-year hitch, just as Vietnam was heating up in the mid-1960s, he punched out and took a job running freight on the Burlington Northern line from the Rockies to the Pacific. His railroad job kept him occupied for 15 years or so. But by the early eighties he’d decamped to Livingston, Montana, and started doing odd jobs for a small gang of Hollywood expats, among others, who had washed up in Big Sky Country. As Barry tells it, he ran into Peter Fonda at the grocery store, they hit it off, Fonda invited him to a party where he met Jeff Bridges, and the next thing he knew he was caretaking on Bridges’s ranch and earning side money hauling Tom McGuane’s cutting horses to Texas. (Reached in Montana, McGuane confirmed that Clausen had done some work for him but said he hadn’t seen him in more than a decade.) After that Barry hired on with a startup computer company only to discover…well, that’s where we came in.
At the Redding airport, Clausen isn’t hard to spot. Wearing a stonewashed denim jacket and sporting a wispy tuft of thinning black hair, he looks like a shady character who just stepped out of a Coen Brothers movie. I find him standing next to a shrine to local athletes who done good. “Huh,” he says, indicating a photo of a former U.S. Ski Team member. “Knew that guy.”
Did you ski with him? I ask. He looks me straight on, which is slightly unnerving because his thick glasses give him egg-yolk-size orbs. “Yeah,” he says. “Way back when.”
We hop into a van, which may or may not be his, about which he’d rather I didn’t reveal make, model, color, or plate, and which he later claims is equipped with sensitive remote recording equipment. He tells me about a conversation he had earlier that morning with a contact at the FBI. “I told him you only got two problems over there,” Clausen says. “Janet Reno and Louis Freeh. And he says to me, ‘Well, you got one out of two right.’ Tells me Freeh’s not the problem.”
[quote]“You go back and tell your leadership that I can show them how to predict one of these crimes in advance,” Clausen told FBI agents. “It’s as simple as that.”[/quote]
Not the most shattering insight in the world, but it’s Barry’s way of saying I shoot the shit with G-men. He’s got my attention.
Who told you this? I ask.
“A guy I know at the FBI.”
Yeah, but at what office?
“Oh, he’s just a contact. He helps me out, I help him.”
Clausen’s Clouseauian caginess only gets more maddening when you uncover those elusive “kernels of truth.” What he knows isn’t all that different from what you or I could pull down off the Internet: incidents of ecotage taken from the ALF/ELF Web site; backgrounders on major ALF figures from the fur industry trade organization Fur Commission USA; news clips about eco-vandalism. But like any good information-economy hustler, he combines this raw material with his own snoop-gotten data to create a value-added product. Ron Arnold, father of the antienvironmental Wise Use movement and author of Ecoterror: The Violent Agenda to Save Nature, has mixed feelings about Clausen. He describes the amateur sleuth as a “gadfly” with an uncommon talent for repelling both money and credibility. But he can’t deny the quality of his information. “The thing about Barry,” Arnold says, “is that his data is really good. It’s better than a lot of the FBI stuff. That’s what’s aggravating about him: He’s right so much of the time, and nobody will listen to him.”
Sometimes law enforcement officials are forced to listen to him. They do not, as a rule, enjoy it. When ELF claimed responsibility for the $12 million Vail fire in 1998, two agents from the FBI’s San Francisco bureau interviewed Clausen. They got an earful. “You go back and tell your leadership that I can show them how to predict one of these crimes in advance,” Clausen says he told them. “It’s as simple as reading.”
[quote]“Am I worried about his database?” asks ELF spokesperson Craig Rosebraugh. “No. If he had anything, there’d have been arrests years ago. And there’s been nothing.”[/quote]
This sort of attitude goes down poorly with federal agents. (The two in question politely declined to comment.) When asked about Clausen, Doug Auckland, a domestic terrorism specialist in the FBI’s Seattle office, answers, “Well, I know who he is, but…” He pauses and ponders the subject with an amused sigh. “I’m not going to comment. And I think the Bureau’s position is going to be not to comment.” I got this a lot: A moment of recognition (“Oh-ho! Barry, my man!” crowed one FBI agent) followed by a denial of any working relationship. “I am aware of him,” says Tom Lyons, head of law enforcement for the U.S. Forest Service’s 25 million acres in the Pacific Northwest. “When he has raised issues in the past, or felt that he had information, our investigative teams have contacted him. As they do with anybody who comes to us with information.”
Two years ago, Clausen tells me, he was subpoenaed by an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland to testify about ELF and ALF before a federal grand jury investigating the Vail fire, as well as arson incidents at a Bureau of Land Management wild horse corral in Burns, Oregon, and a meat processing plant in Redmond, Oregon. Can you prove it? I ask. He faxes me the subpoena. “When I first started doing this,” he says, “law enforcement wouldn’t talk to me. But as things progressed, there were officers that realized, ‘Wait a minute, Clausen has something.'”
Sometimes, though, they don’t need what he’s got. Take the Unabomber frenzy of 1996. Shortly after the mail-bomb murder of California Forestry Association president Gil Murray in April 1995, a CFA official discovered an article headlined “Eco-Fucker Hit List” in a 1990 issue of a Northwest eco-zine called Live Wild or Die. At the top of the list was the Timber Association of California—the former name of the CFA and the organization to which the bomb had been addressed. Third on the list was Exxon, whose purported employment of ad executive Thomas Mosser was the motive behind his mail-bomb murder the previous December. Clausen obtained a copy of the list and waited until August 2, 1995—the day The New York Times and The Washington Post published excerpts from the Unabomber’s manifesto—to leak it to reporters. After it came out, an FBI spokesman told the Sacramento Bee, “we have met with [Clausen] and we are very interested in what he has to say.” You could almost hear their teeth grinding. The Bureau already knew about the list; all Clausen did was make it public.
Shortly after Theodore Kaczynski was arrested in the spring of 1996, Clausen overplayed his hand once more in attempting to connect Earth First! to the Unabomber. He claimed that Kaczynski had attended a 1994 Native Forest Network conference in Missoula, Montana—where members of Earth First! were also present—using the alias “T. Casinski.” ABC News, Newsday, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other media outlets repeated Clausen’s claim. Few mentioned that the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the U.S. Forest Service were also at the conference, and none questioned the logic of his claim, i.e. why Kaczynski would assume a name so similar to his own.
When he produced no hard evidence to back up his claim (Clausen says he got the information from an FBI agent), Earth First! fired back and shifted the story to his credibility. “He is a wanna-be informant who has been rejected by every law enforcement agency he has tried to work with,” read one Earth First! release, which went on to quote Horace Mewborn, an FBI domestic terrorism specialist. In 1995, Mewborn testified in federal court as part of Earth First! leader Judi Bari’s suit against the FBI and the Oakland Police Department for allegedly mishandling the case of a 1990 car bombing that shattered her pelvis and injured fellow EF! activist Darryl Cherney. (Bari and EF! claimed it was an act of antienvironmental terrorism; the police and FBI suspected the two were transporting the bomb themselves. The case was never solved, and Bari died of cancer in 1997, but her suit lives on. It’s slated to be heard in federal court in October 2001.) “We did some other agency checks about Clausen,” Mewborn said. “His name came up in other places…and they said he was not reliable.”
Still, if Clausen’s evidence was shaky, his instincts were sound. When FBI agents searched Kaczynski’s Montana cabin, they found a copy of the June 21, 1993, “Litha” edition of Earth First! Journal, which asserted (erroneously) that Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm Thomas Mosser worked for, helped Exxon clean up its image after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. By itself, this proves nothing—Kaczynski’s cabin was overflowing with ephemera. But agents also found a letter written to Earth First!, titled “Suggestions for Earth First!ers from FC.” (“FC” was the alias the Unabomber used in correspondence.) The letter stated in part, “As for the Mosser bombing, our attention was called to Burson-Marsteller by an article that appeared in the Earth First! Litha.” This comes not from Clausen but from the prosecutors at Kaczynski’s January 22, 1998, federal court hearing—evidence that Kaczynski confirmed.
Although Clausen likes to shroud his work in mystery, what it involves, mostly, is showing up and taking notes. Four years ago, when he operated North American Research out of Port Ludlow, Washington, a number of Seattle-area butcher shops got hit with ALF graffiti and had their locks glued. Clausen clipped the reports and started a file. A few weeks later a handful of activists were arrested while protesting the sale of fur-trimmed coats at Seattle’s Bon Marché department store. From those arrest records Clausen gleaned a dozen names and the address of a rooming house. Two weeks later, the same activists took their protest to the home of Bon Marché’s then-CEO, Ira Pickell. There they were met by Mrs. Pickell, armed with a garden hose. At the end of the day, three soaked protesters pressed assault charges against her.
At the ensuing trial, Clausen showed up with a camera and a notepad. During a recess, he approached the activists in the parking lot, posing as a journalist. “I’d really like to get an interview,” he told them. Not now, they said, talk to us after the trial. He pushed (“I’m a friend, come on,”) and eventually one of them, he says, admitted his ties to ALF.
“That,” Clausen chuckles, “is how stupid they are.”
It bears noting that “ties” to extremist groups like ALF and ELF are tenuous by design. With no hierarchy, no communication between cells, and no leaders—only “spokespeople” like ELF’s Craig Rosebraugh and ALF’s David Barbarash—these groups maintain a membership-by-deed policy. You or I could become a “member” of ALF tonight by gluing the locks of a butcher shop and publicizing the deed on the group’s Web site.
As ecotage, this is far more cold and calculating than the Merry Pranksterish ethos of Clausen’s dread nemesis, Earth First!. Cofounded in 1980 by five fed-up enviros, including former Wilderness Society lobbyist and de facto ringleader Dave Foreman, Earth First! was supposed to be “a new joker in the deck,” pledging militancy and what Foreman called, with a tip of the hat to the novelist Edward Abbey, “monkeywrenching”—the kind of creative sabotage employed by tea-dumping colonists and IWW unionists of yore. By being unabashedly radical—questioning the notion of “progress” and embracing direct action—Earth First! provided cover for mainstream environmental groups. Yet it also pressed bold ideas (dam removal, Deep Ecology, a logging ban in national forests) that were later championed by the environmental old guard.
Earth First!ers became the shock troops of the environmental movement by employing shocking tactics. Tree spiking, an old Wobbly trick, attracted plenty of press, most of it bad. In 1987, a 23-year-old mill worker in Cloverdale, California, was hospitalized with facial wounds when his saw blade shattered upon hitting a 60-penny nail embedded in a second-growth redwood. Earth First! was never found responsible for the incident, but it didn’t make much difference; its advocacy of spiking was common knowledge. (Foreman had even published lessons in his 1985 manual, Ecodefense.) In the early 1990s, however, Foreman and other leaders left Earth First! and the group modified its tactics. Judi Bari, a leader of their Northern California Headwaters forest campaign, convinced the organization to renounce tree spiking and other forms of monkeywrenching and turn to gentler modes of civil disobedience (like Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s two-year stint in a northern California redwood). “It’s time to leave the night work to the elves in the woods,” she wrote in the February 1994 issue of Earth First! Journal.
The elves were happy to oblige. Earth First!’s mainstreaming ushered in an alphabet soup of ecotage groups willing to take up the monkey wrench. And then some. ELF announced its arrival in October 1996 by torching a Forest Service pickup and leaving an unexploded firebomb on the roof of a ranger station in Oregon’s heavily logged Willamette National Forest. A few months later, in a letter to the forest supervisor, ELF announced an alliance with the long-established ALF. “Leave the forests alone,” the letter read, “and no one gets hurt.”
[quote]“You have been targeted,” read the note. “If you don’t heed our warning, we will turn your violence back upon you.” A schematic drawing of a poster tube bomb was attached.[/quote]
The distinctions between the two groups are blurry at best. “I don’t think [ELF and ALF] were ever really separate,” says longtime ALF activist Rod Coronado. Their members often come out of the same anarchist ranks that marched on Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization meetings. Lately this cross-pollination has spread to the crop-crushing underground, which includes over a dozen groups that share an affinity for monikers seemingly cribbed from thrash metal bands—Minnesota’s Bolt Weevils, Hawaii’s Menehune, Wisconsin’s Seeds of Resistance—and count radical animal and eco-activists as sympathizers. For instance, ALF press spokesman David Barbarash, a 36-year-old activist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, also works with Genetix Alert, a group that uses the Internet to publicize direct action against genetic engineering companies.
With its 1998 arson attack on the Vail ski resort, a Christmas 1999 firebombing of a Boise Cascade office in Monmouth, Oregon, and the December 31, 1999, torching of a genetic engineering research office at Michigan State University’s International Institute of Agriculture, ELF has effectively become the most destructive group on the radical fringe. And although Earth First! has renounced monkeywrenching, members are often careful not to denounce ELF’s actions. When asked about their relationship with the ELF “elves,” Andy Caffrey, who operates an Earth First! press office in northern California, said, “That’s not an appropriate question for Earth First!. Some people think a more militant approach is justified, but the vast majority of Earth First!ers think [ELF] is totally irrelevant to Earth First!.”
Above all, the thing that makes ALF and ELF so formidable is their lack of organization. The “leaderless resistance” model was pioneered in America by right-wing Christian Identity terrorists in the 1980s. “It’s created some real problems for law enforcement,” says Brent L. Smith, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of Terrorism in America. As David Tubbs, the FBI’s former head of counterterrorism, once remarked, proving a case against ALF is “like trying to grab Jell-O.”
Clausen knows from Jell-O. He stayed on that ALF case long after the trial (Mrs. Pickell was not convicted). Through arrest reports and newspaper articles, he followed one activist as she road-tripped across the country from Oregon to California to Minnesota. In October 1997, nearly a year after the first Bon Marché protests, ALF activists went on a rampage in central Wisconsin, releasing 3,600 minks from three fur farms and causing $200,000 in damage. Two suspects were ultimately indicted in the case. Both had ties to the earlier Bon Marché protests. Did Clausen’s information lead the cops to the suspects? Probably not. The ALF activists revisited the crime scenes, and alert local farmers wrote down their license plate number. Did his information help? Possibly. Barry Babler, an FBI special agent who worked the case, recalls Clausen calling up to talk about the crimes after the suspects were nabbed. “He seemed to know what he was talking about,” says Babler, “but I can’t say his information was crucial.”
This is why radical environmentalists who don’t loathe Barry Clausen often laugh at him. They believe, unlike Ron Arnold, that the cupboard is bare. “He called me up once just to tell me that he wanted me to know that he knew who set the Burns BLM fire,” says ELF spokesperson Craig Rosebraugh, referring to the November 29, 1997, blaze in central Oregon, claimed jointly by ELF and ALF, in which 600 wild horses and burros were released. “Am I worried about his database? No. If he had anything, there’d have been arrests years ago. And there’s been nothing.”
Well, very little. ALF activists are tough to convict, but they aren’t untouchable. In 1994, ALF spokesman Barbarash spent three and a half months in jail for a raid on a University of Alberta medical laboratory. Rod Coronado, 34, served three and a half years in state prison for torching another Michigan State University agricultural research lab. Police have yet to charge a suspect in any ELF-related case, but they may be coming close. In February, federal agents in Portland raided Rosebraugh’s home and seized his possessions, including his computer hard drive, in an attempt to find evidence linking him and other activists to the Vail fire.
Not all activists share Rosebraugh’s dismissive attitude toward Clausen. At last year’s Earth First! Round River Rendezvous in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, Clausen talked to a number of people before being recognized and shooed away. Several members of the Biotic Baking Brigade, the pie-launching group famous for the 1998 creaming of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, happened to be attending the gathering. Seizing the moment, they grabbed their tins and tailed Clausen to the nearby town of San Luis. “As Clausen snitched away on a pay phone,” recalled “Agent Apple” in a subsequent issue of Earth First! Journal, “the pie militants launched a delicious salvo of edible missiles: chocolate, banana-marshmallow and lemon cream. Triple sploosh!”
“As long as spies lie,” warned a BBB operative, “the pies will fly!”
“I knew something like that could happen,” Clausen says of the splooshing. “I chased ’em and got their plate number and ran it, so I know who it was.” He declines to name his attackers.
The warnings aren’t always so comical. Last August, Clausen received an envelope stuffed with razor blades and a warning from the Justice Department, an ALF splinter group: “You have been targeted. You have until autumn of the year 2000 to get out of the bloody fur trade. If you don’t heed our warning, we will turn your violence back upon you.” A schematic drawing of a poster tube bomb was attached.
“I still don’t want to do this,” Clausen tells me over cheeseburgers at a Redding brewpub. “People tell me I’m crazy for talking to you.”
This media shyness is something new. In the past, Clausen has courted anyone with a byline. But last year, The Wall Street Journal ran an article that questioned his anti-ecoterrorism crusade; he calls it “the hit piece.” It takes a full day of negotiations before he’ll submit to an on-the-record interview. When we finally talk, he brings his own tape recorder and reveals the reason for his earlier dietary queries.
“Basically [the Journal reporter] was a vegan,” he says. “That’s why I asked if you drank beer and ate meat. I stood there while he checked into this $150-a-night bed-and-breakfast and the lady asked him if he wanted bacon or sausage with breakfast. He said, ‘No, I don’t eat meat.'” Clausen gives me a look that says, Tell me there ain’t something fishy about that. (For the record, the Journal reporter, Bob Ortega, is not a vegan. He confesses to being “what you might call a fishetarian”—doesn’t eat pork, but loves fish and eggs. He also says his eating habits don’t affect his reportage.)
Clausen still doesn’t trust me, an admitted liberal, but warms to the chance to present The World According to Barry. “Look, I’m not antienvironmentalist,” he insists. “I’m antiextremist. I have never given a speech where I haven’t told people we need environmentalism. We’re all environmentalists. We all want to help the environment. I don’t support clear-cuts, I’m no fan of Weyerhauser, and I think Plum Creek Timber is the worst company of them all. But when you start breaking the law, when you go after these small- and medium-size companies, you’re only helping the big multinationals.”
Clausen sees himself as a decent fellow out to catch the bad guys who is thwarted and misunderstood at every turn by coke smugglers, rural sheriffs, FBI agents, enviros, and picky-eater journalists. When he talks about the radical activists he’s after, his tone is surprisingly benevolent, as if he’s a cop doing his damnedest to keep the neighborhood ex-cons on the straight path. It hasn’t gone unnoticed out on his beat. “I’ve been involved in Earth First! for 15 years and I’ve seen people who really hate us,” says Andy Caffrey. “Barry’s not like that. He’s generally polite, quiet, even mousy. That vitriol isn’t in him. He’s just a little scam guy.”
And yet, for a man on a mission, he is curiously ambivalent about his motivation. Every time I ask him why he does what he does, he gives a different answer. One time he says it’s about the importance of standing up to bullies, another time it’s about the sanctity of freedom and liberty, then it’s about saving kids from Earth First!’s siren song of green anarchism. In the end, Clausen seems to simply enjoy the game. “I like to be able to be right,” he tells me. But there’s a catch—he can’t prove he’s right until law enforcement officials listen to him and his data, and catch the bad guys. So he keeps playing. “If I can do all this from a little dinky office with no funding,” he exclaims, “imagine what the FBI could do!”
So what’s your role in “all this”? I ask him. “My role? I don’t have a role,” he protests. But there I think he’s wrong. In the environmental drama, Clausen’s part is small but memorable. He’s the informational agitator. If he was a little more on the ball, he’d put up a Web site and turn himself into the Wise Use version of Matt Drudge. (It couldn’t hurt. Clausen supports himself by doing construction work and cashing the occasional check from donors who hear him on cranky talk-radio shows.) In the Wise Use demimonde, small pond-drops like Clausen can cause huge ripples.
“What I find most disturbing about him,” says Tarso Ramos of the Western States Center in Portland, “is the way he’s pushed, along with Ron Arnold, to bring this word ‘ecoterror’ into the language.” It’s an old truism: Whosoever defines the language controls the issue. This is what’s at stake in the war between “monkeywrenching” and “ecoterrorism.” Ecoterrorism didn’t appear until 1983, when Ron Arnold used the term in the Libertarian magazine Reason. Arnold, Clausen, and other Wise Use leaders have championed it ever since. Its power to shape the debate is considerable. Even a lukewarm environmentalist will smile on monkeywrenching, which carries the sound of a morally righteous prank. But only a zealot supports terrorism.
Of course, the terror visited upon environmental activists is disturbing enough on its own. Entire books have been written about the backlash, most notably David Helvarg’s The War Against the Greens, which documents harassment ranging from verbal abuse to the bombing of Judi Bari. The attacks haven’t abated. Two years ago, Earth First! activist David Chain was killed while protesting in northern California when a tree cut by a Pacific Lumber Company logger landed on him. In late 1998, a member of Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s ground crew watched in horror as a gang of local vigilantes demolished her car and rolled it over a cliff. In March 1999, police in Santa Fe, New Mexico, disarmed a ten-inch pipe bomb left in the Forest Guardians’ mailbox.
Compared to such violent acts, is ecoterrorism really terrorism? ELF/ALF activists often defend their practices by scrambling to the high ground of “property, not people.” So far, no one has ever died as a result of their actions. “If [ELF/ALF] claims a crime, you know we’re going to abide by certain rules of engagement,” says ALF activist Rod Coronado. “You’re dealing with someone who’s targeting property and isn’t going to try to shoot you.” But according to the FBI’s definition of terrorism—”the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social goals”—Arnold and Clausen aren’t far off the mark. When the ELF and ALF warn, “Leave the forests alone, and no one gets hurt” and follow up with firebombs, it’s hard to dismiss it as monkeywrenching. Radical environmentalists sidestep the question by declaring the despoilers of wilderness the “real terrorists.” To liberal activists, this should be a chillingly familiar argument—it’s the same one used by those who shoot abortion doctors.
Sometime in the last two years ecoterrorism graduated from contested term to established noun, and it wasn’t all Barry Clausen’s doing. The crimes simply caught up with the word. Less than a year after declaring ecoterrorism “off the radar screen,” FBI director Louis Freeh reversed himself before a Senate committee in early 1999 and declared it one of the nation’s primary domestic threats. “The most recognizable single-issue terrorists at the present time,” Freeh said, “are those involved in the violent animal rights, anti-abortion, and environmental protection movements.” A few months later the Portland Oregonian published a landmark series by reporters Bryan Denson and James Long, who spent ten months evaluating hundreds of so-called ecoterrorism incidents. “The crimes,” they concluded, “are acts of domestic terrorism.” In 11 Western states alone, Denson and Long substantiated 33 incidents that caused more than $28 million in damage from 1995 through 1999. And as if all that wasn’t enough proof, even the Oxford English Dictionary recently added the word “eco-terrorist.”
What caused the shift? In a word, Vail.
In terms of media exposure, it was brilliant: The October 19, 1998, predawn arson attack on Vail’s luxurious new Two Elk Lodge and adjacent buildings and ski lifts led the news from coast to coast. When ELF claimed responsibility five days later—it was “an act of love,” said the fax relayed by Craig Rosebraugh—millions of people were confronted with the plight of the Canadian lynx and the violent potential of ELF. But the $12 million blaze was also a wake-up call to law enforcement and may, in the long run, turn a somewhat sympathetic public against the radical activists. “I’ve seen a massive shift in [law enforcement] resources” in the past year, says Teresa Platt, executive director of the pro-industry Fur Commission USA. “They’ve prioritized it. We didn’t do it. The criminal actions just kept escalating. The Vail fire was shocking.”
David Schwendiman, an assistant U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City who successfully prosecuted two ALF activists last year for bombing a mink food co-op in Sandy, Utah, believes both his case and the Vail fire galvanized law enforcement agencies across the country. “Before these cases,” Schwendiman says, “it had been hard to get any law enforcement to take this seriously. But you put five pipe bombs out there and people start to realize this isn’t just cow tipping.”
Each spring, environmental activists gather at the University of Oregon in Eugene for the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. The confab draws a funky mix of eco-lawyers, shaggy tree-sitters, Earth First!ers, green ecologists, Native Americanactivists, revered pioneers like David Brower, and young movement celebrities like Julia “Butterfly” Hill. This year’s conference took place in early March, a few weeks after my meeting with Clausen, and it seemed like a pretty good chance to see if he was onto something. By engaging in a little Clausenesque work—showing up, taking notes—I could see if his theories proved out or unraveled. They did both.
Earth First! is old enough that many of its early members have graduated into the mainstream, and the Oregon conference functions as a class reunion of sorts. There’s Asante Riverwind, veteran of the 1996 “Cascadia Rising” logging blockades, now running Oregon’s Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project; there’s Jay Kralick, veteran of the Cove/Mallard campaign in central Idaho, now legislative coordinator for the Native Forest Protection Alliance. These are the guys who drive Barry Clausen nuts. He can’t understand how dreadlocked, tepee-dwelling freaks can pull in big foundation grants while he toils in penury. “This Asante Riverwind,” he once told me, “the guy got $190,000 in the last few years from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the W. Alton Jones Foundation. What does he do? Nothing! He protests!” (Actually, Riverwind, a 47-year-old eccentric who lives on a remote ridge in eastern Oregon, spends most of his time monitoring timber sales for compliance with environmental laws.)
After hearing Riverwind and his colleagues talk about their work, most of which involves mind-numbing fund-raising, research, coalition-building, and legal wrangling, it becomes clear that one of the great ironies of Barry Clausen is that he’s fighting a rearguard action against an enemy that has, in many cases, moved on to another battlefield. When sociologists talk about the rise and fall of crime rates, they sometimes use the concept of recidivists “aging out of crime” as they reach their midthirties. The same holds true for radical activists. At a certain point they’re happy to let the kids storm the barricades while they apply themselves to more mature work. This doesn’t wash with Clausen— once a monkeywrencher, always a monkeywrencher. Mitch Friedman published the infamous “Eco-Fucker Hit List” and now runs the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, which last year led a successful fight to preserve the Loomis Forest wilderness area along the U.S.-Canada border. He can’t understand why Clausen doesn’t champion reformed radicals such as himself. “You’d think he’d take people like me and make poster children out of us,” says Friedman.
The hallway of the law school building is lined with literature tables set up by dozens of green groups. Save the wolf…drain Lake Powell…stop military overflights. It’s an earthy-crunchy do-gooder’s bazaar. At the Earth First! table I pick up a fresh copy of Earth First! Journal and make small talk with a young activist named Saxon, whose bred-in-Britain accent and ramshackle teeth make him a strong candidate for a role in an Oliver! revival. I ask him if he’s heard of Barry Clausen.
“Clausen?” he says. “Aw, yeah. ‘Ee’s fairly infamous. A total joke.”
We laugh, and I buy two of his T-shirts. One bears the Earth First! raised fist logo. The other says “Earth Liberation Front” and has an illustration of a bulldozer in the crosshairs. At which point Barry Clausen becomes something less than a total joke. He’s claimed for years that Earth First! and ELF work together, wrench-in-fist; Earth First! denies any official connection. The proximity of two T-shirts on a table does not refute their claim—but tell me there ain’t something fishy about that.
If you attend the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference with Clausen’s theories swirling around in your head, it’s easy to see how one so predisposed could conclude that the flames of ecoterrorism are fanned, wittingly or not, by mainstream activists. Despite the sweeping political change that American environmentalism has wrought in just 30 years, there remains a stubborn strain of bitterness among some of its most dedicated activists.
“Things keep going wrong,” sighed David Brower, the movement’s elder statesman, during the keynote address. “All I’ve done is slow the rate at which things get worse.” One speaker at a forum on roadless areas began by ranting, “It’s too late! It’s too late to save roadless areas! It’s too late to save biodiversity!” Among radical activists, this sense of desperation and hopelessness, combined with a fervent belief in the righteousness of their cause, leads to a climate in which compromise becomes synonymous with betrayal. Brower himself still carries the loss of Glen Canyon in the early 1960s—a dam to which he agreed so that two others would be stopped—like Jacob Marley’s chains. It’s a reductive trap: The only activist who can’t be accused of selling out is the one who doesn’t negotiate.
“This [young] generation of activists isn’t going to waste 10 to 15 years working within the system,” ALF activist Rod Coronado tells me later. I’d missed his speech at the conference—news reports said he was greeted with a standing ovation—so I called him up and asked why groups like ELF and ALF appealed to radical activists. “They’ve seen environmental laws sidestepped. With NAFTA and WTO, they’re being shown that what people accomplished previously with the Endangered Species Act isn’t working…. Direct action puts muscle behind the words of the environmental movement. When ELF targets an issue like the Canadian lynx, a statement is being made: If you cannot reach a solution, there are people who will operate outside legal channels.”
Most mainstream environmental leaders, however, see underground actions as a pain in the ass. “We end up taking the rap for a lot of things they do,” says Brock Evans, a former official in the Audubon Society, current head of the Endangered Species Coalition, and an activist since the 1960s. He has little patience for groups that claim their commitment to an issue with a single night of violence. “We’ve got groups working five, six years on the Canadian lynx,” he says. “Nobody’s heard a thing from the ELF on the issue before or since that fire.” That said, you’ve got to give the devil his due. The fact is, one fire spread more awareness of lynx habitat than five years of legal work.
But firebombs and no compromise! slogans don’t save habitats. “When we’re fighting a battle, we get cards urging us to fight to the death,” says Evans. “But those folks never come out and wrestle in the mud with us [in Washington, D.C.]. We’re in a hundred-year war, and you don’t take the capital city in one day. We fight as hard as hell for the best we can get, and move forward.”
So you’re willing to compromise, even if that means realizing only part of your goal? “You’re damn right,” Evans fires back. “I’ll take a park the size of your desk if that’s what I can get to start with. And I’ll keep on fighting.”
Here’s the thing I still can’t figure out about Barry Clausen. Environmentalists like Brock Evans, David Brower, Asante Riverwind, and Mitch Friedman will fight for 10 or 20 or, in Brower’s case, 50 years, and in the end they can hold up enormous chunks of public wilderness that still exist because of their toil and sweat. These places have names: The Grand Canyon. Dinosaur National Monument. North Cascades National Park. Loomis National Forest. Clausen has spent ten years fighting radical environmentalists, ten long years chasing after a day of justice that may never come. And what does he have to show for it? A long list of names, dates, subjects, telephone numbers, and occasional guest spots on right-wing radio shows. For him, it can only come back to one thing. All the embarrassing, credibility-destroying depositions and transcripts that environmentalists trot out to claim that he should not be trusted—those may all be true. But just because Clausen may be everything his enemies say he is doesn’t mean some of what he says might not be right.
Barry called the other day. “Listen,” he said, “I’m getting a lot of calls on this Leonard Peltier stuff, and I’m trying to figure out where they’re coming from. A lot of Native American organizations are contacting me.” Having spent the past decade fighting ecoterrorism, Barry’s fight for justice is widening. In his spare time he’s been looking into the Peltier case, and he claims to have turned up some startling new information that could clear the celebrated American Indian Movement organizer convicted of murdering two FBI agents in a shoot-out near Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1975. In typical form, he wouldn’t tell me what he’s got—”It’ll be in my next book,” he says—but whatever it is, Peltier’s advocates want no part of it. Clausen’s reputation so precedes him that a few months ago the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee gave this reply to his offer of help: “We would rather see Leonard rot in prison than take information from you.”
The rise of underground anti–genetic engineering groups has also expanded Barry’s sphere of influence. Last year he was invited by GenCon, a consortium of scientists working on genomics research, to speak at a conference on agricultural terrorism—during which, he adds, he met with “six government intelligence officials; they wanted to pick my brain, swap information.” Who, exactly? “Can’t tell you that.”
“What he does is not all that popular,” says Thomas Frazier, director of GenCon. “It’s difficult for Barry to get funding because he’s on the wrong side in terms of foundations. They all love to fund the environmentalist causes.” But, Frazier says, as one who’s seen radical activists spread disinformation far and wide during the past year, “it’s important to provide some resistance to this bullshit.”
And so it goes. Barry has nearly completed his second book. He spoke with a couple of New York publishers about putting it out, he says, but in the end decided to print it himself. Every day he works on it a little more, pruning the chapters, getting the facts straight, tightening the prose. He’s not sure exactly when it’ll come out, but it’ll be soon, he promises. The working title? Burning Rage.
Contributing editor Bruce Barcott wrote about the Poacher King in the October 1999 issue.