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FBI contact unwarranted, environmental activists say

Helen Yost, an anti-megaload activist, posed for a photograph in downtown Moscow, Idaho, on Jan. 8. She said she was contacted by the FBI in December, but refused to talk to them. Activists around the Northwest say they had been contacted by FBI agents. (Kathy Plonka)

Helen Yost found the text message unsettling.

“I need to speak with you,” it said. “Please give me a call. I am an FBI agent.”

Yost, a 57-year-old activist from Moscow, Idaho, is a co-founder of Wild Idaho Rising Tide, a climate-change action group.

She was arrested twice while protesting Idaho’s megaloads – oversized oil-field equipment shipped through the region to Alberta’s tar sands. The group also opposes rail shipments of crude oil and coal through the Northwest.

But since Wild Idaho Rising Tide members are committed to peaceful disobedience, “we don’t see ourselves as posing any threat,” said Yost, a petite, silver-haired woman who refused to talk to the agent. “We see the FBI contact as being unwarranted.”

Yost is one of a dozen such activists in Idaho, Washington and Oregon who’s been contacted by the FBI in recent months, said Larry Hildes, a Bellingham civil rights attorney. Agents have shown up on their doorsteps, at their workplace or contacted them by phone, he said.

Hildes said he’s confirmed in each instance that no criminal investigation is involved, and told his clients not to talk to FBI agents, who purported to be looking for information about another protest group, Deep Green Resistance.

“We honestly don’t know what they’re up to, or why, and that concerns us,” Hildes said. “Nobody associated with any of the groups has ever done anything dangerous or violent. Some of the folks have been involved in civil disobedience, but that’s not a federal issue.”

The FBI contacts to the activists follow summer demonstrations against oil trains in Oregon and Western Washington, where a few protesters were arrested for chaining themselves to tripods erected over the tracks or concrete barrels blocking the rails. The actions targeted the Everett rail yard, an Anacortes refinery and two Oregon oil terminals.

With the Keystone Pipeline headed for a vote in Congress, Hildes said he suspects the FBI also is monitoring protest activities related to tar sands. But that’s not a reason to harass activists involved in peaceful environment work, said Hildes, who frequently represents activists.

Hildes was the attorney for an anti-Aryan Nations protester whose backpack was searched by the Coeur d’Alene Police Department at a 1998 parade. The search was later ruled to be unconstitutional by the courts. Hildes also represented an anti-war group in Olympia, which was infiltrated by a military intelligence officer.

Ayn Dietrich-Williams, an FBI spokeswoman in Seattle, said she couldn’t respond to questions. In most instances, the agency neither confirms nor denies that investigations are taking place or that specific individuals have been contacted for questioning.

“We don’t investigate anyone for First Amendment activities,” said Dietrich-Williams, who added that the agency distinguishes between constitutionally protected activities and illegal action that supports ideological causes.

Investigations occur when the agency has reasonable grounds to believe someone is engaged in illegal activity or planning it, she said.

Herb Goodwin, a 65-year-old activist from Bellingham, said a city police officer and a woman who identified herself as an FBI agent contacted him in October.

They asked if he would answer questions about Deep Green Resistance, he said. He declined.

“It’s actually pretty spooky to have the FBI show up at your door, ask one question and leave,” Goodwin said. “I think they were more interested in megaloads than in Deep Green Resistance. I think they were there to put me on notice that I was being watched.”

Goodwin said his activism is well-known. He took part in the Occupy Bellingham movement, and he was one of 12 Bellingham residents arrested in 2011 for blocking tracks to delay a coal train’s passage. He’s also taken part in megaload protests with Wild Idaho Rising Tide.

“Mankind somehow has got to stop the fossil fuel industry from burning huge amounts of stored carbon,” Goodwin said.

But all of his activism has been peaceful, he said. “I’m not a saboteur.”

Neither is she, Yost said. But after Goodwin was contacted by the FBI, she said she wasn’t surprised to get the December text message from the agent.

Four years ago, she co-founded Wild Idaho Rising Tide to protest the megaload shipments through a wild-and-scenic river corridor. Her environmental activism stems from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where she’d worked on a fishing boat.

“I knew the area that was devastated,” she said. “I didn’t want to see oil spills happen anymore.”

Her group is an offshoot of the Rising Tide North American Network, which describes itself as a grassroots network committed to direct action against the root causes of climate change. Some of the activists arrested for oil train blockades last summer were associated with other Rising Tide groups.

Yost’s infractions were more minor. She was cited for obstructing an officer, which was later dropped. She was also fined $243 for disturbing the peace after she threw a sign at the back of a megaload shipment.

Yost said she remains committed to peaceful resistance as a vehicle for change.

“It shows that people care deeply, and they want a more rapid solution,” she said. “And it definitely raises public awareness and discussion.”