America’s most notorious eco-terrorist, Eric Taylor McDavid, was surprisingly released from prison earlier this year after serving 8 years of a 20 year sentence when a Federal judge determined “the FBI withheld documents from McDavid’s trial defense attorneys that indicated they used an informant to entrap him,” according to a news release from the Civil Liberties Defense Center.

In 2004, John Lewis, deputy assistant director of the FBI Counterterrorism Division, told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “the FBI’s investigation of animal rights extremists and ecoterrorism matters is our highest domestic terrorism investigative priority.”  

The 1998 Vail arson that destroyed the Two Elk Lodge and caused at least $12 Million in property damage was the most destructive act committed by environmental activists in U.S. history. Beyond the U.S. there were anti whaling property damage in Japan and elsewhere. And by all accepted definitions, the car bomb threat at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico was threatening to people inside the targeted building and therefore constituted a terrorist act.

Some have argued that special interest extremism “eco terrorism” is at worst a political ploy or at best a misnomer although there is no doubt that certain acts outside the U.S. (like Cancun) were terrorist. A better assessment might be that domestically there were a very small number of individuals committing criminal property damage acts (not left wing or right wing, but) in the name of environmentalism; and in unprecedented FBI investigations, including Operation Backfire, the Federal government sought them out and prosecuted them. Between 1993 and 2003, the number of FBI agents dedicated to domestic counterterrorism programs grew by 224% to 1,669 – nearly 16% of all FBI Special Agents.

The Anti-Tree Spiking Act of 1996, enhanced sentencing guidelines, and a variety of other new state laws criminalized and served as a real deterrent to eco-terrorism. Then the adoption of the PATRIOT Act was further fuel for the hunt for “radical environmental activists” such that, after years of decline, by 2012 there were no “eco-terrorist attacks” in the U.S. (and there have been next to none since).

As such, it is little surprise that there were no headlines when on a January 7, 2015, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England in California in final settlement of a habeas petition accepted McDavid’s guilty plea to conspiring to destroy a U.S. Forest Service lab in Placerville, which carries a maximum term of five years. Because McDavid had served nine years, England ordered him released for time served.

Judge England expressed exasperation at the FBI’s failure to turn over the evidence, which included e-mails and a letter from McDavid to an FBI informant that defense attorneys said would have bolstered their argument that he was entrapped and induced by sex. Much of this was the subject of a gritty Outside Magazine story “Honey Stinger” in 2012.

Judge England said “I sat through the 10-day trial of Mr. McDavid,” … . “I know he’s not necessarily a choirboy, but he doesn’t deserve to go through this, either. It’s not fair.”

The takeaway from all of this is muddied. A December 2014 The Washington Post headline asked, Ecoterrorism: threat or political ploy? Earlier this year a headline in, The Pacific Standard, simply inquired, Whatever Happened to ‘Eco-Terrorism’? In a world, today, with headlines about Boko Haram and Al Qaeda, the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front that made headlines in the 1990s, seem tame if not all but inconsequential. The eco issues of recent past have not gone away they are the “sustainability” issues of today and still worthy of an honest discourse.

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