The maximum prison term for spiking trees on national forests would quadruple to 40 years under federal legislation introduced Friday.
Sen. Larry Craig and Rep. Helen Chenoweth, both Idaho Republicans, said their bill was a response to threats of sabotage earlier this week.
Announcing the bill in a telephone news conference, Craig and Chenoweth cited a letter sent earlier this week to Forest Service officials.
An unknown group calling itself “elves for habitat” claims three timber sales in the Nez Perce National Forest near Grangeville were spiked with ceramic nails.
Environmentalists called the proposal political pandering.
“The only reason lawmakers do these kinds of things is to get votes from a gullible public who is made to perceive this as somehow solving a social problem,” said Robert Amon, part of an environmentalist coalition protesting the Nez Perce National Forest sales.
The new bill would raise the maximum sentence and allow a wider range of expenses to be tallied to meet the economic damage threshold of $10,000, Craig said.
Under current law, the government must show $10,000 in damages to be able to obtain a conviction. The courts have held that cannot include the cost of searching for spikes and other “avoidance costs,” Craig said.
The new proposal allows those costs to be included.
Spikes damage chain saws and mill equipment and can seriously injure loggers and mill workers. Ceramic spikes cannot be located by metal detectors.
People who consider spiking a gallant act need “to be seen as eco-terrorists,” Craig said. “We need to ensure swift and severe penalties are imposed on anyone who would engage in such criminal behavior.”
The senator said he was aware of several people who have been injured or killed due to spiking. By press time, however, his office was unable to provide names of the people involved or the dates of those incidents.
Forest Service officials also were unable to provide such information.
Newspaper records show three confirmed tree spikings have occurred in Idaho, with no injuries.
Earth First!, the radical environmental group which is often accused of tree spiking, called the new law political posturing.
Mike Roselle, a co-founder of Earth First! and a self-proclaimed reformed tree spiker, says he no longer approves of the practice.
“It’s good for calling attention to the issue, but it’s not good for getting it resolved because it polarizes people,” Roselle said.
Only two people have been convicted under the current federal law. John P. Blount, 34, of Missoula, and Jeffrey Fairchild, 29, of Ashland, Wis., were convicted of spiking trees in the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho.
Fairchild received probation, was fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $19,639 in restitution. Blount was sentenced to 17 months in prison, fined $1,000 and also ordered to pay restitution.
Blount’s penalty for tree-spiking was far stricter than the sentence he received for domestic abuse, said John Lilburn, uncle of Blount’s wife, Gwen Lilburn. When he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, he served about three months in jail.
“It bothers me a lot that Larry Craig is more concerned with the profits of large corporations than the well-being of victims of domestic abuse,” John Lilburn said.
Craig was unmoved by the disparity in the two penalties imposed on Blount. “It doesn’t bother me a bit,” he said.
When reporters questioned whether he would support a 40-year prison term for people who bomb abortion clinics, he refused to answer directly.
“I judge each case independently,” Craig said. “I choose not to make that comparative.”
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